What do you think makes a great detective game? Grizzled private eyes, beautiful-yet-deadly women, hard-hitting thugs, whiskey, and nicotine might spring to mind, but at no point would you think this trusty formula could be improved by the addition of characters from children’s stories and rhymes. Well, The Wolf Among Us, the new adventure title from Walking Dead-creator Telltale Games has taken both these genres, liberally mixed them together, and produced a great game. Let me tell you more.
The Wolf Among Us is, like Lee and Clementine’s The Walking Dead journey, a five-chapter serial. Chapter One, Faith, is currently available for PlayStation 3 and will be out on PS Vita later this year. And just like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us is based on the Fables comic book series by DC. However, The Wolf Among Us is set before the comic’s first issue, and so can be considered a prequel to it.
The premise of Fables is that famous characters from stories and rhymes are hiding in a secret district of New York City called Fabletown after their individual homelands were taken over by the Adversary, a mysterious (evil) monstrosity. In the Wolf Among Us, the player adopts the role of Bigby Wolf, Fabletown’s sheriff, who, due to his previous bad ways, is loathed by most of his fellow Fables. Bigby’s job is to make sure Fabletown’s diverse inhabitants stay hidden, behave themselves, and attract no attention from the real world (or, Mundy, as the Fables call it).
The first chapter of The Wolf Among Us begins when Bigby is asked by Toad of Toad Hall to investigate a domestic disturbance in the squalid apartments he now lives in. What Bigby discovers there starts him out on a dangerous investigation where grisly discoveries, dirty secrets, and terrible violence walk hand-in-hand, and where Bigby must race to solve a hideous crime before more blood is shed. Without much in the way of spoilers, I can say that the game’s plot plays out magnificently, and players will quickly discover an amazing adventure, where, like all good film noir, nothing and no one is what they seem to be. Which, in a town full of creatures from myth and legend, who are near immortal and have the powers and abilities from their original tales, is certainly saying something.
It’s no secret, however, that The Wolf Among Us’ first chapter is a great-looking game, and you don’t have to be a detective yourself to spot the fabulous graphics, some of which seem like the work of comics’ great Frank Miller, but luridly painted in almost neon shades. Telltale Games has bought the diverse settings of New York and Fabletown magnificently to life, from grim streets smeared with vandalism to the magnificent Fable Town Mayoral suite, with towering opulence, enchanted artifacts, and mysterious dark corners. The superb look of the game doesn’t end with its scenery; as you encounter and interrogate some of the game’s diverse characters, it becomes clear Telltale has spent a lot of time caring for the finest details that convey emotion and personality. The number of NPCs makes this no easy task, but Telltale has, amazingly, made each seem just as real as any humans you might encounter. Great animation and art direction help, but the experience is tied together by quality voice acting. My favorite NPC is Mr Toad, who could have easily been a poorly designed anthropomorphic frog, but is instead brought to life with a convincing British accent, realistic animated mannerisms, and snarky dialogue. Such is the quality of Telltale’s work that the player soon forgets they are dealing with fabulous beasts, and is instead quickly drawn into the game, easily able to treat the marvelous and mundance with equal reverence.
Of course, The Wolf Among Us’ superb voice acting is only part of the marvelous sounds and music that help create a great gaming atmosphere. Sirens wail, cars whiz by, footsteps echo convincingly in dark alleys, and miscellaneous background sounds build convincing mood and atmosphere. The game’s musical score also shows the same level of inventiveness; ’80s synths set the time tone, but tinny jazz can be heard in grotty bars and stirring orchestral tracks provide a marvelous backdrop to the game’s big reveals and action scenes.
When it comes to the action scenes, exploration, detective work, or just chewing the fat with other Fables, Telltale has stuck with the simple-yet-effective control system that made The Walking Dead an easy delight to play. You can move using the left stick, the right stick changes your viewpoint, and where interaction is required, Triangle, Square, etc. can be selected to examine, talk, pick up objects, and the like, depending on what your eyes have come to rest on. Combat is handled with a series of quick-time events with just the right amount of timing to make it frantic and fun, but never frustrating. Using the same simple control system from The Walking Dead, albeit one that looks cleaner, means the game can be quickly picked up and played by novices and fans alike.
But you don’t play a Telltale game for the combat, fun though it may be; what a player wants here is a great plot, meaningful dialogue, choices that change gameplay, and actions that have consequences, and The Wolf Among Us provides all these in abundance. Some of the player’s game choices will have instant effects, while some are stored away to seemingly cause trouble or aid the player in the game’s future chapters. Yet again, a simple press of a face button will allow the player to respond in a variety of ways to conversation options. A nice twist is that these options change not only as characters react to your conversation, but also as you find clues and use them to confront witnesses about their suspicious stories.
I was instantly sucked into the world of The Wolf Among Us, and I found it dripped atmosphere like a chain-smoking private eye drips ash. The engaging plot, where casual violence mixes bloodily with stories from your childhood, is instantly engaging, and I love the Fables setting and characters, all of which Telltale has treated with respect. The game can easily bring a wry smile to your face, make you jump, or disturb you, as the folks you remember as kid’s characters swear, smoke of just come off as complete bastards. Meanwhile, the game’s two-hour runtime is great value for your money, as Faith will only set you back five dollars (less, if you opt for the series-spanning Season Pass). Through choice and consequences presented to the player, The Wolf Among Us also encourages multiple playthroughs, only adding to its value proposition.
I really enjoyed the first chapter of The Wolf Among Us and, in multiple playthroughs, found little that could be improved. The almost-bare Trophy cabinet is rather mundane (not entirely surprising, given the story’s episodic nature), and I would’ve liked to have seen Trophies based on choices, or taking both sides of a good cop-bad cop situation, but as it stands, only chapter completion and a single exploratory Trophy round out this first episode. However, my trophy concerns are just a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent game. If you enjoyed Telltale’s Walking Dead series, like graphical adventures, or are a Fables comic fan, then I recommend you pick up the first chapter of this game. If, at the end of it, you’re not desperate for the next installment, I’m not the detective I think I am.