The Wolf Among Us Season One Review: All bark
The makings of a truly memorable Telltale adventure can be seen in the opening episode of the Fables adaptation, The Wolf Among Us, but the potential showcased in the premiere—the detective elements, the politicking out of distrust, the often deadly decision making—remains untapped at the conclusion of the finale. If anything, the first season of The Wolf Among Us assuaged doubts that Bill Willingham’s dark fairy tale series could work outside of the comics. Telltale undoubtedly penned a story worth telling in the gaming medium, but the execution betrays the otherwise stellar narrative.
Working alongside Snow White, players control Bigby Wolf, the former Big Bad Wolf turned sheriff, who finds himself embroiled in a rare homicide case. A brilliant opening scene both pays homage to its source material while establishing its distinct mark as a dark, neo-noir prequel set amidst the pulsating neon heat of New York City circa 1986.
The stark divide between heroes and villains runs muddy in Fabletown—the subsection of Manhattan where the characters of folklore and mythology call home following an exile from their homelands—as themes of losing one’s identity coalesce with hooking fables losing their heads. The need to hide away from the mundane, human world butts heads with an uncaring, biased political office that charges increasing amounts of money for disguising spells called glamours. And citizens see what little freedom they possess siphoned away from them by unseen forces within the clandestine community.
Freedom, of course, is a major component to the Telltale design philosophy. Players find themselves under the gun, making both dialogue and narrative choices with little time to carefully consider each option. Though the system can only offer so much leverage, when done with some panache, the developer’s style of gameplay can deliver a grand sense of agency through its subsequent results, as was the case with the lauded first season of The Walking Dead series.
The Wolf Among Us shows promise in the first episode. Two potential crime scenes demand your attention, but which to go to first? A life may depend on your decision. An impromptu interrogation requires players to quickly analyze an unkempt living room in order to outwit their verbal sparring partner. And players can respond to an inquiry into their case with silence, either as a sign of uncertainty or as an indication of distrust. Though these ideas don’t go full bore here, as part of the premiere episode, they hint at tantalizing possibilities down the line.
But as the season goes on, choices become less and less significant and any variety in plot generally comes down to a few lines of dialogue. Whether you posses the proper acumen for the case details becomes irrelevant when most investigations are resolved with coincidental occurrences outside the player’s influence. Instead of piecing together a puzzle, you find yourself following breadcrumbs from one scene to the next. The repetition of this convention becomes distracting when playing all five episodes concurrently.
The Wolf Among Us falls back on old gaming standards with its decision-making: choosing your consequence instead of choosing the causation of those effects. The beauty of The Walking Dead’s morality system came from ambiguity; fairly minute decisions drew battle lines, leading to unintended death and mutiny in the unforeseeable future. The game was less about the do-or-die means of survival and more about how one socially integrates into a group of hostile survivors. Players didn’t choose their destiny so much as they made decisions that influenced their outward visage, which in turn brought about the beats of their journey. In The Wolf Among Us, the mystery of decision-making is lost sans for one excellent conundrum during the season’s taut and tense third episode. Otherwise, it’s a rehash of tired Paragon and Renegade options.
In spite of the inconsequential gameplay, the narrative and its thematic underpinnings work quite well. Telltale doesn’t squander the source material, using the simple parables to play with genre conventions without falling into hammy cliché. Intermixed with the vibrant art style and moody score, and The Wolf Among Us sets an undeniable tone.
It’s unfortunate that the intoxicating atmosphere has to vie for attention with poor framerate and distracting audio to visual synch issues, as per usual with many Telltale releases. (Apparently these hiccups aren’t quite as noticeable on the PC as they are on the consoles.) And, of course, Quick Time Events are strewn throughout with middling success. The designers at times find clever uses out of these sequences, but generally they divulge into mindless button-mashing.
As a fable, The Wolf Among Us builds up to a moral lesson, one that smartly smacks of bitter irony while taking advantage of the interactive medium, but taken within the context of the unsatisfying gameplay, the various twist and turns don’t pack nearly the wallop they potentially could. And really, that’s the major flaw of The Wolf Among Us: that it does so much right and hints at the towering heights it could achieve, only to go tumbling down hill. Fans of the Fables series and players that can overlook the lack of interactivity should consider exploring the dark fairy tale. For everyone else, hopefully the debut serves as a sign of great things to come with the all-but-certain second season.