It's a killer setup for a mystery: Hundreds of storybook fables have relocated to New York. One man — the Big Bad Wolf — is in charge of keeping order. And now, someone is murdering fables. That's the premise for The Wolf Among Us, a new game based on Vertigo's popular Fables comics. And while the game is often as cool as its premise, something's still a bit off about it.
The Wolf Among Us is a new five-part episodic adventure game series from Telltale, the studio that so wowed everyone last year with their fantastic, game-of-the-year nominated Walking Dead series. This time around, they're adapting Bill Willingham's Vertigo comic series Fables, which takes famous characters from popular stories — Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Cinderella and the Big Bad Wolf among them — and drops them into modern-day New York.
The new game is set up as a prequel to the comics — in it, players take control of Bigby Wolf, the hirsute, gruff human version of the Big Bad Wolf himself. It's the early 80s in New York, and there's been a murder in Fabletown. Bigby's the man to get to the bottom of it.
The first chapter of Bigby's big adventure, titled "Faith," comes out digitally tomorrow for Xbox 360 and PC, and next Tuesday on PS3. It's a very cool adventure — the writing is sharp and often bracing in a way that effectively conjures the comics, and the art style is gorgeous. It is generally easy to recommend, and if you're into the books, you'll doubtless get a lot out of the game. And yet there's something about it — or maybe some things about it — that leave the finished game feeling a bit out of whack.
For starters, the question lingers as to who, exactly, The Wolf Among Us is for. It's plenty fun for those who have read and liked the comics, though some of the plot twists won't hold us in all that much suspense, given that we already know what happens in the future. But I have to wonder what those who haven't read the books will think of the game, or at least, what they'll think of its first chapter.
If you're going to play The Wolf Among Us, I really would recommend taking a bit of time to read a couple trades of the comics first. At the very least, read Mike's great breakdown of what Fables is all about, and what so many of us like about the comics.
It's not necessarily a huge deal for newcomers, but plenty of important things about the Fables world are left unexplained in the game — it's mentioned that the Fables have been exiled, but The Adversary gets nary a word. It's never made clear why Fables are tough to kill, and Willingham's (clever!) explanation that mundy belief makes some Fables tougher than others never comes up. There's no mention of the general amnesty, and The Farm doesn't really get a great explanation, despite the fact that it's mentioned frequently.
In a lot of ways, "Faith" feels like a re-hash of the first few issues of the Fables comic, in which Bigby solves the murder of Snow's sister, Rose Red. Then again, I didn't really like that storyline much, either — I didn't get all that into Fables until things with The Adversary began to heat up. Meanwhile in the game, characters like Grimble, Bufkin and even Bluebeard drop in and out at the margins in ways that non-readers will likely totally miss.
The episode has a host of small technical issues that, over the course of its 2-ish hour run, add up to noticeably detract from the overall experience. I played the Xbox 360 version, and while Telltale's PR assures me that the release version will have a few bugs patched, the overall performance problems I was seeing were consistent enough with the problems The Walking Dead had to make me think that they'll be in the final version, too. With The Walking Dead, it was easier to forgive technical shortcomings, since the game felt a bit like Telltale's large-stage debut. But it doesn't feel like asking too much to hope that the Telltale of 2013 might find a way to scrub a bit more of the jank out of their games.
Half the times that the camera cuts to a new angle, everything will freeze momentarily, as though the game can't transition between angles without pausing to get everything set. The framerate on 360 was choppy, and sometimes would slow to a crawl or even momentarily freeze, particularly when the action heated up. Most distractingly, there were loading screens every couple of minutes, each of which lasted anywhere from fifteen to 30 seconds. The lack of polish bummed me out, not because I demand every game I play work perfectly, but because I couldn't help but think about how much easier it would be to enjoy The Wolf Among Us if I wasn't encountering hitches and blank loading screens every minute or two. It's possible that the PC version of the game will run more smoothly — I'll try that out when it unlocks on Friday and will update with a note here one way or the other.
The game's controls also leave something to be desired, though they're mostly an improvement on The Walking Dead. Interactions for objects in the environment are tied to the controller buttons in a way that, at least with the 360's colour-coded buttons, made intuitive sense to me. Press Y to look, press X to talk, and press A or B to engage gently or violently. That said, some of the conversational options can be confusing — at one point during a conversation in a bar, the game presented "glass him" as an option. I selected it, thinking, I don't know, maybe it meant Bigby would pour him a drink, or clink their glasses together? Nope, Bigby broke a glass on the guy's face, dramatically changing the tenor of the conversation. Whoops!
The fight sequences are also more than a bit squirrely. When it comes time to punch or kick an enemy, you'll have to use the thumbstick to line up one circle with another circle before quickly hitting either the right or left trigger, depending on a prompt that appears. This system presents a number of problems: Both your cursor and target are red circles, making it visually confusing and difficult to quickly identify which circle you're controlling and which you should be aiming for. Sometimes the eventual prompt will tell you to hit the right trigger and sometimes the left trigger, but I couldn't determine why I was being asked to hit one and not the other.
Why is the right door keyed to the left trigger?
Why is this window also keyed to the left trigger?
As usual, I'll allow for the fact that some of this is user error, but I can't help but wish that the game's action had been more logical and flowing. I should say that at a couple points, the game uses the simplest of QTEs — tap the button really fast! — to great effect. But if combat in these types of games is going to be this crusty, it really needs to be either substantially improved or substantially streamlined.
Then again, most people won't play The Wolf Among Us for the combat; they'll play it because they want to step into the Fables universe and go on a new adventure. For the most part, the game delivers on that promise, though even there some things feel a touch lacking.
For starters, there's Bigby himself. He certainly looks good — and more broadly, David Bogan's sharp, high-contrast art direction effectively channels Mark Buckingham's iconic work in the comics, and the pink/black colour motif works perfectly for a neon-drenched noir. At its best, The Wolf Among Us looks — pardon the marketing lingo — like a particularly lush comic book come to life.
But the issue isn't with how Bigby looks, it's more about how he sounds. Actor Adam Harrington does a perfectly serviceable job of bringing Bigby to life, but something about his performance lacks the barely-restrained violence that I've always imagined lurks in the low rasps of Bigby's voice. It's certainly not a bad performance, but it's a little bit less substantial than the role demands.
That feeling of mild flimsiness carries over to some aspects of how Bigby's been written — in the game, it's often as though he's just some run-of-the-mill werewolf, rather than a massive, magically concealed beast with borderline demigod powers. In the comics, Bigby explains that his senses are so finely attuned that he can basically smell and hear every citizen in New York City at once. He's deadly in a fight and nearly omniscient on the battlefield. But in the game, other characters can and will repeatedly get the drop on him by simply hiding out of sight or creeping up behind him. And are we really to believe that he wouldn't immediately be able to identify Tweedle-Dee? Even in the early years of Fabletown, that seems like a stretch.
That said, I get the need to limit some of Bigby's powers, if only for balance's sake, and for the most part, the characters are true to the comics. Bigby's conversation options, in particular, made me feel very much as though I was watching the wolf-man himself. I don't envy writer Pierre Shorette and his team, since they must serve the dual purposes of pleasing Fables fans while neither drowning new players in exposition or presuming so much knowledge that those who haven't read the books will be lost. For the most part, they're doing a good job of balancing between the two — and it's clear that they have a great grasp on Fables and what makes it cool — but the result is probably unavoidably a bit dulled on both ends.
I worry that in my efforts to explain the small things that didn't quite connect for me, I'm making it sound like The Wolf Among Us is nothing but problems. That's certainly not the case. Overall, I very much enjoyed the first chapter. I laughed, I grinned, and I was really happy to get to see familiar faces and places from the comics. My slight disappointment with Bigby aside, the voice cast is strong, with longtime Telltale voice-actor Chuck Kourouklis turning in a particularly slick performance as the downtrodden Mr. Toad.
In my favourite scene, Bigby and Snow sit in the back of a cab as she voices doubts about her ability to bring about change under Fabletown's then-deputy mayor Ichabod Crane. Bigby assures her that if she sticks with it, she can make a real difference. For those of us who know these characters and what the future holds for them, scenes like that are the best sort of prequel fan-service: small, sweet moments that actually tell us a little bit more about the characters we love. Best of all, it's just a good scene, even for those who haven't read the books. More of that kind of stuff in the next episodes please, Telltale!
The Wolf Among Us is, so far, easy to recommend — it's a sharp-looking, well-written adventure that should appeal to anyone who likes the Fables comics while at the same time bringing in some new fans. And despite the odd disconnect I felt with the first episode, I'm hopeful that Telltale will find a groove and ramp up their momentum as the series gets underway.