Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead was a perfect storm of quality, timing, and brand. Taking the adventure game genre’s focus on narrative, but (mostly) getting rid of the item collecting and puzzle solving, The Walking Dead provided an intriguing combination of storytelling and gameplay. Depending on your responses, conversations with characters affected your relationship with them. Decision making was a core game mechanic where your choices could have irreparable consequences for the characters. It felt like everything you said and did could have an effect on what happened in the story. Its flawed, yet relatable, characters and permanent consequences made for an absolutely engrossing experience. Add to all of that a brand name that, even now, is growing as a pop culture phenomenon, and Telltale found itself with one of the biggest surprise hits of 2012, raking in both critical acclaim and cash. Now, nearly a year after The Walking Dead‘s conclusion, Telltale is back with their latest episodic adventure game, The Wolf Among Us. Its debut episode, entitled “Faith,” is a perfect combination of story, style, and gameplay, and begins a series that has an incredible amount of potential.
The Wolf Among Us is a prequel to Bill Willingham’s Fables, an ongoing comic book series about fairy tale, mythic, and folkloric characters forced to live in our modern world after their homelands are taken over by a mysterious, evil force known as The Adversary. The human-looking “Fables” live together in Fabletown, a section of New York City that they’ve silently carved out for themselves. The less humanoid Fables, have to live in a facility in upstate New York known as “The Farm”, or else buy a spell known as “glamour” in order to disguise themselves as humans. The hook of Willingham’s Fables lies in seeing fairy tale characters as real people. Goldilocks is a gun-toting revolutionist bent on recapturing the Fables’ homelands. Beauty and the Beast, while having the longest-lasting marriage out of any of the Fables, have marital issues and see a marriage counselor. Prince Charming is a sleazy, womanizing jerk who cheated on Snow White.
It is in this world where Telltale has set its mystery neon-noir thriller. Bigby Wolf, formerly known as The Big Bad Wolf, has since reformed from his huffing-and-puffing and Grandma-eating ways. Now the sheriff of Fabletown, Bigby must reconcile his sordid past with his new role as the Fables’ protector when a Fable is found murdered. One of the many beauties of The Wolf Among Us (as well as The Walking Dead) is that story and gameplay aren’t separate, discreet elements. You don’t get through the gameplay so you can be rewarded with some story before you’re off to more tangentially related gameplay. Here, the story is the play, and the play is the story. To say anything more of what happens (or what could happen) during the course of the episode would be to ruin the experience entirely. Simply put, Telltale has brought Willingham’s strange and fascinating world to life, with richly drawn characters, a compelling whodunnit mystery, and surprises that will shock even longtime readers of the comic.
A large part of the time in The Wolf Among Us is spent in dialogue with other characters in the world. Usually, the player is given three dialogue choices as well as a silent option. A timer runs as you decide what you want Bigby to say. Don’t respond in time and Bigby stays silent. With the timer and a diverse range of responses (not shallowly limited to good, neutral, and evil) the dialogue flows smoothly and naturally between characters. There aren’t any momentum-killing moments where the player is given the option to get information from a character topic by topic, like in The Walking Dead or Mass Effect. Any information the player will need is delivered seamlessly through the conversations.
While not the showiest performances, Bigby and Snow White are the standouts in the episode. Adam Harrington’s gruff, gravelly voice could easily have turned Bigby into a typical tough-guy video game lead, but Telltale’s sharp writing and Harrington’s careful performance keep him from becoming a cliche. Instead, Bigby is given a range of appropriate behaviors, from a sarcastic but likable jerk to a bully shutting himself off from those around him, all of which have an intensity that underlie them. It’s an impressive feat that all of Bigby’s responses make sense for his character despite their diversity. It all just depends on what kind of person you want Bigby to be. Snow, a strong-willed leader who wants to help the less-fortunate Fables but is stuck in a subordinate position, is an equally difficult tightrope for an actor to walk. Too pushy and obstinate, and she comes off as unlikable, but too submissive and she doesn’t seem believable as somebody who can get things done. Erin Yvette walks the tightrope perfectly, making Snow a believable and likable foil to Bigby. She’s just as stubborn as he is and is willing to stand up to him when many wouldn’t.
Action sequences are used effectively, that is to say, sparingly. It feels like a disservice to call the action scenes “quick time events” because that phrase tends to bring with it negative connotations of sequences of the “press X to not die” variety, but here (just like in The Walking Dead) they’re handled very well. While there are game over screens if the player misses enough prompts or screws up during certain critical moments, most of the time missing a button prompt only changes the course of the action. Failure affects who’s in control during the fight, you or your opponent. Take too many hits and Bigby will have a few extra wounds in the next scene. Just like with the dialogue, there’s usually an inevitable destination, but it’s how you get there that’s the interesting part.
In a lot of ways The Wolf Among Us is similar to The Walking Dead. It’s an episodic adventure game. It’s centered around choice and consequence. It’s based on a hit comic book series. One might think that Telltale was hedging its bets by sticking to a formula that worked the last time around, but in a game where narrative is king, the differences in style, tone, and art completely transform the experience.
The Wolf Among Us‘s relatively unique fiction (mature fairy tales are sort of in right now, but nowhere near to the extent of zombies), and slick ’80s noir style make the world much more interesting than The Walking Dead‘s. Its comic book aesthetic replaces The Walking Dead‘s dreary grays and browns with sharper contrasts and vibrant neon. This is hands-down one of the most gorgeous games ever released. The hard black outlines, the vibrant contrasting colors. This game is just simply beautiful. The thumping ’80s synth score is the cherry-on-top for The Wolf Among Us‘s perfect cohesion of style and story.
Every piece of this game is in sync. Every element fits together perfectly, no hair is out of place. From the mature fairy tale world, to the deliberately paced gameplay, to the neon comic book art, to the droning synth score, The Wolf Among Us is a stylistic masterpiece. Now the question is, what will Telltale do with these characters and they mystery they find themselves in? Can Telltale maintain the surprises and suspense, while also reaching the same emotional depths and heights as The Walking Dead?
With the first episode of The Wolf Among Us, Telltale has already demonstrated that The Walking Dead wasn’t a fluke. “Faith” is a fantastic debut for The Wolf Among Us, setting up a series full of fascinating characters, a complex neo-noir mystery, and a story full of potential.
*These impressions are based off of a retail copy of The Wolf Among Us running on a high-end PC. A full review will be up after all five episodes are released.*