It's hard to follow-up on an emotionally evocative roller coaster ride as The Walking Dead. But while Telltale does bring the same elements to the table with The Wolf Among Us, the developer isn't content to hit the exact same notes this time around. This time, they're looking to tell a hard-hitting detective story, but it does more than succeed in that sense. It also provides an equally introspective glimpse into a player's own morality, albeit from a slightly different angle.
Based on Bill Willingham's long-running and critically-acclaimed Fables comic book series, The Wolf Among Us centers around a mystery that's engulfed the fantasy-filled city of Fabletown. A murder has been committed and it's up to Sheriff Bigby Wolf (a.k.a. The Big Bad Wolf) to solve it. However, the farther down the rabbit hole he goes, the farther across the town he sees the mystery spread, offering twists that even long-time followers of the source material will likely find surprising.
A big, bad detective
The heart of The Wolf Among Us is arguably its main character. Just as with other Telltale efforts, the player is welcome to shape Bigby however they see fit, whether they make him into a heartless pursuer of vengeance or someone with a heart of gold underneath his gruff exterior.
This doesn't just reflect with the game's dialogue system, in which Bigby can often approach situations aggressively, patiently, or even compassionately. It also reflects in the shamus' interaction with other characters and potential suspects.
Interrogations in The Wolf Among Us are particularly satisfying. Bigby can either patiently piece together clues and goad information out of his suspects, like a sharp-toothed Sherlock Holmes or he can use aggression, intimidation, and violence to his advantage, like a whacked-out Batman. It's one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game and one that engaged me anytime it popped up. But beyond that, the manner in which players approach these sections of the game has real consequences that will affect the story and how Bigby is seen later down the line.
More than the way Bigby approaches people, the order in which he approaches them matters, too. The Wolf Among Us will often present multiple destinations, requiring Bigby to make a choice on where to proceed. Like any other aspect of the game, this has consequences, since areas that are explored later are affected in the time that Bigby spends looking through his first target. Not only does this add to the sense that this is a living world, but it also makes the case that the story is worth running through a second time. After I finished these sequences, I got the sense that I was missing pivotal narrative pieces and character moments that I wouldn't get the chance to see, unless I opted to replay the whole story. The neon-colored world of Fabletown felt far more alive than previous Telltale set pieces and it's a refreshing addition to their formula.
The heat of the night
Bigby's investigation isn't all questions and intimidation. Sometimes, action needs to be taken and The Wolf Among Us admirably attempts to mix up action sequences in-between the dialogue trees. However, this may also be one of the weaker parts of the game, due to some performance issues.
There were several framerate hitches over the course of my game, as I played on Xbox 360, which could have easily been overlooked, but those hiccups would often come right before a quick-time event, reducing my response time significantly. It was a source of frustration, but one that gradually started to improve as more episodes released. The stutters in Episode 5 were far less than Episode 1, which was a relief given that the final episode contained far more of these button prompts than its predecessors.
Performance issues aside, however, the action sequences got progressively better as each episode went along. These instances felt somewhat like filler material in the first few episodes, used as a mere distraction or as a way to kill time. However, the action moments felt more appropriate as the story began to hit its climax.
The word of law
Just as Telltale's The Walking Dead made players question their morals in regards to how they would approach a hopeless apocalypse and neverending despair, The Wolf Among Us questions morals in a different way. In this case, it calls into question how a player approaches the idea of justice, while also brilliantly highlighting the consequences of that approach.
Yes, Bigby can approach his investigation in any way the user sees fit. The freedom Telltale offers is a refreshing one on its face, but the cleverness of these five episodes is seen in the way those chickens can easily come back to roost near the end of the story. The final episode, in particular, will call into question just what the player's idea of justice is. Is it truly justice or has vengeance seeped in? Is "justice" necessarily what's best for the public welfare? Is it within your right to make that call? And even when the smoke finally clears and the last decision was made, was justice really served or is it just a bandage placed on top of a larger problem? They're heavy questions and ones that I didn't expect to encounter until they finally hit near the end of the story. For me, it made the experience I had gone through a much richer one.
The Wolf Among Us also managed to address a major criticism of this entire genre through this approach: that these types of games aren't necessarily games, because they don't offer a clear win/lose condition. That idea definitely does not apply, especially in the latter half of the game in which a player's series of on-the-spot dialogue choices can directly influence the main plot's outcome. It's as compelling as an interactive story of this type can get.
Happily ever after
Telltale revels in the complexity of its stories and they've managed to do so marvelously within the context of this adaptation. They not only told a compelling detective story, but they also captured the spirit of the original source material. It's one thing to play as Bigby Wolf, but it's another thing to vividly illustrate what makes him an interesting, multi-dimensional character.
The Wolf Among Us is a winner for its pacing, its character work, its story, and the manner in which it makes the player think without being overly heavy-handed about it. Like any good mystery, there's more to this game than what's on the surface and it's one worth experiencing.
Final Score: 9 out of 10
This review is based on a digital Xbox 360 copy purchased by the reviewer. The Wolf Among Us is available now for PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and iOS as a five-episode Season Pass for $24.99. The game is rated M.