The Short Version:
Buy this game for the love of F**KING GOD! Rarely this year, or with gaming in general, have I seen everything I want a game to do right done right. Strong pacing, good action, top-notch writing, high-quality acting, controls that don’t feel like driving a big f**king tank – it’s the introduction to the Fables universe anyone could like, and that I fully support. Get the season pass, and feel better about yourself and humanity in general.
The Long Version:
Ever since the last episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 1, I’ve had the sinking feeling that any follow up to such a success would be futile. Granted, this was before I was satiated with 400 Days, but nevertheless with Telltale it’s always hard to tell exactly how well they can pull off a new (to them) property; thus, even with the promise of a new aesthetic and enhanced mechanics carried over from The Walking Dead, I was quite weary of The Wolf Among Us on principle alone.
Thankfully I was completely wrong. If this first episode has taught me anything, it’s that we should all definitely be reading the Fables comics – and, more importantly, that Telltale knows how to build a world. The Wolf Among Us – Episode 1: Faith is quite possibly the strongest start for a Telltale series or season yet, and is certainly the bar by which other episodic series will be measured from here on.
As to the content, the set-up’s an interesting one. Centuries after a great exile, the fairy-tale characters of old (known as Fables) have immigrated to New York City to inhabit “Fabletown”, a community hidden within the heart of the city. Fabletown’s sheriff, Bigby Wolf, has been tasked with protecting the denizens of Fabletown – and with keeping them from tearing each other apart.
Add to that the fact that Wolf is, as his name may imply, the reformed Big Bad Wolf in human form attempting to atone for his past actions, and you have a very tense balance at play here. Wolf is not straight-forward, he is not inherently good, and he is definitely not in complete control of his base instincts… and I love it. He’s played as a believable, multi-dimensional character by the venerable Steve Blum (Cowboy Bebop, Mass Effect 2), the script gives him – and the player controlling him – ample opportunity to expand upon his values and way of life, and the entire episode leaves plenty of room for really great development to occur.
That’s not to say the rest of the cast is slouching, either. Throughout the episode, Wolf encounters a nice range of Fables hidden in plain sight, from anthropomorphic animals to twisted takes on classic fairy-tale characters. Wolf’s interactions with each character show off both the excellent voice talent Telltale has assembled, and the strength of a script clearly inspired by ’80s crime dramas.
That crime drama element leaks into the gameplay, with the episode sporting both detective-oriented sections and intense action sequences. Both aspects mesh well together and provide a interesting balance: the moments when Bigby has to scour crime scenes for details builds a sense of tangible atmosphere that keeps the player’s hairs raised, and the dynamic action sequences wherein choosing how to fight an opponent and occasionally facing quick-time events delivers on all that tension while furthering the story.
In fact, I have to give special credit to the opening scenes – there’s never been quite this blend of excellent player-influenced action, sharp dynamic dialogue, and an intro sequence with such beautifully conducted synthesizer music and neon-lit visuals. Fortunately, the unique blend of action, drama, and interactive narrative serves to keep the pace steady, the flow of quirky characters and intriguing twists regular, and the investigative angle quite fresh.
The episode works both as a sampling of the larger Fables universe and as a standalone – though distinctly player-controlled – story. There’s scenes where the rules of this grimly beautiful world are laid out, where the myths of various fairy tales are revised or drawn upon for drama. Sometimes it serves to further the “dark naturalistic fantasy” angle, but other times it’s to insert a dose of grim humour – neither of which I can object to.
Whereas The Walking Dead is a very personal experience that I want to savour, The Wolf Among Us has a certain quality that demands one should replay it a few times in a row. The big story-dividing choices that come up, though perhaps telegraphed as significant, do make me want to go back and see how the other half lives. Interacting with characters and choosing dialogue remains as engaging and significant to world-building as ever, with how people perceive Bigby being one of the ultimate reasons I want to see how the rest of the series plays out.
When you get down to it, what we are looking at is a great experience in both emotional appeal and in design. The basic framework of this plotline allows for Bigby to travel to various areas in New York, spending a notable amount of time in the seediest levels of the Bronx. No locale overstays its welcome, the exposition is made enjoyable by character actions and reactions, the episode lasts as long as it needs to (about two hours), and it ends on a really nail-biting note.
Speaking of design, some may bring up the occasional split-second bouts of lag or pop-in that comes with the Telltale Tool. I’m sick of bringing up this issue, and I suspect the company won’t change their ways, so I’m just going to advise you to ignore it as best as you can. It’s not a prominent problem, nor is it a deal breaker; the sheer effort in crafting a distinctive, possibly original take on comic book visuals that Telltale has exerted here is admirable in its own right, but let’s not pretend it isn’t one of the game’s greatest strengths. That, and the aforementioned soundtrack – composer Jared Emerson-Johnson should definitely be getting a raise some time soon.
It’s a simple matter – play this game if you want to see someone really get what gaming is all about. From the range of choices and consequences on display, to the masterful balance of action and crime drama elements, to the refined presentation, this is Telltale running at 100% efficiency. It’s one hell of a fairy-tale, so please do your part and check this out.