Review: The Wolf Among Us Season One

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With all of the episodes of the Fables-inspired The Wolf Among Us Telltale adventure series finally out I thought I would write something about the season as a whole to see how things have progressed since I wrote about the first episode. If you’ve been along for Bigby’s ride the whole time then you can tell me how right or wrong I am about it, though this is more for people deciding whether or not to buy all five episodes at once. For the specific setup and structure of the title I would point interested parties to my review of Episode One: Faith, as there are no significant changes to the basics of the game from one episode to the next four.

The main mystery of who killed Faith and why are resolved towards the end of the game, though there is enough left over that a second season is possible but not necessary. The storytelling and imagery is like most good Vertigo comic books: adult, complex and literary, as every character is pulled from classic literature or fairy tale, famous and obscure. I do not just mean “adult” in the sense that the game has cartoon titties bouncing about and people saying “fuck” — though it does have some of that and sometimes one character says that word in the direction of said bare titties. I mean adult in the sense that the game’s morality is not on a simple good/evil scale like the kind seen in most Bioware games. The choices players make hoping to do good may not lead to the best result and what seems like an evil act may end up being the best thing to do. 

This moral grayscale does not extend over to the visuals. They remain as good throughout the season as they initially were (it helps that several of the locations are recycled episode to episode). Bright, vibrant and neon colors are given definition by lines and giant sections of black that make for a visually striking game. This effect is not always used and some places are more realistic than others so as to not give players a visual overload. When it is used it is to great effect and provides a sense of dark wonder that one would expect in Fabletown, a place where fairy tale characters and monsters walk and use magic next to unsuspecting regular people.

Players don’t really do anything in this game. It is not overly unfair to say that from a gameplay perspective there is no reason someone that does not speak or read English could not make it all the way through all five episodes and see the final credits role. Granted this hypothetical digital thrillseeker would miss all of the plot, characterization and meaningful parts of the “game,” but they’d still finish it. That’s a problem in an adventure game if the core of that genre is that players are supposed to use their brains to solve problems, not their reflexes and hand-eye coordination. What Telltale has created, and between this and The Walking Dead seem to have perfected, is a new genre of game that one might call “cinematic.” There are no gates to advancement in the form of puzzles, and the one or two that are present are painfully easy and seem very out of place. The experience is almost entirely one where viewers can influence the story and how the supporting cast will react to the main character in the future. By its very nature a cinematic game is going to turn some adventure fans off to the point where they will not be able to enjoy the parts of the game that are done well. The Wolf Among Us is not an adventure game in the traditional sense, it is a narrative experience, and consumers need to know that before deciding whether or not to pay for it. (But you just read that sentence and you now know. Lucky you.)

The extremes do not end with merely the atmosphere and lack of input, but also as to the pacing. More so than any of the other Telltale episodic games — though Back to the Future is closer in this respect — the individual episodes feel like chapters in a novel, not standalone television episodes or movies. As this is a murder mystery at heart the story almost necessarily takes place over a short period of time. True Detective, the story and case it details, is an outlier as most murders are solved within the first few days, if not the first few hours; a case that goes on and on is one that is unlikely to be solved. As a result the entire game takes place over a few days, but the game, when it was originally being released, came out over several months. It was possible to keep what happened straight, helped largely through “Previously On” sequences which highlight key plot moments and choices from prior episodes, but it was not always easy.

Unfortunately, the mystery itself is not overly challenging and should be easy enough for most players to solve. In fact, the game does not appear to be structured to allow players to fail to determine what has happened. The characters will more or less ultimately confess who played what roles in the murder and the criminal workings behind it. The only gameplay comes from players choosing how Bigby will react to this information, weighing what they want to see played out and how they would like the story to progress.

What players are actually able to influence is not the action — though it is possible to “fail” if the right button prompts are not pressed — or really the plot, but the way that other Fables view Bigby. While there is sort of a cute and knowing initial presentation of the protagonist, the neutral to hostile responses from the other characters do help drive home who Bigby really is: the Big, Bad Wolf. The glamour can dress him up and the game can give all the smart-alecky dialogue options it wants – and it does – but it does not change the fact that anyone who buys this game is going to be playing a monster that fucking eats people. There is hardcore, life-altering violence perpetrated in every episode by Bigby and most situations have a solution that involves either violence or the threat of violence.

Whether it is necessary to become a monster to enforce the law for the good of all, in Bigby’s case slip back into the role of monster, or to reform but maybe not be able to make the hard choices is the underlying theme of the game. The facial animations of the other characters (victims) who have to deal with Bigby do a good job tugging at the heart strings, making for a complex soup of emotions where it is possible to be satisfied in resolving the problem, but not be happy about. On the other hand, sometimes showing mercy or humanity often leads to a result where it is clear the problem is going to persist, but at least everyone is your friend. It is a complex tale that does not let you be the hero and almost forces players who want justice to take on the role of the villain.

The animated choose-your-own-adventure with intuitive controls that is The Wolf Among Us is likely the best one of these games to come out to play back to back. In the context of a nine-hour-long cinematic adventure game, it’s full of memorable characters and a distinctive visual style with little in the way of mystery or puzzle solving. The game serves as a prequel to the comic, so it is not strictly necessary to read the books before playing. At the end of the five episodes, and knowing the characters’ relationships as the comic begins, there is a door left open that would allow a second season. I really hope that if another run is ordered there is more ability to solve a second case, discover then interpret clues, and possibly even complete the game without actually knowing what happened because you failed to figure it out. The Wolf Among Us is a well done character piece that allows players to use the bestial and human aspects of Bigby Wolf as an introspective ethical meter, but a second season will have to do more than that to be compelling. I bought a thermometer at CVS and it told me my temperature, I don’t need another one.

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Pros:
+ Neon-noir styling is great
+ Voice acting and soundtrack are well done and fit the mood

Cons:
– It is impossible to fail
– Environments look detailed but are devoid of interaction

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for iOS, Mac, PS3, Xbox 360
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 7/8/2014
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.