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The Wolf Among Us Season Review

It’s been an interesting year for Telltale, following the success of The Walking Dead’s first season the company cultivated expectations and expanded.  Big titles have been announced in the studio’s future, like Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones, the company has apologized for delays and felt the backlash of unappeased fans.  Through all of this, The Wolf Among Us has crept along, weaving its mystery in Bill Willingham’s world of fairy tale refugees.  When I reviewed the first episode back in October, I wrote about how I did not envy the game’s task of following up the first season of The Walking Dead.  I’ll expand and say I don’t envy The Wolf Among Us having to exist while Telltale has announced bigger, sexier projects, or kicked off the second season of an already beloved series.  Yet, the five episode arc of the game has been strong with every episode.  Sometimes the game can be a little talk-y, and I feel Telltale has struggled to give players tasks to accomplish in their tale of mystery, but overall The Wolf Among provides an engaging world and impressive moments.

Telltale has been writing circles around video games for a couple of years now.  The tale of The Wolf Among Us captures your attention in the opening minutes and invites you down a rabbit hole of suspects and theories.  Set in a world where a faceless enemy called, “The Adversary” has chased most fairy tale characters from their respective worlds and into our own, The Wolf Among Us bounces famous storybook characters off of each other and watches the sparks fly.  Based on the comic book series Fables, the game does a good job of pulling from the source material and coming up with its own characters.  Favorites from the comics are faithfully replicated like Snow White, Beauty and Beast, Ichabod Crane, Bluebeard, and – of course – Bigby Wolf, but the games also pulls out some characters of their own, reverent to Willingham’s formula.  Characters like the Grendel, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, or Bloody Mary are nicely mixed into the existing characters allowing this story to feel like part of the Fables universe, but very much its own.

Telltale’s narratives have always been a focus of their games, and while The Wolf Among Us is initially engaging, it can find itself wandering from time to time.  In each episode, Bigby – the sheriff of Fabletown – digs deeper into the workings of the looming underworld boss called The Crooked Man, finding different facets of his criminal operations.  The scenes are well crafted and the dialogue well-written, but they tend to be extemporaneous, indulging in the choose-your-line gameplay.  Telltale’s choice-based narrative has become something of touchy subject when it comes to their games.  As lamented in The Walking Dead, the choices you make don’t truly affect the overall story, instead you are mostly creating your own Bigby and effecting elements of the story with the protagonist you make.  Is your Bigby the barbaric, bloody-hungry animal so many Fabletown residents accuse him of being?  Or is he a misunderstood hero, getting his hands dirty when so many others couldn’t?  It all comes to a head in the end of the game, which builds to a climatic, and satisfying, finish.  Not all of the “t”s get crossed or “i”s gett dotted, but the questions raised at the end of the game are the kind that get forum threads started.

So when you’re not making dialogue choices or taking in the game’s narrative, what are you doing?  Not much, unfortunately.  The Wolf Among Us starts by letting you play detective, investigating crime scenes and questioning witnesses, but the game gets bored with this mechanic by the second episode.  The majority of non-narrative gameplay is when Bigby goes into his half-wolf form to battle other fables.  In these combat sequences you are required to follow a series of quick-time prompts in order to defeat your opponent.  At times, these fights can be interesting, adapting to your successes and failures in an intuitive way, but they all conclude in relatively the same manner.  Much like the dialogue and narrative, the illusion of control is what Telltale provides the player.

By the fourth or fifth time Bigby goes into “wolf-mode” it starts getting a little redundant.  Follow the button-sequence, beat the bad guy, then mutilate their body if you’re feeling particularly gruesome.  The best moments in The Wolf Among Us are quiet moments when you are investigating different elements of a scene, or interacting with the environment.  It would be nice for Telltale to indulge a bit more in their point-and-click roots, allowing for more mystery, but the game usually is just trying to shove you to the next fight sequence or dialogue options.

Technically, The Wolf Among Us has been a significant leap from 2012’s The Walking Dead.  There are still some pesky load screens and sections which recap the previous episodes can be a little awkward, but the game runs significantly smoother and issues with save files have greatly improved.  It would be nice to see Telltale continue to refine even more in this area, with next-gen hardware just waiting to alleviate some of the weight, but The Wolf Among Us is currently stuck in the last generation – although a PS4 and Xbox One disc-based release is on the horizon.

The technical improvements in The Wolf Among Us are good, but the artistic choices the game makes are great.  After the washed-out color of The Walking Dead, Telltale has played with the look of The Wolf Among Us in interesting ways.  Harkening to the contrast of dark and light in film noir classics, The Wolf Among Us uses vibrant colors juxtaposed against pitch black.  The seedy world the game explores invites such an artistic choice, as does Telltale’s hand-drawn art-style.  Behind the noir, comic-book look is a score which relies heavily on lingering tones, subtly building tension.  It doesn’t stand out on its own, but serves to stay out of the way and accompany the world Telltale is trying to build.

Telltale is a talented company, and The Wolf Among Us is a very good game, but it tends to rely on the strength of its writing rather than gameplay.  Players can craft their own protagonist, using a series of choices to flesh out their personalized Bigby Wolf, but Bigby’s relationship to Fabletown is only mildly interesting.  The season starts strong and ends strong, inviting you into a fascinating world with its opening episode and sticking its landing with an exciting series finale, but in between those two episodes there is a lot of table setting which Telltale only gets aways with due to its strong design choices and smart writers.  The Wolf Among Us is a game which not only should appeal to Telltale fans, but also does good by fans of the Fables comic book series.  Even if you don’t fall into either camp, I would recommend getting your feet wet with The Wolf Among Us, it’s a game well worth your time.

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