The Wolf Among Us
360, iOS, PC, PS3, PS4, Vita, Xbox One
The best moments in Telltale’s episodic take on Bill Willingham’s Fables comic book series have nothing to do with picking apart the plot or making grand moral decisions, but of being complicit in its greatest lie. As Bigby Wolf, sheriff and muck magnet for a New York community of exiled fairytale characters, it’s your job to keep the peace via any means necessary, but usually QTEs. It’s a job that means being insulted, beaten up, and often dismissed as simply the muscle of an uncaring administration. It’s also a job about restraint, about allowing even the city’s worst scum to forget, until there is no other option, that Bigby is not simply a big bad wolf, but the Big Bad Wolf, leashed only by his fragile restraint. If he huffs and puffs, your house is the least he will blow down.
This sense of power immediately shifts The Wolf Among Us’s tone from that of The Walking Dead, which casts the player as the victim. In any straight fight, any intimidation, Bigby is tiers above just about everyone, to the point that fights are less about whether he wins than whether he pulls his punches or curb stomps foes. His main reason not to let loose is his desire (stronger here than in the Fables comics, set a decade later) to both not be that guy any more and to look good for Snow White, his current boss and future wife.
It’s a clever duality, making the noir inspiration behind the story far stronger than simply the cigarettes and fedoras and other surface-level trappings, which is where games such as LA Noire and Face Noir typically give up. Even the menu contributes: Bigby in a world of shadows and stories, stalking an as-yet-undetermined prey through sharp yellow eyes, a wolf in our clothing.
Where The Wolf Among Us struggles is in taking this, and a generally excellent recreation of Fabletown, and turning it into a detective game. It doesn’t help that it assumes a fair amount of knowledge about the universe, including the vulnerability of Fables and what gives them their power, or that it at times forgets its own plot points – most notably at one stage having the whole cast rounding on a character based on photographic evidence, despite the case hinging on magical glamours that can make anyone look like anyone else.
Crime scenes are purely a case of walking around and looking at everything that can be looked at, punctuated with often overlong dialogue sequences where little of real note is said, and only occasionally is a real choice offered – usually which suspect to beat up for information, or which of a couple of potential locations to go to next. Not only are there few real Eureka moments upon discovering a crucial clue, with everything laid out neatly in the name of forward momentum, but Bigby also often comes across as dense, confused and surprised by his own success, a far cry from the ruthless spymaster in the comics. If you haven’t read them, it doesn’t matter, his presence
Even at its best, the plot is more interesting for its use of fantastical characters than what it does with them
works; character in general is one of The Wolf Among Us’s biggest strengths throughout. Having seen him at his future peak, though, at times his game persona feels like someone writing Columbo without realising that the incompetence is an act.
The overall story is a prequel to the comics, which doesn’t help. The first episode, for instance, ends with Snow White’s apparent murder and the discovery of her severed head, despite her being alive and well on the page decades later. Most of the other main characters’ fates are likewise too locked down for them to be plausible suspects, though the new ones Telltale has added to the mix are an entertaining bunch. Georgie Porgie has been reimagined as a pimp who runs a strip club called Pudding & Pie; Mr Toad, meanwhile, is an opportunistic slumlord.
What story there is clicks along at a decent pace and with plenty of good moments, from vicious punch-ups and chase scenes to sombre moments, such as Bigby dealing with grieving relatives who feel let down by the system and are fighting their own natural urges to Hulk out and seek vengeance. The option to end the whole thing with a trial of the villain or not is likewise a clever moment, though one whose attempts to add a sense of guilt to past decisions is somewhat at odds with the good moral path also usually being the most sensible (a problem that also hit The Walking Dead’s first season, with its barely grubbier shades of grey). Yet even at its best, the plot is more interesting for its use of fantastical characters than what it does with them, being quick to descend into the clichéd world of dead prostitutes and sinister crime lords, the latter flipping from mysterious shadowy figures to local celebrities based entirely on whether the main character has heard of them. There are some clever twists as a result of the magical world, but it’s all very standard fare that cries out for at least some subtlety, rather than a criminal whose claims of being a man of the people are undercut by him using a torture device as a logo, and Bigby’s focus largely assumed rather than earned. It desperately wants to dig into Fabletown, and explore its problems and hypocrisies, but again, that’s a story that’s been written without much wiggle room left.
The result of all this is an adventure that often struggles under the weight of its own potential, without the confidence to break far enough from The Walking Dead template or the emotional core that allowed that series to hit far above its limitations. Even so, it is not a bad series at all. Much like Bigby, at least at this point, it’s as solid and dependable as it is rough around the edges. As a Fables game, as a slice of urban fantasy, it works. When it tries to step out of Telltale’s comfort zone, however, it struggles to keep its footing too often to earn its happily ever after.