I came into the premiere episode of The Wolf Among Us, Telltale's next game series which is based off of the popular Fables comic book series, in a similar mindset of their previous series, The Walking Dead, by having particularly zero exposure to the source material that it drew upon. Having no attachment didn't really hinder my enjoyment of The Walking Dead, with it ending up being my Game of the Year for 2012. But even with that , I wasn't too excited about a Season 2 of The Walking Dead or a new game series that played similarly. A terrible thought entered my mind when I finished The Walking Dead, which was that it was potentially a lightning in a bottle situation; a miracle.
Telltale's noteworthy game series was not without its flaws, indeed it had many. And not every episode was blasting on all cylinders, with inconsistent pacing between them. Indeed, even the interesting extra episode, 500 Days, was a pretty disappointing piece of content. The Walking Dead was a diamond in the rough, but oh how brilliant it shone! If everything else after that point that Telltale made never lived up to such a powerful legacy, than that would be OK. I would be alright if The Walking Dead was a spontaneous and unrepeatable event. Sometimes the best and most beautiful things are.
With this in mind, I came into The Wolf Among Us with an open mind, only lightly powdered with context and awareness. What I came away with was reassurance.
In The Wolf Among Us (Fantastic name for a game, by the way) you control Bigby Wolf AKA the villianous Big Bad Wolf from proper fairy tale mythology. He has been appointed sheriff of Fabletown, a secret community in New York where most fairy tale beings reside after having been forced out of their magical homeland by a mysterious enemy simply known as The Adversary. This new life in the mundane world of humanity gives Bigby a second chance at changing his persona as he tries to keep the volatile group of fables from revealing themselves to the rest of the world. But who he becomes is up to you, with the game giving you a number of choices for defining the character of Bigby. Especially when one of your kind, a fable, turns up dead and Bigby has to navigate the sleazy underworld of fairy tale society and has to start making tough decisions before the humans find out and Fabletown is compromised.
Doing so in the moment-to-moment gameplay of The Wolf Among Us is very reminiscent of The Walking Dead. You move Bigby with the left analog stick, while you control the adventure game-esque cursor with the right. The cursor is shaped like a crosshair, and when it floats over objects which can be interacted with the points of the cross light up corresponding with the face buttons, each one serving a different function from opening a dialogue with characters, examining an object , using items from your inventory, and so on. Occasionally you will enter fights with enemies, which turn into Asura's Wrath-style quick time events.
These combats scenarios were typically the low point of The Walking Dead, but here they are usually the highlight. The responsiveness and general design of these battles are much more improved. Because you're fighting incredibly powerful fairy tale creatures the battles are much more explosive and interesting, and sometimes the game gives you the option to choose in the middle of a fight how to proceed. This added degree of freedom is much appreciated, and fits in with Telltale's choose your own adventure brand of storytelling and player empowerment.
This is even more evident in the game's structure. As Bigby is a detective of sorts (formerly a fearsome predator with sharp supernaturally senses tuned to violence), The Wolf Among Us is much more about investigation, inventory management and suspect interrogation than The Walking Dead ever was as a whole. This gives The Wolf Among Us a bit of a more procedural and mechanical feel, but I find this design invigorating and gives the game a very different feel than Telltale's previous titles. It requires you to be more cognizant of your surroundings and of what characters say, sometimes punishing you pretty harshly in some fairly exciting ways, as I learned in my playthrough.
Bigby is also a more involving and interesting character than The Walking Dead's Lee Everett. I didn't feel morally tied down by a relationship like Lee did with Clementine. While that was a rare and excellent father-child relationship that games never tackle, playing as Bigby was a lot more rewarding as a player when I felt free to tackle the situation however I wanted. This allowed me to grow attached to the characters that I wanted to and decide how Bigby wanted to map out his new life in the mundane human world. Not to mention that Bigby can turn into a giant wolf and straight up wreck people. That's always a plus.
It's a popular trope recently to take fairy tales and grit them up, make them edgy without any real earned substance to their edginess. In its first episode, The Wolf Among Us' world successfully maneuvers a a tightrope of the gritty with just enough self-awareness and humor to actually make it feel like a real place. The Wolf Among Us isn't afraid to tackle important issues of gender equality and class discrimination, but does so with skill. It would've been easy for The Wolf Among Us to fall down a hole of its own self-seriousness, but expertly dodges it.
The pacing of Episode 1 of The Wolf Among Us is top notch, constantly providing you the highs and lows needed and offering exciting twists and situations to get mixed up in. Indeed, the cliffhanger that The Wolf Among Us ends on is jaw dropping and really made me bummed out that I couldn't just launch right into the next episode, like any good episodic series should do. My attachment to the ending is because Telltale does a fantastic job in bringing these mythical characters to life, with pitch perfect voice casting and some of the best writing in video games. This is the most well rounded cast of characters that Telltale has ever assembled, and leverages this expertly throughout The Wolf Among Us.
What is probably the most surprisingly aspect of The Wolf Among Us is its production values. The game looks like director Nicolas Winding Refn's latest works (Drive, Only God Forgives), which, if you know anything about me, made me absolutely giddy. The vibrant, neon colored lightning and striking shadows and general surreal atmosphere of The Wolf Among Us feels heavily inspired by Mr. Refn's films and of neo-noir in general. This gives The Wolf Among Us a potent visually interesting look that The Walking Dead simply lacked, making it more memorable in that respect.
Even the soundtrack oozes with Cliff Martinez's style (the composer of Drive and Only God Forgives). Unhealthy sugar rich pop tracks with sickly dark electronica underlining most of it, with just the hint of the fantastical and magical adding some interesting spice to the mix. It drips with enthusiasm for the grimy and the gritty and the extraordinary. This is another area that The Walking Dead under performed in, and made me enraptured that much more in The Wolf Among Us' reality.
It is unfortunate then that The Wolf Among Us doggedly inherits The Walking Dead's rough technical issues. I never had my game freeze or catch on fire as bad as The Walking Dead at its worse, but there were the now all too familiar framerate hitches in between scenes. This was frustrating in The Walking Dead, and even more so here as The Wolf Among Us does an even better job of sucking me into the experience and its world. Hopefully it never gets as bad as The Walking Dead did, but it's extremely discouraging that Telltale didn't take the time to fix the more blatant complaint of their previous series. especially because if such issues didn't exist at all, then Telltale's recent works would be practically unassailable in my mind.
The Wolf Among Us is not the bold and loud revolution that The Walking Dead was. Instead it is a much more subtle, quieter evolution that intelligently iterates on its predecessor's design. Not only that, but an infinitely more memorable art direction and soundtrack makes it a more intoxicating and enthralling experience overall. With a stronger, better written cast of characters, a cool and unique world and a powerful mystery driving it, The Wolf Among Us starts out fantastically with its first episode. It is certainly better than the first episode of The Walking Dead, and rivals many of its best episodes. If the same level of quality remains in future installments, than The Wolf Among Us may even surpass its Game of the Year winning elder.
Most importantly, The Wolf Among Us proves that The Walking Dead wasn't a fluke. It was the hard work of a very talented group of individuals, and I'm comfortably excited to see what happens next in not only The Wolf Among Us, but in Telltale's future.
FIVE OUT OF FIVE
(An exceptional game whose flaws are barely noticeable.)