While Telltale's latest adaptation of Fables doesn't hit the lofty benchmark set in recent months by The Walking Dead: Season 2, Sheriff Bigby Wolf's search for answers to increasingly close-to-home murders is engaging and well-paced. Everything in The Wolf Among Us feels purposeful, with explanations of motivation and relationship roaring alongside the introduction of new mysteries that keep the player guessing on the cusp of figuring everything out. Every time Bigby regains his confident footing, the narrative rug is pulled out from under the player just a little more than last time. This series of progressively larger surprises is starting to gain serious momentum, and much like The Walking Dead's fantastic "A House Divided" episode, the best I can say for "A Crooked Mile" is that it moves past the exposition and clarification a world like this needs to make some serious plot moves. Not merely entertaining, these dramatic turns compel while setting the stage for what could be an incredible showdown between Bigby and a just-revealed villain I won't spoil here.
What I will spoil here, because it's essential to assessing the episode's narrative quality, is...
(Have you clicked away yet?)
...that we finally get to see and experience Bigby's transformation to a hulking, frightening wolf. It's handled well, for the most part, giving players options in a context where, in a broader sense, there are none. You have to commit violence--Bigby's wolf form is the kind of bestiality that defies control and nuance--and the moment feels appropriately unleashed while still maintaining the sense of urgent choice that's always pushed Telltale's combat moments to exciting heights. Acknowledging that I'm not a fan or reader of the original series, I was a bit put-off by the option to be merciful within this violent tirade. I took that option, too, as it fit with my push to make Bigby a more sympathetic, patient detective--a far cry from my reckless start. Here's where I think toeing the line of what's more valuable--an abundance of player choice, or character development on a tight, rewarding arc--can be difficult. I commend Telltale for keeping every facet of Bigby's personality customizable, but the narrative impact of his transformation is lessened with the option of putting a rein on it.
What I love about the rest of the game's decisions is that the writers never give you all the information you'd want for making a fair call. Heck, they rarely give you enough information to make what I'd call an educated one. That element of unpredictability can make these choices harder than simply choosing the path that courts a good relationship with your preferred character. Juggling what I don't know about the situation with what I do know about characters meant I was running out of time in my responses pretty often, and even missed the opportunity to speak a couple times. The Wolf Among Us is also doing interesting things with emergent gameplay, breaking away from Telltale's typically very linear design to give you a set of investigative options. You might experience events in a different order, or miss some moments entirely. Regardless, all of it is presented with a truly slick interface and outstanding visual presentation. The Wolf Among Us continues to look more like a comic book come to life than any video game before it.
Still, the illusion of certain mechanics is starting to wear thin. Button-mashing moments where you're meant to fail, or where the resistance against your mashing means filling the bar at exactly the right moment, feel like wasted moments of gameplay. It's fine to have scenes scripted, but when my participation is an obvious facade, I'd rather watch a cutscene than pretend not to notice a poor attempt at pulling the wool over my eyes. "A Crooked Mile" is guilty of this mostly during its final scenes, which thankfully introduce a devious adversary whose callous disregard and confident smirk make me feel, as Bigby, afraid for the first time in the series. How powerful and skilled could someone who isn't afraid of Bigby be? I can't wait to find out.
I'm not holding my breath for technical improvements, though. At this point, it's redundant to tell you that "A Crooked Mile" suffers the same framerate dips, long (and frequent) loading screens, and jumpy cutscenes that have plagued the Telltale Tool since its inception. The Walking Dead: "A House Divided" was a marked improvement over recent efforts, which makes "A Crooked Mile" feel like a step backward. Go in with some patience. It's disappointing to admit, but I've grown desensitized to these immersion-breaking glitches.
All told, The Wolf Among Us - Episode 3: "A Crooked Mile" moves Bigby and Snow White's investigations forward in meaningful, exciting ways. Interesting gameplay ideas create new kinds of player involvement, and dialogue choices are harder to make than ever. The fruits of our conversational labor ("So-and-so will remember that") haven't paid off in a big way yet, so I'll be especially looking for these impacts in Episodes 4 and 5. With any luck, they'll come alongside exposition of an unsettling new adversary and a few big reveals that Episode 3 successfully teases.
-The Final Word-
"A Crooked Mile" pushes Wolf's story forward in a way that isn't just about what's potentially coming next. This is exciting, unsettling interactivity that makes only a few missteps before episode's end.