Note: this review may contain spoilers for both previous and current episodes of The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. While I will endeavor not to spoil any major plot points in the current episode, I cannot say the same for episodes past, so consider this your fair warning.
Playing Telltale Games’ products in a public setting can be risky business. For example, at the end of The Walking Dead: Season One, the player is faced with a grisly choice after Lee Everett gets bitten by a zombie towards the game’s finale: do you chop off your arm to stymie the infection or do you let it fester and spread faster? Given the gravity of the situation – and that I was trying to buy myself time to rescue Clementine – I opted for the former. What I didn’t expect was the gruesome detail that followed as Christa’s hatchet bit into the sinews of Lee’s arm. I recoiled in my seat. Specifically my aisle seat on a red eye flight from Los Angeles to Boston. Did I mention I was on a plane? Because I was, and neither I nor the middle-aged woman behind me who was watching my screen in abject horror seemed to take into account what was about to unfurl. Naturally, ever since then, I have been more cautious about where and when I play Telltale Games and it’s a good thing because the opening sequence of The Wolf Among Us‘s fourth episode, In Sheep’s Clothing, is like to induce a similar reaction.
The finale of episode 3 was a jaw-dropper, to say the least. After chasing his own tail all over town and dealing with herrings red and otherwise, Bigby finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun as the game’s true antagonists, Bloody Mary and the Crooked Man, step out from the shadows to make their presence known. Bloodied and broken, Bigby is forced to give up Crane to save Snow and himself (at least in my playthrough he did) and barely clinging to life after taking a belly full of silver buckshot courtesy of Bloody Mary. Episode 3 picks up in the immediate aftermath as a blood-soaked Snow White watches Dr. Swineheart extract silver bullet shards from Bigby’s torso. The bullets come out easily; setting Bigby’s snapped twig of a forearm back together requires a bit more effort on the part of the player and their intestinal fortitude.
Compared to the frantic, visceral narrative haymaker delivered by A Crooked Mile, In Sheep’s Clothing feels like a calm before the storm. With his only lead lost to his newly outed foe, the Magic Mirror smashed to pieces, and a growing rift between the way Snow wants things done, by the book, and the way Bigby gets things done, by any means necessary, our hero is left with little else to do than lick his wounds. Yet, Bigby is never one for lying around even if it means that he could die in the process, and that struggle between embracing his inner monster and proving that he’s more than a Big Bad storybook villain is the crux of In Sheep’s Clothing‘s narrative thrust.
As Bigby continues to uncover the seedy underbelly of Fabletown, it becomes clear that nothing is as cut and dry as it initially seems. Even the sleazier characters we come across during our journey have their reasons for doing what they do, something hanging above their head like a guillotine waiting out of sight. Chances are that the Crooked Man is the one holding the rope that keeps the blade at bay, and that is something that terrifies Bigby whether he’s willing to admit it or not. Snow may believe in the necessity of law and order and due process, but deep down, both she and Bigby know that when the time comes all bets are off.
Once again, The Wolf Among Us makes us feel like time is of the essence as we must choose which leads to pursue. Heading to one location first makes for an entirely different experience and the potential to completely miss certain characters (or the chance to punch them). One can definitely feel the sting of getting to a potential crime scene or enemy hideout a hair too late, bloodstains on the floor and the barest suggestion of a clue whispering in your ear, taunting you, driving you mad with hypotheticals. The Wolf Among Us is a game of conviction and Bigby is a man who stands by his decisions even when they blow up in his face. It’s this thrill of the hunt that In Sheep’s Clothing doles out so well and a constant, creeping sense of dread that there’s a ticking clock your investigation are about to come to a screeching halt.
In episodes past, I’ve read complaints that the quick-time events take people out of the moment and break the illusion of the story. This is utterly baffling to me as I find those moments of frantic button-mashing to be a perfect system shock during narrative doldrums, a seismic event that is integral to the game’s balance. One fight in particular with a new, foul-mouthed, mustachioed agent of the Crooked Man had me dodging and ducking alongside Bigby as I desperately scanned the room for a way to neutralize my assailant. It may not be a perfect system, but these are the valves that pump adrenaline and blood into the beating heart of an adventure game that lies under its gritty, neon-washed exterior.
My biggest complaint about In Sheep’s Clothing is that it feels too short. The episode’s final moments are a tense, taut thrill, but when the game faded to black, I found myself wanting more. It’s a good problem to have in some regards because the game managed to hook me in, but an additional 30 minutes or so would have been appreciated. Still, for the bargain basement price of $5, you’re getting an awful lot of bang for your buck.
And speaking of money, even in Fabletown, it’s the root of all evil, and the Crooked Man has it in spades. Sure, we’re transported to a fantastical version of New York with mythical creatures, beer-swilling bogeymen, surly talking frogs, and exotic dancing versions of the Little Mermaid (or, in some cases, Bigby), but they all have bills to pay. Fabletown is a murky reflection of its storybook counterpart, a rainbow of grays refracted through a dirty prism, and as Bigby delves deeper into what lies beneath the surface, he doesn’t like what he sees. This is a hard, unforgiving city and its citizens do what they must to eke out a living. Sometimes what they do isn’t very pretty and in true Telltale fashion, Bigby will remember that.
Rating: 4/5 burritos
The Wolf Among Us: In Sheep’s Clothing is available now for PC, Mac, PS3, and Xbox 360, and on 5/29 to iOS devices too. This review was based on a playthrough on the PC version using a code provided by Telltale Games.
What did you think of In Sheep’s Clothing? Let us know in the comments below or tell me on Twitter.