Platform: PC, Xbox 360, Mac, PS3 (Version used for review)
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
MSRP: $4.99 per episode ($19.99 for Season Pass, $24.99 upfront on Steam)
Release Date: October 11 (PC, XBLA), October 14 (OS X), October 15 (PSN)
Telltale Games has become synonymous with interactive storytelling in no small part due to their video game portrayal of The Walking Dead. Winner of many “Game of the Year” awards from tens of hundreds of gaming outlets, the series set a high benchmark to reach for follow up titles. The Wolf Among Us stays true to the graphic adventure formula in an adapted story told in the grim 1980’s setting of a fictionalized New York City. But is the story alone enough?
The Wolf Among Us has you play the role of Bigby Wolf, aka the Big Bad Wolf; sheriff of the hidden civilization of Fabletown. It is a small community containing fabled characters from mythical folk lore of our past, including the likes of Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, all maintaining a human-like appearance due to the magical spell of Glamour. Due to your nefarious past of eating countless innocent people, the magical creatures of Fabletown are fearful of you, many of which are vengeful and filled with hate. Despite your role as a leader of order within the boundaries of Fabletown, you are a lone wolf (pun intended).
You are tasked with solving the murder of a Fable who was beheaded and left in front of Bigby’s apartment complex. Just as in The Walking Dead, the story is on rails, but it is the choice of your words and the split-second judgment calls that determine just how you experience this game. We see the return of the multiple choice dialogue options, most of which are on a 5-10 second time limit. This mechanic helps drive the sense of urgency and weight of just how exactly you exchange (un)pleasantries with other Fables.
The Wolf Among Us takes it one step further, as due to the lack of a main party the decisions you make can affect the outcomes of several secondary characters. Depending on how the story ultimately unfolds, we are potentially set up for a game where not only what moves you make affect the end game of the storyline, but could result in a plethora of different endings. Having your choices truly not matter in the grand scheme of things has always been a huge criticism that persists in the world of interactive story-based gaming.
Episode 1, “Faith,” brings you the very beginning of Bill Willingham’s “Fables” comic series story. The cell-shaded graphics in The Wolf Among Us have been noticeably improved and give more of a comic book appearance than in Telltale’s previous comic book gaming adaptations. This motif is in no small part aided by the impeccably 80’s-style scoring, with light-synth and blue/purple color shading perfectly capturing the dark underbelly of a Drive-inspired feel in an East coast urban environment. By the time the title card rolls along, you are completely immersed into a very particular gaming world that will have you hooked from the get-go.
You can’t have an impressive setting without intriguing characters that fill the story, and in The Wolf Among Us they are in no short supply. The voice acting in this game is deeply engaging, with each character interacting in memorable dialogue that more than sets them apart from their mythical folklore counterparts. A great deal of appreciation should be affording to the writing, as the humorous quips and one-liners greatly juxtapose the core of this neo-noir story. Whether it is one-off appearances three little pigs member Colin or the reoccurring dialogue between our grim peacekeeper Bigby and the lovably morose Toad, the player is privileged with the enjoyment of a truly remarkable story.
Despite the continued efforts of creating a great story and a creative setting within a video game, Telltale Games continues to struggle with very familiar problems. The new combat/action system has been slightly improved, going beyond simple single-button QTE prompts. If the player moves the right analog cursor into a prompt area on screen, you can then click either a left or right trigger/mouse button (depending on your platform of choice) to perform the desired action, including punching and kicking. Most of the time you can click either shoulder/mouse button, despite specific on-screen instructions stating otherwise. While the changes in operative combat does escalate the intensity of the moment, the lack of button consistency undercuts the intensity of these brief moments present in the game.
It also becomes excruciatingly difficult to perform these actions under time limits due to the graphical freezes and framerates drops. Virtually each time an asset-heavy scene enters its automatic saving mode, the game will pause momentarily or drop down to half the amount of frames used or fewer for a short period of time. Additionally, at times subtitles were either completely absent from dialogue lines or had spelling/punctuation errors. When you have a story as excellent as in The Wolf Among Us, any time you are taken out of the moment you become more disengaged in what’s happening with the plot, especially due to problems that are solvable with thorough quality assurance.
Ultimately what let me down the most in The Wolf Among Us was the lack of depth that made up the gameplay. While the idea of picking up clues and items to help solve puzzles is key, it all seems fairly simple. Each new area’s challenged usually had you go from point A to B, sometimes to C if you were really lucky. There was never really a time where you had you engage in critical thinking in what to do next. Even solving the mystery of what happened at Toad’s apartment gives you at least 3 visual indicators off the bat without even taking a step before you know something odd went down. In a game that is focused on storytelling (which is more than fine in the realm of video games), what little gameplay involved must be at least a little bit compelling.
In just over 100 minutes of time played to Episode 1 completion, The Wolf Among Us has started us out with an emotionally-charged injection of adrenaline, shooting the audience right to the core of the game. It is just the first in a series of 5 episodes of content that will expand further along the lore and story possibilities of the “Fables” comics. For most gamers, the outstanding story, dialogue and setting will be more than enough to sate their appetites. However, with technical polish and improvements to puzzle-solving and combat, Telltale Games could truly have lightning that is greatness strike twice.
+ Thoughtful, well-written characters paired with excellent voice acting.
+ Neo-noir 1980’s New York setting creates a perfect backdrop for a suspenseful story.
– Gameplay is seemingly shallow. Puzzles are fairly straightforward.
– Technical/graphical issues.