Thursday, November 6, 2014

Game Review: The Wolf Among Us

This review is based on the PC version of The Wolf Among Us, available on Steam.

Hot off of the success they garnered with their excellent adaptation of The Walking Dead, Telltale Games set off to tackle another acclaimed graphic novel with The Wolf Among Us. And boy am I glad that they did.

Based on the Fables series written by Bill Willingham, The Wolf Among Us is centered around the investigations conducted by Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of a community in New York City called Fabletown. Appropriately, Fabletown is where a variety of characters from old fables and folk lore now live, following their exile from the Homelands. Bigby thus has to deal with the issues of such characters as Toad, Beauty, Beast, Snow White, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and Grendel. Many of the characters would look peculiar in our "Mundie" world of humans, so some (such as Grendel and Jersey) use a magic called Glamour in order to appear human, though they'll show their true forms in times of conflict.

And so will the Big Bad Wolf himself.
 Gameplay in The Wolf Among Us is strongly reminiscent of point-and-click adventure games of the 1990's, as well as the earlier titles from Telltale such as The Walking Dead and Back to the Future, in a specific genre most put as "graphic adventures." Generally, you'll be choosing to interact with various objects and characters in a certain location, or choosing what to say in conversations with limited time windows. Breaking up these moments are also more action-packed sequences where you'll have to press certain buttons with even smaller time windows. While the gameplay is by no means complex, it doesn't have to be: this game is more about telling a narrative and letting players choose from multiple paths how that narrative will progress, and for me, the gameplay helps do just that in an effective way.

An example of the game's exploration gameplay. The rings denote what Bigby can interact with, like the Dust Ring, or the door in the background.
As The Wolf Among Us is a game driven by its narrative, the experience lives or dies on writing and voice acting. Both are thankfully excellent, with a lot of clever foreshadowing, sarcastic comedy, noir-esque dialogue, mystery, and a charm all its own. I also love that every character has multiple dimensions to them. Snow White, for example, manages to be a great authoritative character without ever becoming a damsel-in-distress; in fact, some moments feel like she's the one who Bigby should be careful around. The game's voice cast makes all of the dialogue really come to life, with some of my favorite performances being for Bigby, Jersey, Bloody Mary, and Snow White.

One thing you'll learn about Telltale's design style though is that the story always will reach certain milestones no matter your choices, though your choices do affect how certain characters feel about Bigby, what interactions open up to you in certain situations, and even the life of death of some characters. My version of Bigby was someone who attempted to stick to lawfulness and thus (usually) avoided violence, but wouldn't take bullshit when he knew things weren't going anywhere by being gentle, and I quite like how his lines and actions are written. Thus, he saved just about anyone he could, but wasn't afraid to step on a few toes when need be.

Gren is one person whose toes were stepped on, though I came to like him eventually.
I'm also a big fan of how the game looks visually. The cell shading and color pallet really bring the clash of New York City with fabled creatures to life in visually exciting ways. Telltale once again does wonderful work with the facial animations of characters too, especially showing a great manipulation of mouths, eyes, and eyebrows. I couldn't help but find Snow White's smile cute, while also being impressed with the work done with The Crooked Man's unique appearance (well, they're all unique, but you'll see what I mean.)

Seriously, this scene looks to be straight out of a comic book.
Complimenting the strong writing and visuals is a competent soundtrack, composed by Jared Emerson-Johnson, with music that ranges from the thriller theme of the story to more slow-paced background thumping for quiet bars to hectic orchestrations for hectic chases. Each track fits the scene it plays in well, especially strong in the more dramatic moments (don't want to spoil anything.) I especially like the music that plays during the opening credits of each episode.

 Credit goes to LazyDude24K for this upload.

One difference I saw in versions of the game pertains to the performance and number of technical hiccups, a recurring issue with Telltale's game engines that many players have become familiar with. On my PC, the game ran perfectly, with no glitches, crashes, stutters, or long load times. Meanwhile, I played Episode 1 on the Xbox 360, and have been watching the playthrough on YouTube channel "The Sw1tcher," where I saw a few recurring issues: scene transitions that were stuck for a few seconds, long and frequent load times, models popping-up in odd ways, fluctuating frames-per-second, and a few more. The worst hiccups occur in flashback sequences that play when you start a new episode. Still, these hiccups aren't bad enough nor frequent enough in my eyes to take away from the experience. Rather, they're minute breaks in immersion, akin to hitting the pause button at the wrong time. If anything, I'd recommend you play this game on a decent PC, though I've not heard how it fares on Xbox One or PS4.

Da bes glitch (no spoilers)

With a great story, wonderful presentation, strong writing and voice acting, memorable characters, and intense moments of drama, The Wolf Among Us is one of the best graphic adventure games I've had the opportunity to play, alongside Telltale's magnum opus: the first season of The Walking Dead. I recommend this game to anyone who's into games with themes of noir, fantasy mixed with reality, crime, and delicious irony.

Personal score: 8.5/10

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