Monday, October 28, 2013

The Wolf Among Us review - game noir

I’ve never read a single issue of the Fables comic, but that makes me the perfect audience for The Wolf Among Us.

It takes a simple premise and flips it on its side. All the fairy tales we heard about as kids, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the seven dwarfs, Jack and the beanstalk, they’re all real. But rather than living happily ever after, they were forced from their homes by ‘The Adversary’ and now live in a place called Fabletown in New York City, where they live among normal people hiding their true identities with spells called glamour making make them look human.

No one is living happily ever after in Fabletown, though. It’s a dark and sleazy place where spotty yellow streetlights illuminate a boulevard of broken dreams in between abandoned alleyways and neon pink signs advertising live nude girls. The Wolf Among Us looks as if someone dipped a brush in paint can of 1980s comic book colors and splattered it across the screen, nailing down even the dotted look of Bigby’s beard. It’s impressive considering all of this is in the same engine Telltale has been using since 2005.

And while The Wolf Among Us may look unique, it plays unabashedly familiar. If you played last year’s The Walking Dead from Telltale, you’ll know exactly what I mean. You play as Bigby, the reformed Big Bad Wolf, now sheriff of Fabletown. After a gruesome murder, you must find clues, track down leads, and talk to suspects all in the same vein as The Walking Dead. Your choices again can lead you down different paths, but ultimately they wind back around, to the same shattering end, which is even more intriguing if you have read the Fables comic series.

Bigby himself, however, walks a narrower moral path than Lee from The Walking Dead did, giving him a wider array to either assume his peace-keeping position as sheriff, or abuse his power to get what he wants. While Telltale kept Lee’s background mostly a mystery that players have the chance to shape, the Big Bad Wolf is a known entity. He’s done terrible things, and while his past crimes are forgiven, they’re not forgotten. This gives considerable leeway in the way he can interact with other characters from giving Mr. Toad a break and only admonishing him for not having a glamour, to literally ripping an arm off during a bar fight.

It’s hard to think Telltale could match last year’s The Walking Dead in terms of quality storytelling with both of its lead writers, Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, leaving to form their own studio. But The Wolf Among Us manages to form a fluid and coherent narrative that’s on par, if not more consistent than The Walking Dead. At its core, it’s a noir detective story in a world with fantastical characters and magic, yet it still feels grounded and plausible. Apart from the occasionally frog here and there, it’s a game defined by fairy tale characters who look human and try to make human choices.

The Wolf Among Us, and by extension Fabletown, is filled with mystery and intrigue among its characters. Not only did it leave me wanting to see how Telltale represents other fairy tale characters, but also how they play into the story and their interaction with Bigby. Setting up a world the player wants to come back to is hard, especially when making that world seem dark and gritty. The Wolf Among Us finds a way to implement that undertone against the background of normally cheery and happy fairy tale characters, while not coming off as a flimsy, cheap trick. I’m invested enough to see where this goes, now take me on a tale.

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