The Wolf Among Us - Episode 1: Faith Review Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on PC and Sony PlayStation 3
Imagine a world where characters from popular fairy tales were forced out of their homeland, transported to modern-day USA, and had to live out their lives amongst normal people. No, this isn’t Once Upon A Time, and shame on you for thinking so. Fables is a comic book series which predates the soapy fantasy show by almost a decade, and The Wolf Among Us is the latest IP to be given the Telltale treatment with the full blessing of creator Bill Willingham.
Episode 1: Faith kicks off the five-part series in style, introducing an impressively large cast of characters in its two-hour running time. Taking on the role of Sheriff Bigby Wolf, you’re thrust into Fabletown, a community based in the Upper West Side of mid-90s Manhattan. Here, a magical appearance-altering Glamour allows the exiled Fables to live alongside “mundies”: normal humans unaware of the masses of enchanted storybook folk wandering their neighbourhood. If this all seems a little twee, the first ten minutes will address that. A conversation with a foul-mouthed Toad followed by an encounter with The Woodsman - Bigby’s nemesis - soon leads to an intriguing murder mystery which takes a number of surprising turns, with decapitation, f-bombs and ultraviolence all on the agenda. Like the comics, The Wolf Among Us is aimed squarely at the adult market, and is better for it.
Aided only by Mayor Ichabod Crane’s reliable assistant Snow White, Bigby needs to track down a killer who has left a head on his doorstep, whilst overcoming the fact that his previous incarnation as The Big Bad Wolf hasn’t won him any favours with the immigrant populace who are less than keen to help. Throw in a snarky talking mirror, a drunken flying monkey and an alcoholic, cigarette-smoking pig and you have the makings of a potentially brilliant new series. Telltale need to be applauded for both the voice work and the story, which are equally pivotal to character-driven games like this and their previous award-winner The Walking Dead. They do an admirable, if not wholly successful job of masking a number of serious issues with the game engine, which at times threaten to ruin the heady atmosphere.
Despite its affectations, Episode 1 barely registers as a traditional point-and-click. You’ll have very little to work out, other than scouring the environment for hotspots and clues and ensuring that as many dialogue trees as possible are exhausted. Like its sister series, it’s marketed as an interactive adventure rather than a puzzle game and a lot is riding on the decisions you make along the way, with NPCs making note of your conversational choices - presumably to be revisited later on in the story. Other than a few brief nods in the teaser for the next episode there was little here that felt impactful, although it’s worth keeping in mind that this is only the first of five instalments and its main focus is on setting the stage - something which Pierre Shorette and his team of writers does admirably.
The decision-making mechanic of the engine has evolved even further; now it matters when you make your choices as well as the choices themselves. Choosing to address one matter earlier than another can literally mean the difference between one person living or dying. How deep each particular rabbit hole goes in terms of the story remains to be seen, but it adds another layer of complexity to the game which only encourages replay and is certainly welcome. The fantastical nature of the game means that the human connection of The Walking Dead is not as pronounced and the decisions aren’t as heart-wrenching in this early stage, but we are hopeful that our attachment will only increase as we become more familiar with the characters and their quirks.
It should also be noted that the game looks and sounds wonderful. If The Walking Dead’s cel-shaded visuals sometimes felt at odds with the grim subject matter, they fit right at home here. Colourful, striking neon environments merge the grimy New York backdrop and low-rent urban apartments seamlessly with larger-than-life characters, where falling several storeys onto a car and taking an axe to the head doesn’t necessarily warrant a call to the coroner. Jared Emerson-Johnson has again reprised his role as Telltale’s composer of choice, with a darkly ambient score which perfectly complements the game’s noir tone. As mentioned, the voice acting is superb. Not once did we experience jarring dialogue; character animations meld with their actor’s intonations and accent so well that you’ll often forget you’re talking to a Cockney toad or a hulking Norse giant. Bigby Wolf is a much more cynical soul than Lee Everett, barely managing to hold the community’s warring factions apart, and Adam Harrington’s vocals wholly infuse the tired Sheriff, straining to contain his rage as the body count rises.
The main problems with Episode 1 are the same ones that The Walking Dead suffered from and stem from any movement not within the player’s direct control, such as cut scenes and quick time events, both of which occur often enough to cause ire. Loading times are lengthy, and in many cases it feels like the engine has actually degraded from previous games, with even simple camera transitions causing the frame rate to stutter and churn. It gets worse when you’re thrust into action scenes where you have to make split-second reactions to on-screen prompts. Too often, the delay in loading means that you’ll have little reflexive time available and will end up failing the QTE and getting smacked. Other graphical glitches can shatter the mood as well. The prologue’s fight with The Woodcutter ended up with a table embedded in Woody’s body for the duration, making a brutal brawl look utterly ridiculous. This is a shame, as the fights are extraordinarily well choreographed for a game of this genre, and allow you to make decisions on the fly about your next move - be it smashing your opponent into a cupboard, throwing them at a sink, or breaking their leg.
In addition, actions which use a combination of targeting reticle and trigger are far more cumbersome than in their predecessor. Switching between trigger prompts is a common tactic to make the scenes feel more complex than they perhaps are, and simply frustrate as you try to manipulate two thumbsticks and two triggers in ever-changing combinations. Fortunately, it seems that this has been accounted for and the game is far less punishing than others in Telltale’s stable, meaning you’ll be able to miss numerous prompts without penalty. We got utterly beaten up for the first half of one fight scene, failing every QTE, yet still managed to continue unpunished. Telltale have mentioned that they want to make the title accessible and not present formidable barriers to play and they have certainly achieved that, but to the detriment of the gameplay. The Walking Dead wasn’t particularly tough, but there were a couple of scenes which would have taken a few attempts to complete. Here, you can breeze right on through. Whether that’s a good thing will depend on how casual you like your games and whether story is more important than interactivity.
There is certainly potential for The Wolf Among Us to excel over the next few chapters. Core presentation and plot are firmly established, whilst the offbeat world and jaded characters provide a refreshing take on the storybook theme. Fans of the comic book will have little to complain about and though the events are set before the first issue started, the game is considered canon - which makes the shocking conclusion all the more intriguing. The biggest challenge Telltale faces is ensuring that the meticulous attention to detail they’ve paid in crafting a narrative isn’t scuppered by the creaking graphics engine. As veteran developers with a plethora of awards under their belts, the existing issues really should have been resolved by now. They serve to turn a potentially excellent game into a merely good one, but one we hope will follow the same path as its forerunner and ultimately end happily ever after...for the player, if not the characters.