If you play through it only once, The Wolf Among Us manages to be a fun, gritty little murder mystery involving fairytale characters who have somehow found their way into New York. If you play through it more than once, though, the whole game starts to come apart at the seams, showing you just how little your actions impact the events that play out over the course of the game. Linear and mostly-linear games aren’t a bad thing, mind you, but when a game has nothing else to offer but QTE sequences and a beginning screen that openly lies about the game’s reactivity, that’s a pretty serious problem that all but ruins the fun of your first playthrough.
This is an episodic game
While I don’t usually do episodic games, I was interested in the premise and intrigued by all of the good things I’d heard about it. Still, I waited for all of the episodes to come out, because you can’t judge the entirety of a game on small pieces (5 episodes in The Wolf Among Us’ case) that are drip-fed to you. You just can’t—it’s begging for hype and anticipation to get in the way and color your opinions. Now, I’m usually pretty harsh when it comes to episodic games, but the format does allow for several climaxes and revelations over the course of the story as each episode draws to a close, and this is a nice change of pace from “regular” games that typically build up to a single climax. It keeps the story consistently interesting, and while being subjected to the opening and ending credits five times was a bit on the annoying side, the story ultimately proved to be worth it.
Happily never after
The Wolf Among Us, like all Telltale games, is based on a previously-existing source. In this case, it’s based on the Fables series of comic books and acts as a canonical prequel to the events in the comics. The whole back story is a bit on the weird side, basically being that a bunch of fairytale characters have escaped from their world for whatever reason, only to be subjected to the less magical qualities of the big city. Drugs, poverty, prostitution, bureaucracy, immigration, law enforcement, and a bunch of other issues are touched on, but never elaborated on so as to become preachy. It’s an interesting mix, for sure, even if it’s a bit unsettling to see certain characters after their “happily ever afters” fell through.
The big, bad wolf
You play as Bigby Wolf, or as you more likely already know him, “the big, bad wolf” of Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs fame. Rather than being a villain, however, he’s working on mending his ways, acting as sheriff to the hidden community of fable characters. When a fable’s decapitated head is quite literally left on his doorstep, he and his boss/friend/romantic interest Snow White set out to find the truth behind what happened and bring those responsible to justice. Of course, hardly anyone trusts the legendary wolf to be anything but a merciless killing machine, so he has his work cut out for him.
But you don’t
This game has virtually zero gameplay. While there are a few sections where you can move around and collect clues like in an adventure game, you never need to do anything beyond walking to the next location or clicking on the prompt in front of you. Outside of that, you’re usually sitting through massive amounts of dialogue and making choices. Thing is, none of those choices actually do anything. Yes, you can choose to (for example) give money to this person or that person, but nothing changes either way. At most, you see the money later on in a safe. More often than not, the money you give has no impact on the way things play out at all, meaning you’re effectively throwing it away. It’s a completely meaningless decision.
And those QTE sections!
When you’re not engaged in dialogue or walking two steps to click on something, gameplay consists of QTEs. We’re not talking about Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy QTEs where they’re kind of entertaining, but more of the “mash Q, then press A” variety. Strangely enough, you can fail many of these QTE sections without any penalty. I only found 7 QTEs (most toward the end) that led to a game over screen, with everything else being forgiven. Sure, this means Bigby takes a lot of punches, but that changes nothing in the story or dialogue. At best, then, most QTEs exist to earn you a slightly more flattering interactive cutscene.
There are few choices
The very first thing the game does is tell you that the story adapts to your choices. This is a lie. Choosing different dialogue will occasionally net you one or two unique responses, but two different dialogue choices are just as likely to elicit identical dialogue. None of it changes anything, anyway. There’s one particular instance where you can kill a character at the end that leads to a slightly different last sequence that forces you to explain your actions to a crowd of fellow fables, but your so-called choices otherwise lead to an identical destination.
For example, you’re occasionally given a choice to visit one location before another, but you’ll end up visiting both regardless. There’s also one section of the game that appears timed at first, but you’ll always find the place you’re looking for 14 minutes late regardless of whether you looked for clues for hours or rushed your way there. This is a game that pretends to have choices, but doesn’t.
I proved this to myself
The first time through the game, I played as a compassionate sheriff who tried to do everything the right way. The second time I played through the game, I decided to leave the game alone and see how far I could get with minimal input, allowing the timed dialogue and QTE sequences to run out. To try and make things even more different than my first playthrough, I changed the order in which I visited places. None of this mattered—my ending was identical to the one I earned in my first playthrough. More striking than that, however, was how many QTE sequences would play themselves without any input whatsoever. Like I mentioned earlier, I only found 7 QTEs that led to game over screens when you failed them. There are way more than 7 QTEs in the game, however, so The Wolf Among Us is practically a movie. It requires almost nothing from you as a player.
This lack of control can be infuriating
Since the game is effectively on rails, you have zero control over anything that happens. Sure, you can promise Snow White that you won’t transform into your more threatening wolf form and/or go crazy because of villains, but you as a player have no actual ability to keep this promise. No matter what, you’ll transform again as part of the story. Likewise, you can make everyone angry at you and completely botch the trial for the main villain, but he’ll still be found guilty by the community. These things (and many, many others) are predetermined.
Tedium during subsequent playthroughs
The first time you play through the game, listening to all of the dialogue is no problem. The second and third time, however, you’ll be wishing for a “skip this line of dialogue” button. No such button seems to exist, which only makes receiving identical dialogue after making different choices all the more stinging. Honestly, at a certain point I loaded up Cheat Engine and used the “speedhack” to speed up the pace of the game’s dialogue. Would it really be so hard to let players skip lines of dialogue that they’ve heard several times already?
Checkpoint saves are the devil
Seriously, how is it that we’re allowing games to still use checkpoint saves? Having the game save automatically after each scene sounds hassle-free, but scenes are 10 or so minutes long. What happens when you have to quit the game to, say, extinguish a fire or placate an angry neighbor? You’re suddenly forced to sit through all of that dialogue once more (again, without any ability to skip lines). This is just lazy game design that makes things inconvenient for no reason.
The rules aren’t explained
Early in the game, you see a fable character take an axe to the back of the head and survive. Toward the end of the game, a character gets stabbed with a knife and dies. The comics apparently explain this by reasoning that the more popular the fable is, the more powerful and resilient its characters become, but I can’t recall this ever being explained in the game. This disconnect creates a situation where some characters are weirdly mortal while others can withstand superhuman amounts of damage with no in-game explanation for this disparity.
The ending was disappointing
Throughout The Wolf Among Us, you’re constantly told that you’re dabbling in things beyond your control. The main villain, whoever he/she/it is, is made out to be an incredibly powerful mastermind who’s feared and respected in equal measure. Actually facing said villain in the end, however, proves to be massively disappointing compared to this build-up. They’re simply a pathetic excuse of a character who’s B-rate in every sense, nothing like I had expected given everything I had heard and the incredible powers everyone else exhibits.
Interesting, sometimes blocky graphics
The cel-shaded, comic book-esque aesthetic that the game uses is really interesting. Really. If I had to say one negative thing about it, it’s that real-time cel-shading comes with the inevitable pitfall of semi-randomness; while a manually rotoscoped movie typically has smooth lines (see: old Disney movies), The Wolf Among Us is prone to having jagged lines separating its cels, especially in scenes with bright lighting. Another minor issue I have is with the game’s topless scene. Maybe it’s just me, but cel-shaded nipples are weird. They just are. The toplessness in the scene in question is completely unnecessary, as well, making it more distracting fan service than anything that betters the narrative.
The music is great
I’ll often call a game’s music “atmospheric” and note that it fulfills its role in helping build tension. The Wolf Among Us has a soundtrack that’s often both of those things, and yet there’s something uniquely memorable about many of the game’s tracks. From the synthy, electronic-sounding opening that somehow suits the game to the soothing electric piano to the subtle percussive-and-melody pieces that evoke memories of what Mark Morgan infused into games like Planescape, the soundtrack delivers in every way imaginable.
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