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The Wolf Among Us: Episodes 1 & 2 – Faith / Smoke and Mirrors

16:4709/02/2014Posted by Dave Stuart3 Comments

For Telltale Games, following up the critical and financial success of the Walking Dead must have been a daunting task. Previously a notable, but small, developer best known for reviving classic adventure game series, and their dedication to the episodic game structure that no-one else seems to have mastered, Telltale have never had to deal with the weight of such expectation before. Thankfully the first two episodes of The Wolf Among Us allay such fears, instead pointing to a new found maturity of storytelling and character that currently sets the studio apart from most other developers.

Based on the comic Fables, the Wolf Among Us takes the same basic concept, fairytale characters ousted from their home and forced to live amongst humans in Manhattan, but sets its story in the 1980s, 30 years before the comics. As with The Walking Dead, this divergence from the main comic series allows the game to function as its own entity, without the danger of alienating fans, or repeating established storylines. The Wolf Among Us focuses on the titular wolf, namely Bigby (formerly the Big Bad Wolf). He is the self-appointed sheriff of Fabletown (the area of New York inhabited primarily inhabited by the Fables characters) charged with ensuring that the existence of the Fables is hidden from the world at large, as well as attempting to keep the peace.

Following the brutal murder of a Fables resident it is up to you to investigate the crime and catch the culprit. A premise that acts a catalyst to exposing the secrets and lies that fill the world, the investigation becomes darker and more complicated the longer it goes it.
Unlike the folklore that serves as the basis for many of the characters you meet in the game, from Snow White to Beauty and the Beast, the world of Fables is dark, violent and often unpleasant. The mix of classic noir storytelling coupled to the fantastical premise allows for deliberately provocative juxtaposition.

From the opening of the game you encounter the Woodsman, historically the saviour of the Red Riding Hood story, here a drunken woman-beater with whom you have your first altercation, a brutal and bloody fight that sets the tone right from the off. In fact many of the choices you face in the game centre around Bigby’s proclivity towards violence, and reconciling his current role as sheriff and protector, with his past as violent animal. He is always close to letting his inner beast loose, and how you approach many of the confrontations in the game make you in turn question your own responses. The ease with which violence becomes an answer is swiftly followed by the guilt and repercussions of your actions.

The game adapts the comic’s graphic style to wonderful effect; it is by far the strongest looking game in Telltale’s library, full of strong colours, bold lines and excellent character designs. The cell shading effects from The Walking Dead are further built upon here to build an incredibly cinematic experience, from the neon glow of the city at night, to the way shadows and light are used to add drama to every interaction you have.

As with The Walking Dead the game is primarily focused on character interactions, as you go about your investigations you get to choose how to play certain situations, or which characters to favour. Early on you have the option of exploring two locations, which one you pick will have future consequences on the story. Clearly Telltale have learnt a lot from their past games and the way you craft your own story through the game remains incredibly potent. There are few easy decisions and the game isn’t afraid to have you deal with the consequences of your actions. Even if the main story beats play out the same, there is enough variety in response to at least create the illusion of choice. It helps that the story and character are strong throughout, the central mystery is engaging and layering the detective gameplay on top of the action scenes, and character interactions help the game stand out from its predecessor.

The one thing that has almost completely been pushed aside is any puzzle solving mechanics. Like a classic adventure game you still pick up items occasionally, but they are rarely used and any puzzles that do show up are very light and simple. However the game doesn’t really suffer from this, it is a more linear game by design, ushering you down a set path, but the story’s momentum suits such an approach.

However with a four month gap between the first and second episodes questions may be raised about maintaining this momentum. Smoke and Mirrors specifically is a thrilling but short chapter that ends leaving you wanting more. Which is no bad thing, but it is also hard to think of another medium where such big gaps between content would be accepted in this manner, if you had to wait months between episodes of a TV show its only natural that excitement and interest would wane.

But when the result is as engaging, and involving and well-crafted as The Wolf Among Us, such complaints can be shrugged off. Those unimpressed with the lack of traditional gameplay in Telltale’s previous games are not going to be converted here, but those interested in bold, mature storytelling in a novel setting should find a lot to like here. As the rest of the industry splutters and starts to find engaging narratives, and compelling characters, Telltale continue to blaze a trail, making it seem effortless.

The subject matter won’t be for everyone, make no mistake that despite the premise and graphical style this is an adult game through and through, but because of that it lends a weight and danger to the game that would be missing otherwise. With three episodes still to go I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the game yet, but based on their track record I wouldn’t bet against Telltale to maintain this level of quality to the end. The only question now is how long we’ll have to wait to find out.

Game reviewed on PC, with a copy purchased by the reviewer.

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