Fresh off the incredible success of the first season of its The Walking Dead adaptation, Telltale Games is now faced with the almost insurmountable task of trying to match the lofty heights of Lee and Clem’s walker-dodging misadventures. In order to attempt this feat, it's adopted the Fables comic franchise as the basis of its new five-episode series. With a source material that cites fairy tales and classic literature as its inspiration, an incredibly deep and well established universe already exists for the studio to work its magic with – and boy does the developer wave its wand in The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1 - Faith.
To give a brief explanation of what the Fables series concerns, the world’s most beloved literary villains and heroes have been transferred from their unified fantasy world and forced into ours – New York specifically. Living out of a magically hidden district of Manhattan called Fabletown, these beings have had to come to terms with not only losing everything that they’ve ever known, but the violence, sex, and moral ambiguity that comprises this alien world. Think of it as a weird hybrid of Kingdom Hearts and The Watchmen’s moral debauchery, or, if you prefer, that awful film Enchanted – if it were remotely realistic.
All of the characters, or Fables as they prefer to be called, are near-enough God-like, boasting rapid healing and a long life span – as well as their abilities from their respective stories, if they had any. In order to remain inconspicuous, the Fables must use a magical spell to alter their appearance called a glamour. From dialogue in the game, it seems that these spells are very expensive, and most Fables are forced to do less than objectionable things to not only stay afloat, but remain hidden from the rest of society.
If for whatever reason a Fable is deemed unfit for Fabletown, whether it's down to criminal offences or that no amount of glamour will shield their appearance, they’re sent to an area of upstate New York called The Farm. The residents of Fabletown speak of this place unfavourably, and there’s no doubt in our mind that it’ll play a pivotal role in the coming episodes.
We went into this first chapter knowing nothing of the Fables universe, but fortunately the game does a fantastic job of bringing you up to speed, with entries in the 'Book of Fables' unlocking as you proceed and acting as an encyclopaedia of sorts. It truly is a fascinating and marvellously realised universe, and while it may seem strange to see Mr. Toad cussing and The Woodsman beating a young woman, it makes more sense as the episode progresses and you familiarise yourself with the world and its intricacies.
You command the role of Bigby Wolf, or in another life, The Big Bad Wolf, sheriff of Fabletown. Rather predictably, he’s not well liked by the locals, but it’s up to him to bring swift justice to a highly volatile neighbourhood and to ensure that it keeps a low profile to avoid outside interference. We daren’t reveal any narrative developments, but the story sees Bigby play the role of a detective of sorts, roughing up goons, chasing perps, investigating crime scenes, and struggling with Fabletown’s seemingly anti-poor government.
The Wolf Among Us is constructed in a very similar manner to The Walking Dead series in that the choices that you make tailor your experience. It also features an identical control scheme, making it easier to pick up and play, and the heads-up display has been noticeably cleaned up since the developer's last outing. The quick time event action sequences also feel less cluttered, allowing for you to further appreciate what’s happening on-screen, rather than focusing on mashing complicated button combinations.
Dialogue choices are back, but as Bigby is a bit of a misery, the responses are usually limited to grumbling, snapping at any moment, or going full on ballistic. Normally this would be an issue if it were any other character, but Bigby’s back story is well detailed and the game makes a point of ensuring that you see him discuss his sorrows with a friend, allowing for you to sympathise with him a little.
Major decisions also return, but rather than the black and white ‘which person do you want to save’ dilemmas of The Walking Dead, among other things, Bigby must prioritise taking down one of two fleeing suspects with untold repercussions. We believe that handling things this way keeps the story unpredictable, forcing you to think like a detective and select the suspect carrying the biggest threat, rather than simply choosing to kill off the character that you least like. That’s not to say that the decisions aren't difficult to make, but this approach is completely different and complements the narrative perfectly.
Two things that The Walking Dead was applauded for in particular was excellent voice acting and its comic-faithful art direction, but The Wolf Among Us is happy to go toe-to-toe on both fronts. Set 20 years before the current line of comics, Telltale Games has masterfully masked its creaky engine once again with another unique art direction – a peculiar combination of film noir and trashy 80s neon. The result is stunning, with environments that look far more interesting than they ought to and a suitably moody score that backs the action. As for the acting, all of the Fables that we came across played their parts perfectly, managing to avoid the pitfall of completely overacting, which is the only way that we’ve ever seen these characters portrayed before. It’s important to remember that these are extraordinary people living ordinary lives – they’re not pantomime heroes and villains anymore.
If there’s one thing wrong with this opening episode it’s that, as with all of the developer's previous titles, you can almost hear the game engine groan under the weight of computing your dialogue choices. Loading takes a considerable amount of time and the gameplay noticeably chugs for a short while once it resumes, with occasionally out of sync dialogue, which is a real shame. Having said that, the engine does seem to have been given a slight kick up the backside, with character movement and facial animations seeing a marked improvement over its predecessors.
Marred only by an engine that’s really starting to show its age, The Wolf Among Us would’ve been interesting enough as a straight up crime thriller, but its literary basis makes it a completely different beast. With a story that’s as disturbing and shocking as it is gripping, Telltale Games’ first episode ends on such a cliff-hanger that we may need to go and buy the anthology of comics to tide us over until episode two.