"Faith" is the first episode in a five-part series. We plan on doing a formal review of the entire season of The Wolf Among Us once it is complete. Until then, here are our impressions of the first episode.
Last year, Telltale Games made its mark with the comic-inspired Walking Dead--a dark, plot-driven game that put an emphasis on morality and relationships. The Wolf Among Us, based on the mature-themed comic series Fables, seems a perfect fit for the same treatment. And while the first episode (titled "Faith") signals a very different kind of story, Telltale has continued to showcase its ability to draw in players with compelling characters and tense decisions.
For a studio that has made great strides in the adventure genre, it may seem counter-intuitive that this game goes back to such a classic trope: the whodunit mystery. It feels natural for the world, though, and shows Telltale's willingness to follow tone of the source material rather than force it through a mold of its own making.
You play as Bigby Wolf, otherwise known as the Big Bad Wolf. He and various other fairy tale characters have crossed into the real world and taken up residence in New York City, and Bigby's natural talents for intimidation have landed him in the role of sheriff of their little community. When one of the fables turns up dead on the steps of an apartment, he sets about finding who was behind it. Before long he's partnered with Snow White, who in her role as assistant to Mayor Ichabod Crane serves as a counter-point to Bigby. She's kind-hearted but not entirely naive, and painted with almost as much depth and believability as our lead.
Unlike Lee from TWD, there is very little ambiguity in Bigby's background. Both you as the player and all the supporting characters know exactly who he is and what he used to do. The "reformed tough guy" persona makes him a natural choice for the kind of gruff noir protagonist this story requires, but the voice talent gives him just a hint of world-weary vulnerability.
As a result of the central mystery, the choices aren't as centered on empathy and moral grays as they are focused on following your investigative instincts. It lacks some of the gut-wrenching punch of Walking Dead, but it does show how the timed decision prompts that played such a major role in that game can be used for a completely different storytelling mechanic, and end up just as effective.
The first episode leaves us with a cliffhanger that demands more of our attention, as Telltale has grown so adept at pulling off. It will remain to be seen what impact the story's linearity will have on how we feel about our choices. The Walking Dead ended in the same place no matter what your myriad of moral choices, but I found so much enjoyment in debating the moral grays that the ending was perfectly satisfying for me. In a story that is more about detective work, it might feel less appealing to have all your gumshoe antics end along the same lines.
Though its storytelling is a lateral move that accomplishes different goals just as effectively, The Wolf Among Us is a definite leap forward in terms of presentation. The palette is much more saturated and splashy, and the facial and body animations look much more fluid. The art style is familiar, but the vibrancy gives it a much more distinct look. Telltale has also taken a cue from film and TV, making a point of varied angles and much more use of establishing shots when transitioning between settings.
The action in is entirely composed of quick-time events, but the studio has revised its presentation of these to make them feel more engaging. The button prompts appear over shifting areas of the screen, making catching them correctly a much more active exercise. They come so quickly in a fight scene that you might miss one or two, but the fight goes on regardless. The fables are more resilient than regular humans, which helps fights go on without too much punishment for missing a prompt.
Technical hiccups abound on the Xbox 360, though, in part because of these cinematic presentation. I would frequently find the game hitching in a moment that was clearly meant to be a smoother transition, and load times would sometimes interrupt the tension of a dramatic scene. Much as I enjoyed seeing Telltale take such ambitious cinematic steps, some of these issues felt like I was paying the price for it.
Faith is a striking first episode for The Wolf Among Us, and a reassuring sign of Telltale's flexibility. While its detective themes didn't hit me emotionally like many episodes of The Walking Dead and some of the cinematic presentation hits technical snags, it's a promising sign that the same basic mechanics can be used in such a distinct way.
This review is based on downloadable Xbox 360 code provided by the publisher. The Wolf Among Us is now available digitally on PC and Xbox 360 for $19.99. The game will also be available on PS3 on October 15. The game is rated M.