Review: The Wolf Among Us Episode 1: Faith

TheWolfAmongUs

The concept of a public domain is great. If one accepts the idea that people generate fresh content from their own pen or keyboard–those who make video game reviews for instance–should not only get credit for creating something new but should also retain the right to produce or authorize copies of that work so that he or she, or “it” if the author is an employee or agent of a corporation with the rights to be retained by said corporation, can presumably charge for those copies and then use that money to buy what is needed to make more art. Or blow. One or the other. While there was a golden age–or a dark one depending on your viewpoint–between the invention of the printing press and the first copyright laws where anyone that could afford a copy of a book, their own movable type press, people to work it and supplies, could make as many bootleg copies of Sileni Alcibiadis as desired, all without Erasmus’s permission. 

The relatively new concept of a public domain is where old, previously copyrightable works become the possession of everyone. This allows the creation of new art based upon or directly referencing old characters and ideas. You could make a novel about a detective, Adam Hab, who loses his marriage and home all in a pointless pursuit of a fugitive named Richard Mobi, calling upon the well known themes Melville created over 150 years ago to re-contextualize and contrast 19th century ideas and 21st century audiences. Or you could try and come up with something better, I’m just spitballin’. The point is that despite the efforts of some to make the copyrights on mouse cartoons as immortal as the corporations that own them, eventually beloved children’s stories pass into the public domain and can become the inspiration for new works. It’s a good thing that they do because if they did not we would not have a great new adventure game to play, The Wolf Among Us.

Based upon Bill Willingham’s consistently selling Vertigo comic book series Fables, players will take the role of Bigby Wolf, the reformed sheriff of Fabletown. For reasons not entirely explained in the game, every storybook character one can think of–Cinderella, Snow White, a certain big bad wolf, and even creatures from Wonderland–have all been forced to move to New York City after their homes are conquered by “The Adversary”. In addition to fairytale characters existing and living in New York, the most important thing to know is that these characters must blend in either by avoiding contact with normal people or hiring a witch to make them appear normal. Anyone who refuses to carry on this charade is sent to live at a “Farm” upstate.  Given that “sent to live at a farm upstate” is common euphemism for death, it is understandable why fables do not want to go there and do not particularly like Bigby, the wolf charged with sending violators upstate. The game does not feature Bigby’s quest to take back their ancient homelands. (At least the first episode doesn’t.) Instead it is a murder mystery that Wolf is charged to solve as local law enforcement. He will intimidate, cajole, and question all sorts of creatures and human-looking fable characters to determine who cut off the head of the princess of the Donkeyskin story. Given the lack of resolution for this plot in the first episode, it is probably the case that the entire first season is dedicated to this one bit of sleuthing.

Telltale has somehow managed to make a noir fantasy setting where the fantastical mixes seamlessly with the real. Dark square buildings have bright yellow rectangular windows, and the streets are tinged with pink. The game never displays a muted shift from one brown to the next, it is always one wall or stationary object colored darkly with a black outline defined by a bright color that serves to display the everyday world as a place where magic could exist. There could not have been a more appropriate visual style that works so consistently with the setting of an urban fairy tale than the one used here. Screenshots do not do the game justice as it is far more impressive to see characters moving within this world and believing something amazing just might be behind a tipped trash can. The exaggerated color contrasts allow talking mirrors and rundown tenements to all seem like they could exist together, making everything special and mundane at the same time. Telltale conveys this core premise of Fables better visually than even the first few Vertigo comics. To say the least, the game looks nice and as a bonus does not have high system requirements on the PC.

The characters are all voiced expressively and believably. Bigby himself comes off as a little whiny at first until he starts growling to intimidate some weaker characters. One of the things players will have to decide is just how rough to be. Most of Fabletown is scared of the big bad wolf and some situations call for him to remind people why they should still be frightened. The pain and guilt of being a reformed story book antagonist resorting to old ways is painted across the face of Bigby and in what he will say later, or is reflected by the hurt in people around him who do not hesitate to call players a monster when they choose to be unsociable jerks. At times it is possible to forget that the lower-class British-accented Mr. Toad is a three foot tall, talking toad because the voice acting is so well done. Most of the characters appear human, but some cannot afford the mandatory glamour spells that cause normal people to not know they are talking to farm animals and monsters. The animations are natural and create an immersive world that is a beauty to behold with the colors of the characters and the environments.

In terms of how Bigby will move around and tend to his duties as a lawwolf, anyone that played Telltale’s other game based on a comic book, The Walking Dead, will know what to expect, whereas anyone that only played Telltale’s other, other game based on a comic book, Sam and Max, will have to learn something new. Using one thumbstick, players will make Bigby walk around the world and use the other stick to move a cursor around to highlighted points of interest. Most of the environments are not very big, so it does not matter that character movement is very slow. It feels natural given the size of the room Bigby will be exploring, unlike his blind walking against walls if he is against the edge of an environment. Like most adventure games, anything the cursor can click on will be something the sheriff can talk to, take, or opine upon. All of the fluff of a LucasArts style adventure game has been stripped out and virtually everything that is selectable will be important at some point. Because of this and the almost total lack of anything resembling a puzzle, it almost plays more like an interactive story than a game in the adventure genre.

Instead of filling cups with acidic grog or finding threes of things, the tension will come from what dialogue choices one will have Bigby say in a given situation. Whenever a response is required the game will cut to a shot of Bigby’s face and four dialogue options will appear at the bottom of the screen, one for each face button of a controller. Typically these range from giving an insulting response or just plain lying. Interestingly, sometimes silence can be a legitimate response which will prompt another character to provide more information on a topic simply to have something to say to fill the uncomfortable silence, just like a real, non-fairytale law enforcement officer might question someone. These choices must be made quickly as a timer bar appears at the bottom of the screen for most tense situations. Paralysis by analysis can sometimes end in a result that is even worse than the group of all unfavorable options presented.  Provided the game is left on the default settings, whenever an important decision is made, a prompt indicates that the game has cared about what Bigby just said.  If you are honest, or not, and see a prompt which reads “Snow will remember that,” then you will have a better idea of how the game is keeping track and changing the story based upon what Wolf says and does.

When the sheriff is not investigating a murder most foul by talking to people and occasionally picking up things, he will be beating up other fantasy characters.  It is disturbing in some situations just how quickly the pace will progress from looking around to messing people up. The pacing does not seem out of place given the hardboiled nature of the fantasy detective story that is being told, just sudden at times. These violence sequences are highly scripted and require the movement stick to be pressed in a way indicated by an onscreen prompt. It seems some thought was given to making the prompts have some correlation to the action– press left to roll left for example–though it is not always clear what the input ought to be without looking at the prompt. Sometimes there will be a struggle, not just dodging thrown things by pressing the stick, and the cursor will have to be placed over something, usually some guy’s face, and a button clicked to make Bigby punch said face. 

The timing allowed for a correct input is generous so it should not be a problem for most players to complete any one of these sequences the first time out. Those that fail will quickly learn that action scenes tend not to branch, and instead a failure to press the stick the right way or not mash the buttons quickly enough will result in reloading the last checkpoint. Perhaps mindful that it would be very lame to repeat a three minute fight sequence because of a screw up at the very end, there are actually checkpoints in the middle of the conflicts. I only died, by mistake, once and a reload put me less than five seconds before the button prompt that I had messed up. It is disappointing that these action scenes are as rigid as they are, but at least there is virtually no lasting punishment for failure. But of course that also means that the game is incredibly easy.

At the end of the first episode, players will be able to see exactly what were the large decision points of the game, where Wolf goes at a key point, whether he does a particularly violent thing, etc., and will also see what percentage of other players did the same thing. It does not enhance the game in any way, but it is neat to see how other people played. These key moments are what should shape the coming episodes in some way. Telltale’s last game, The Walking Dead, did not have radically different endings based upon the decisions made, but there were some subtle differences and who came along for the ride was different. We will have to wait for the other four episodes of The Wolf Among Us to see if this series follows a similar course. If the first episode is an indication as to the quality of the ones that follow, this should be a worthwhile series.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Great visual style
+ Convincing voice acting

Cons:
– Easy
– Not much replay value

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for Mac, PSN, and XBLA (iOS and Vita versions also coming soon)
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 10/11/2013
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.