Note: there may be some minor spoilers in this description, but major plot points have been omitted because who wants a mystery ruined for them right off the bat, huh?
Murder. Intrigue. Scotch-swilling pigs. That’s right, America, Telltale’s latest offering, The Wolf Among Us, has all of this and more. As I mentioned last week when the teaser trailer dropped, the Fables-inspired adventure game is one of the titles I am most excited to play this fall. Last week, in an alternately tony and tacky suite at the W Hotel in L.A.’s Westwood neighborhood, I sat down with members of Telltale’s development team, including the game’s lead writer Pierre Shorette, for an in-depth gameplay presentation that covered roughly half of the game’s first episode.
Notice how I said first episode? Much like their terrific The Walking Dead series, The Wolf Among Us is following an episodic release plan, 5 in total for $5 a pop, giving you roughly 10-15 hours of gameplay for $25 when all’s said and done, although if its anything like its zombie-filled predecessor – and it is – those 10 to 15 hours will be so engrossing that they’ll feel like a lot longer. Judging by the gameplay I saw during the demo, it’s entirely possible to blast through the chapter in a couple hours, but if you approach these games like I do, combing every inch of the environment and exploring every nook and cranny for clues, you’ll get your five dollars’ worth and then some.
Whether they intended to do so or not, one of the telltale signs that you’re playing a Telltale game is that it opens on the protagonist looking moody in the back of a car. With The Walking Dead, it was Lee Everett sitting in the back of a police cruiser. With 400 Days, we saw Vince shackled in the back of a prison bus. And now, The Wolf Among Us continues that proud tradition by opening on Bigby Wolf, the one-time Big Bad Wolf who is now the resident sheriff of Fabletown, glowering at the world outside the window of his taxi. The buildings pass by in a blur before pulling into focus as the cab comes to a halt in front of a dingy tenement lit by the burning fluorescent glow of neon signs aplenty.
This doesn’t look like modern day New York; the signage and posters on bus stations for fake movies like Mongoose, an action picture with a protagonist that looks suspiciously like Snake Plissken, give the suggestion that this is the 1980s or Taxi Driver-era New York City. In other words, this takes place before the Fables we’ve come to know and love, which for my money is a smart call, narratively speaking. Shorette confirms that this is a prequel, so this isn’t the gruff family man that we’ve come to know and love in the comics; this is a Bigby who is still struggling to find himself and prove to the residents of Fabletown that he’s not just a violent sociopath, he’s a violent sociopath that cares about the community’s well-being. But that’ll come later; first Bigby has to deal with the sounds of domestic violence and a very irate Mr. Toad (of The Wind in the Willows fame).
Toad, it seems, is the landlord of this fine bit of public housing, but first the player has the option to dress him down for looking like a 3 foot tall anthropomorphic toad. It’s moments like these where the game wisely doffs its cap to series lore, explaining that non-human Fables must purchase glamors, spells that make them look like a human to onlookers, particularly mundies (the series’ term for “humans” or “mundanes”). The Wolf Among Us is unique in that Bigby is already an established character. Equal parts Wolverine and Sherlock Holmes, players can choose to roleplay the character they know and love from the comics or they can strike out on their own, using Bigby as a cipher, a tabula rasa on which to project themselves. It was a dichotomy that Shorette struggled with, but one he’s ultimately intrigued by, since it puts the choice firmly in the player’s court.
After putting Toad in his place or leaving him to his own crotchety devices, Bigby heads upstairs to an apartment where The Woodsman, looking like a drunk, less handsome version of the Brawny man, is smacking around a call girl, who we quickly learn is another Fable herself. Like most violent creeps, The Woodsman doesn’t take kindly to being called on his shit, and comes after Bigby with a vengeance. As in The Walking Dead, the action has more of a cinematic quality to it, with on-screen prompts that are more in line with Heavy Rain‘s style of gameplay than the frantic, infuriating Quick Time Events of Resident Evil infamy. The bedroom brawl is a brutal affair that presents the players with multiple mid-combat options. Do you try to slam him into the sink or bash his head on the counter? The choice, grisly though it may be, is yours, and that is the prevailing gameplay mechanic of the series. The experience is shaped and molded by the player rather than a completely linear, preprogrammed route. Granted, in many instances, this is but the illusion of choice, but it’s an illusion that works.
The dev controlling the demo threw our assailant towards the sink, but he managed to brace himself and grab a knife in the process. Bad move. He comes at us with a quickness, causing us to frantically mash our action button until we have a chance to pry him off of us. Eventually, we crack him in the jaw, breaking it in two. At least that’s what the Woodsman told us through a mouthful of blood and broken bone. The call girl Fable isn’t exactly forthcoming, and before we can interrogate her too much, we’re tackled by the Woodsman through the window, sending us both hurtling down to the street below and giving Mr. Toad’s car insurance agent a mountain of paperwork in the process. The donnybrook continues on the streets below, and the tide turns against our hero as the Woodsman chokes the life from his practically immortal eyes against a nearby bus stop when suddenly the sickening sound of an axe penetrating flesh and bone rings out. It’s the call girl. She just buried the Woodsman’s iconic weapon deep inside his cerebellum. He’s not dead, though. It’s tough to kill a Fable. Case in point: The Woodsman’s body is missing shortly after Bigby questions the femme fatale. Leave it to Bigby to leave a crime scene with more questions than he came into it with.
The frenetic, frantic pace of the previous location gives way to a more relaxed, contemplative vibe once Bigby returns to The Woodlands, the luxury apartment complex that houses many of the New York Fables. Fables fans will find many familiar faces throughout – in our trip to the mayor’s office alone, we ran into Ichabod Crane, the Man in the Mirror (voiced by Gavin Hammon, who also portrayed Kenny in The Walking Dead), Snow White, Colin (one of the Three Little Pigs), and everyone’s fan-favorite flying monkey, Bufkin. Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games where Fabletown is concerned. After a particularly depressing, existential conversation with Colin the Pig, Bigby is awoken with a rapping on his door. It’s Snow White, and there’s something he needs to see. Out front, beneath a lily white sheet, is a severed head. Not just any head though – it’s a Fable. A dead one, which is a feat unto itself where Fables are concerned. Now, the mystery is well and truly afoot. Or a head, I suppose. Either way, the adventure is just beginning….
Graphically, the game is a comic book fan’s dream come true, as the visual aesthetic brings Bill Willingham’s creations to glorious HD life and maintains the heavily outlined comic book style. It doesn’t look clunky or drab like other cel-shaded titles – The Wolf Among Us has a vivid color palette that contrasts the bright pinks and blues of Fabletown/New York’s neon signs with the grime and squalor of a Bronx tenement building. The result is a bit reminiscent of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive in how it seamlessly blends the glitz and glamor with the gritty underbelly of the city in a supremely stylized fashion.
In terms of gameplay, it looks and feels remarkably similar to The Walking Dead, which is not a bad thing. Telltale has managed to modernize the point-and-click adventure game model that served companies like Lucasarts so well in the past. Crafting a well-rounded, emotional and interactive narrative is no easy feat, but Shorette and company make it look easy. Choice is still paramount, and I’ve learned that the passage of time will have an effect on the gameplay experience too. You can’t be everywhere at once. This is a lesson that was driven home by one of the game’s major choices towards the end of the demo: do you go to interrogate a key witness before something happens to him, or do you go to help Mr. Toad, who seems to be in danger himself. Telltale knows how to pull its players in multiple directions and push our emotional buttons; the very fact that I can’t interrogate the witness and protect Toad is evidence of that fact, and ultimately it makes for a more memorable gameplay experience.
In terms of faithfulness to the source material, The Wolf Among Us knocks it out of the park. The voice acting is predictably terrific. Even though many of the voices don’t sound as I had imagined them in my head, I found them to be well acted and strong fits for the characters, aesthetically speaking. Of particular note is Adam Harrington’s Bigby Wolf, who manages to strike that balance between Wolverine and Raylan Givens that really brings the Big Bad Wolf to life and shows off an impressive range (as well as plenty of different ways to drop an F-bomb). It’s one of those instantly comforting and relatable voices like Joel in The Last of Us or Lee in The Walking Dead that draws you in deeper into the game world in all the right ways.
If you’re looking for a firm release date, then you’re out of luck. Even with Bigby’s overpowered olfactory senses, I couldn’t sniff out anything firmer than a release window from late September to early October. As I mentioned earlier, the episode will retail for $4.99 on a variety of platforms, including Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC/Mac. No word on iOS or Android versions at the moment, but it doesn’t take a mythical detective to figure out they’re likely candidates for support down the line.
Final thoughts: In case you couldn’t tell, I am awfully excited to play this game and what I saw in person did not disappoint. Although the build wasn’t quite finished, the skeleton of a truly great game is there, and it looks like that at long last we’ll finally have the Fables adaptation that we always wanted to see on our screens.
What do you think of the game so far? Are you going to pick it up? What would you like to see? Let us know in the comments below!