The Wolf Among Us

EDGE - - GAMES -

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.

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