The Wolf Among Us (PC)
(USA 2013-2014, developer/publisher: Telltale Games, platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, iOS, Android)
Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown, a community of fairy-tale characters living in a New York district, investigates the decapitation of a former princess/then prostitute and dives deep into the shady underworld to uncover more social injustice and crimes than he can handle.
Books full of strange fairy-tale stories
The Fables comics have had a long-running history of 13 years, taking well-known fairy-tale and folk-tale characters, putting them into a modern context and mixing it all with sex and violence. So it comes as a surprise that the first season of The Wolf Among Us offers something new even to those who’ve read every single issue and volume of the series. Taking place before the first issue is a great move to keep up the interest of the initiated without alienating newcomers.
However, this doesn’t mean that it’s a simplified world to get into, including many characters that feature in the comics, like Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, or the Frog Prince that Bigby Wolf meets during his investigation, in addition to others that haven’t been mentioned but who fit nicely into the roster of myths and folktales. As there are many other parts that are important to the story, a knowledge data base provides information about each individual character, place, events, and other facts which are slowly unlocked.
Not a kid’s tale
No matter if one knows the comics or not, the main story is a suspenseful detective thriller that doesn’t shy away from themes like prostitution, drug abuse, depression, and even torture. Despite being rooted in the fantasy genre in which people can transform into trolls and pigs can talk, the plot and characters are believable and realistic as far as they can be with fairy-tale people in an urban modern setting. The dialogues are well-written, making even those characters with questionable moral ambitions easy to relate to. Of course anyone who cherishes the favorite Disney presentations of some of the characters will have a hard time to see them behave in a socially less acceptable way.
Happy endings simply don’t exist in Fabletown, as everyone tries to make a living, even if it means to sell one’s body or go less legit ways. This results in some very touching moments that are only let down by the unnecessary overuse of the f-word and other examples of coarse language. The violence and gore on display is also quite unsettling, which adds to the gritty atmosphere, but can seem a bit exaggerated, e.g. tearing someone’s arm off. Of course it’s not all about fighting and using excessive force during interrogations, as there are quieter moments and alternative ways to avoid bloodshed.
No puzzling, but lots of investigating
Despite not featuring any puzzles (except a very short moving-mosaic-parts-together segment), the game isn’t simply a watch-cutscenes-and-press-a-button-once-in-a-while affair, because there are always scenes in which one has to find clues and look around the environment. These sequences are nowhere near as comprehensive as in a game like The Testament of Sherlock Holmes and one won’t get stuck because of an easy-to-overlook item or obscure puzzle. They just add to the atmosphere of an investigative thriller in which one tries to figure out what happened and what motives certain suspects have.
Failing is rarely an option, but gathering all the evidence and questioning people is satisfying to help progressing the story. As there are more than enough mysteries to uncover and most characters aren’t who or what they seem to be, one will constantly be on the edge to find out how everything is connected. From the first to the fifth episode, there’s always something new to discover, with unexpected twists and turns like in the best of detective stories, but with a unique fairy-tale fantasy twist.
Fast reflexes and quick thinking are still necessary to react accordingly in brutal QTEs and picking the right answer or approach during dialogues. Of course there isn’t really a right/wrong or black/white response, including the option to remain silent at times, and missing a few button presses during the many fights and chase sequences doesn’t necessarily mean game over but alternative sequences. The transitions between the action set-pieces, dialogue and investigative sequences are fluid, so together with a playtime of around 90 minutes for each episode, boredom doesn’t have a chance to set in.
Decisions have to be made on a regular basis, and while many of them only result in alternative reactions from characters, they still feel potent enough to make the player believe that what he says or does matters. Despite being a mostly linear experience, there are a few instances when one can choose which locations to visit first, which has an impact on what one discovers or whom one meets, depending on the order. While the story largely remains the same, the final chapter does a very good job of making Bigby’s approaches and handling of people and situations feel relevant, posing the question of what is morally acceptable, what social justice is and if certain actions are justified or not.
Of course the constant change of Bigby’s behavior becomes highly problematic for the character himself, because one can be brutal, egoistic, and quite sadistic and then use a more friendly voice and express compassion and sympathy. This is obviously an issue with all games that offer moral decisions and that don’t send a character down a certain good or evil path. Still, at times Bigby’s remarks and actions don’t quite fit the grumpy but still human character of the comics. Replaying the game and trying out the complete opposite of what one did before is recommended, though, which can be checked in the game’s decisions menu. This unlocks enough new scenes and dialogue options to make a second playthrough just as engaging as the first one, even if saving or killing certain characters doesn’t make much of an impact.
A comic come to life with visuals and sounds
Telltale’s engine hasn’t changed much since The Walking Dead: 400 Days, which means that some of the character animations are jerky and there aren’t a lot of impressive special effects. However, the cel-shaded look fits the visual novel aesthetics, and comparing the full-color pages of the reading material to the game makes it obvious that all the characters have survived the transition well. There are also a few very stylish scenes thanks to the use of different camera angles and the impeccable art direction, which becomes most apparent in the cool intro sequence. The music is good, despite not offering much in the way of memorable pieces, except for the 80ies-style synth intro, but it’s atmospheric enough and isn’t intrusive or repetitive. Voice acting is of a particularly high quality, with every character being lent a very convincing voice and rarely an instance when the dialogues comes across as exaggerated, except for the overabundance of swearing.
A great interactive fairy-tale of a different kind
The first season of The Wolf Among Us is a great example of how a comic book series can be adapted to the Telltale gaming form. Just like The Walking Dead: Season 1, it offers the same touching stories with a violent presentation and a new story that is as thrilling for those who know the source material and those who don’t. While the decision-making doesn’t always have the desired effect on the overall plot, one still feels the moral repercussions and wants to experience it all again with a different approach, making this another successful interactive drama, this time with fairy-tale and noir thriller elements.
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