Following up The Walking Dead would be no easy task, but from the moment I learned Telltale Games had chosen Vertigo and Bill Willingham‘s Fables as the inspiration for their next game I knew they couldn’t fail. Their choice of subject alone proves the company’s dedication to twisting and toying with typical gaming conventions even more so than their decision to make a Walking Dead game about more than killing zombies.
First of all, the premise of Fables doesn’t really lend itself to the typical action/adventure style present in most video games. In the comics the stories often dealt with the strained relationships between its characters, many of whom have sordid pasts where actions were taken that they’d very much like to forget. Not to so say there isn’t a good deal of get the bad guy, save the day, but the game’s objectives are achieved in trickier, slyer ways. This kind of world, with its mixture of very famous, well known tales and a lingering air of mystery, is perfect for the games Telltale is interested in making. Games that are far more an evolution of the ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ books than they are the next, logical step in video gaming.
But there again is something Telltale seems to understand so well. Video games have always allowed us to take one the role of “the chooser”, but what Telltale has done is made our choices and their effect on the story the centerpiece of the entire game.
The Wolf Among Us has you taking on the role of Bigby Wolf, former Big Bad Wolf of fairy tales, now the sheriff of Fabletown. All those fairy tale characters – Snow White, Three Little Pigs, Ichabod Crane, Mr. Toad – fled from their world to ours when they came under a dreadful attack (something you can learn all about in the Fables comics). Now living in a secluded and magically hidden neighborhood in New York City, it’s Bigby’s job to keep the peace amongst the Fable community.
Things unravel slowly, as you first put a stop to a quarrel between The Woodsman – a man with whom Bigby shares a history – and a young woman really down on her luck (read: prostitute). As Bigby and The Woodsman face off it’s the first taste of the game’s combat style, and while it’s quite similar to the quick time events of The Walking Dead, there’s a new ability to giving the player more control over how the fight plays out. For instance, you can decide to either smash The Woodsman through a sink or run him into the couch, pin him down on the bed and repeatedly punch him, or smack him into a filing cabinet – the choice is yours. And it’s this added variety that makes the fighting in The Wolf Among Us more engaging than taking out zombies in The Walking Dead.
Though again, the fighting is second fiddle to the core of the gameplay, which is solving a troubling murder mystery. After a woman’s severed head appears on the front steps of The Woodlands (a luxury apartment complex housing most of the well-off Fables) it becomes clear there’s a sinister plot underway. As Bigby, players have to work at solving the murder and inevitably choose in what way Bigby will investigate. These range from minor decisions, like how much evidence you collect (or manage to discover) to which suspects to follow and how aggressively they’re interrogated. Everything you decide plays a role in how the mystery of Fabletown’s serial killer unravels.
If you enjoyed Telltale’s The Walking Dead I have no doubt you’ll enjoy The Wolf Among Us. However, if you’re a fan of Bill Willingham’s Fables you’re going to absolutely adore this game. Everything – the characters, locations, even the atmosphere – has been wonderfully rendered for the game as if the comic came to life. This no doubt proved quite the challenge since The Walking Dead dealt more with original characters in a familiar setting where as The Wolf Among Us stars characters fans know extremely well.
Bigby is just as readers remember: gruff but amicable, determined to keep the residents of Fabletown safe, and not afraid to act tough if it’ll get the job done. I’m also happy to report his dry humor remains intact, and it’s always more fun when you’re prompted with smart-alecky responses. Snow’s here too, but she’s sadly relegated to being more like a Doctor Who companion, constantly asking Bigby what he think happened and what should happen next. Colin, one of three little pigs, makes an appearance as well. His scene with Bigby in this introductory episode is hilarious and rings very true with how all these characters interact in the comics.
Character designs take cues from Mark Buckingham’s artwork and they transfer from page to screen quite well. Simply put, the game looks stunning. The Wolf Among Us could have easily been an animated series and I’d have been just as engrossed. The coloring is bright but still deeply shadowed, really bringing out the game’s noir sensibility. The decision to use neon pink and yellow as accent colors may seem weird at first, but once combined in the artwork these colors work really well. In fact, they remind quite a lot of Watchmen‘s color palette, to be honest.
Entering the Business Office for the first time – beautifully imagined as you can see above – and getting to explore such a well known set piece is exciting. There’s a wealth of background information available, either through little discoveries within the game or by reading the Book of Fables, an index of characters and events constantly updated as you play. It’s also interesting to note that having previous knowledge of these characters may affect your decisions. For example, I was in the the minority by a vast margin when it came to telling Beast the whereabouts of his wife, Beauty; a decision I’m very intrigued by how it will affects the story’s progression.
This must be a game Bill Willingham is proud to have his name attached to as Telltale has handled his vision carefully and with respect. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment, and intend to play through this first episode making different decisions to pass the time until then.
The Wolf Among Us is now available for PC, Mac, Xbox 360, and PS3. You can purchase the first episode, “Faith”, and then buy a season pass for the following episodes. There’s no release date yet for the second episode, “Smoke and Mirrors”, but it’s expect in about a month.