The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1 – Faith
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 10/15/2013
To say the pressure is on for Telltale Games is an understatement. While it may not have been my cup of tea, The Walking Dead was one of 2012’s biggest games. It garnered tremendous critical and commercial success. And while I wasn’t a fan of the game, I certainly appreciate the fact that people in the mainstream are talking about adventure games again.
While season two of TWD is a little further down the pipeline, Telltale isn’t exactly sitting idly by. They’ve got another adventure series bases on another popular, if lesser known, comic. The Wolf Among Us is based on Fables, and it offers a unique setting to create one hell of an interesting game. The key here is to move forward from what TWD did and not simply rest on its laurels. It’s also key for this first episode to hook players in and keep them coming back when the next episodes are released. As a critic of TWD, I was more than skeptical about this new game. Let’s find out how the series kicks off.
In the world of Fables, the characters from your favorite fairy tales are all real. While this concept might seem cliché at this point, I assure that Fables was doing it long before shows like Once Upon a Time and Grimm. Anyway, those characters are known as Fables, and they’ve moved into a section of New York City known as Fabletown. The key is to keep a low profile so they can live out their lives in peace. Magic spells known as glamours keep the more obvious mystical creatures looking human, while talking animals and such reside in a place known as “The Farm”. The Wolf Among Us focuses on one particular fable. That would be Bigby Wolf. You’ll know him better as the Big Bad Wolf from stories such as Little Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs. Now in human form, Bigby works as Fabletown’s sheriff. You see, he’s trying to turn his life around, and keeping the peace between other Fables is a way to show his fellows that he’s not the bloodthirsty monster he was before.
“Faith” is all about Bigby at work. After a Fable is murdered, the sheriff must find the killer and prevent a panic. Throughout the episode, you’ll meet characters like Mr. Toad, Ichabod Crane, Snow White, and even one of the three pigs. The characters are a highlight to be sure. Bigby is every bit the conflicted ex-villain who straddles the line between doing his job and slipping into old habits. Snow White, as a civil servant, is equally engaging. She basically tags along with Bigby in order to help solve the murder. She comes off both as a strong person and a timid woman. It’s fascinating to watch her and Bigby interact. The supporting characters, though often less developed, are no less interesting. So far, the story is well written and engaging. However, I felt the same way about the first episode of TWD, and ended up disliking the whole series by the time it ended. A strong start here is no guarantee of a cohesive whole.
The story takes place over a series of chapters that move you from one location to another. The game promises to tailor the experience to the choices you make throughout the story. There are certainly some choices that radically effect how things play out in this particular episode, but most events happen regardless. While it’s great that choosing to give a character money at the start of the game leaves you penniless later on, this kind of thing is actually an exception rather than the rule. For example, you will always end up brushing one character off and it will always end up in a fight later down the road. No matter how you respond to Mr. Toad at the start, he’ll always curse you under his breath. I played through the first chapter twice and found a number of bits that make you think you’re affecting the story when you’re really not. Where you do affect the story is in a few key decisions. In particular, a character will live or die depending on your choice. I’m really hoping this pays off down the road. In TWD, you often had to choose which character to save, but the saved one always ended up dying quickly in the next chapter. If that happens with this game, I’ll be pissed. I want to feel as if my decisions actually mattered. It’s a thumbs in the middle until I see how things play out in part two.
Aesthetically, the game is a hit. Neon pastels and dirty streets create a fun version of a late 80’s NYC. Telltale uses a similar style to what they did in TWD to create the appearance of a three-dimensional comic book. The look works, and it is benefited by excellent facial animations that sell the characters in ways that many games wish they could do. The style may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I must say I’m impressed. If you can use cartoon visuals yet create something still so gritty, you deserve some praise.
On the technical side of things, the game fares a little worse. Telltale has still not figured out how to get their games running properly. The framerate is atrocious, and it dips constantly. Even worse, the game skips and pauses with alarming frequency. While this can be somewhat understandable when the game is loading up different scenes depending on your choices, it makes no sense for one of the many scripted scenes that don’t change no matter what you do. However, the skips and pauses happen in both cases. I also had the game completely freeze up on me a couple of times. Seriously. It’s like a running gag with Telltale games. They really need to get around to fixing it.
Aurally, the game works on all levels. The voice actors do great work for even the smallest of parts (of course, some of these parts may grow in future episodes). Bigby has as gruff a voice as you’d expect, even though they didn’t go the obvious route with Steve Blum. The accents, for those that have them, feel natural. The music is heavy on the synthesizers and is delightful. It’s kind of like a classic noir story jazzed up for the eighties. If TT could get the same level of quality with their graphics as they do their audio, there would be few games that could match it.
If you’ve played one of TT’s adventure games before, you’ll be able to jump right in here. In fact, I can’t think of a single difference between this and TWD, except that so far I haven’t had to shoot any guns in third person.
When you’re at a location, you’ll need to walk around to find points to interact with. If you use the right stick to move a cursor over such an area, various actions will become available. Each action is displayed on a wheel that corresponds with the face buttons on the controller. So the bottom action is the cross button, for example. It’s also color coded to make things easier. Thankfully, similar actions are usually kept to the same buttons. You’ll press cross to open doors, triangle to glance over something, etc. Some items can be picked up and used elsewhere, though this mechanic is streamlined. Basically, holding the correct item opens up a prompt somewhere where such a prompt would be missing otherwise.
Perhaps the most important mechanic is conversations. You’ll get to talking with one of the other Fables, and you’ll often have several choices as how to respond. You have a short time to pick an answer, otherwise Bigby will just stay silent. Interestingly enough, silence is as valid an option as any other. While picking certain options can slightly change how things play out, you’re usually just along for the ride here. Big, game changing decisions don’t have a timer, and there only tends to be a couple of options. At the very least, you’ll be able to tell when a choice is such a decision.
As the sheriff, you’re bound to get in a few scrapes here and there. Fight scenes are usually intense and quite lengthy. For the most part, they’re quick time events. However, you’re allowed to fail a few of these prompts without stopping the flow of a story. For example, you might not dodge a punch in time, so you’ll take the hit. While many games would have you restart from there, this game will just let you roll with the punch and keep going. Of course, certain events must be cleared or you’ll have to restart, and even when they give you multiple chances, you can only lose so much before you’re roadkill. Still, this leniency allows for some flexibility in fight scenes. I fought the Woodsman twice, and while the major actions happened both times, the choreography of the whole fight was different enough to make a noticeable difference.
I’m torn here. On one hand, I had a lot of fun with this first entry and can’t wait for the next. On the other hand, I remember the growing disappointment I had with each successive TWD episode, and am terrified TWAU will suffer the same fate. I guess my only option at this point is to wait and see. For now, this was enjoyable enough for the mere five bucks it cost me.
Short Attention Span Summary
If you enjoyed The Walking Dead, chances are you’ll equally enjoy this first entry of Telltale’s newest series. If you didn’t enjoy TWD, be wary. While the story starts off with a satisfying bang, I’m not convinced it will hold the momentum through the upcoming episodes. In the end, this is pretty much what you’d expect from a Telltale game. It has the same controls, same strengths, and same weaknesses. Take from that what you will.