Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-10-20 06:10:13
The Wolf Among Us - Episode 1: Faith Review
It seems like a reasonable assumption that Telltale Games' The Wolf Among Us is going to perform better in a commercial sense than it otherwise would have thanks to The Walking Dead, one of last year's best-received games. Unfortunately, the comparison between both games is a double-edged sword, as the success of TWD has created a high benchmark by which other games by Telltale will inevitably be judged. Plenty of people will download The Wolf Among Us because they enjoyed TWD and want more of the same kind of gameplay to tide them over until Season 2 of that game. To merely treat Wolf as a place-holder, however, would be to do it a disservice.
This is another game based on a comic, but as I know nothing about the comic I will not insult people by pretending that I do and providing a thin synopsis of it. If you're interested in the comic, go and look up information about it online and buy it from a retailer. From the perspective of a gamer, though, it wasn't necessary to have read The Walking Dead comic to enjoy that game, and neither is it necessary to have read Fables in order to appreciate The Wolf Among Us. In fact, as this game is being labelled by some people as a prequel of sorts to the comic, I would argue that its audience definitely doesn't need to have any knowledge of the subject matter in order to enjoy the game.
Wolf is a detective story that quickly escalates into a murder-mystery. A lot of The Walking Dead's gameplay mechanics return, with the main focus being on investigating things, interacting with objects and speaking with people. The narrative is a minefield of dialogue decisions that the player needs to make and choices that can dramatically change how things progress. As we have come to expect from Telltale, the dialogue delivers strong results, with excellent voice acting and writing adding weight to the intriguing scenarios.
Episode 1: Faith of this five-part series may not be a particularly long piece of entertainment (lasting a couple of short hours) but it does a good job of setting the scene, familiarizing its players with the lore of the world and presenting a set of interesting characters. Some of the cast in this first episode truly shine, such as Bigby Wolf, the main protagonist, who is an alcohol-swigging, wise-cracking sheriff with a bone to pick with just about everyone. Playing as Bigby is empowering and feels very different to playing as Lee in TWD: in the latter I tackled situations as I believe I would in real life; in Wolf, I was picking the decisions that would make me more of a badass.
While there is less of an emotional weight to the narrative as a result, it instead sizzles with a Noir-ish charm that any good detective fiction requires. Wolf isn't about making you love and care about its characters, at least not from this first episode. Instead, it actively portrays its characters as troubled individuals; most are drunk, or smoke, or swear profusely, or can't afford to pay the rent, or hate their lives and find their existence futile. The cast is intentionally morbid and grim, and this is important, as it makes everyone a potential suspect in the pivotal murder that future episodes will inevitably focus on.
This is not to say that the cast is difficult to empathize with, by any means. There are some genuinely heart-felt moments, and plenty of humorous ones as well. Just about every line from Mr. Toad raised a smile from me; the game has a cunning knack of hopping between black humour and macabre drama that makes it a decidedly more mature game than most point-and-click adventures. There is a lot more swearing and general nastiness in Wolf than TWD, which is surprising given that TWD is post-apocalyptic in nature. Wolf occupies a different stylistic territory, where characters exist in a monotonous cycle, barely existing and often self-loathing.
While the comparisons will be made, apart from the controls and the clunky engine (that still freezes up too many times and should have been fixed by now) there isn't a lot in common between TWD and Wolf, and that's definitely a good thing. Wolf has, for example, a much more compelling soundtrack than TWD and builds its narrative around the intrigue of the mystery and the discovery of clues relating to it. Wolf isn't about a group of survivors slowly dying off one by one; it's about a single man with a shady past on a mission and the fleeting meetings with other troubled individuals he encounters on the way. Wolf relishes upon the threat of uncertainty; something that TWD rarely did, except, perhaps, during the disappearance of Clementine near the end of the game.
The Wolf Among Us isn't The Walking Dead 2.0. It isn't similar to that game at all outside of the way in which you interact with it, and even then some integral changes have been made. There is an inventory this time around, for example, where items can be stored and used again later, no doubt as clues in the investigation. From a narrative perspective, this is somehow a far grimmer world than that of TWD - you see more blood and carnage in this episode than the first episode of that game, and the weight of your actions impacts upon the investigation to great effect. There are some important decisions already in this first episode that will surely come into play in later episodes. It should be noted as well that the visuals pack a far more powerful punch than those in The Walking Dead, nailing the verisimilitude of the smoke-filled bars and grim apartment tenements of the best works of Noir fiction.
I have no idea what direction the story might be going in, or if I'll bond with any characters outside of Bigby, but it doesn't really matter - it's all a part of the ride, and, like any good Noir, the inner psyche of the lead protagonist and the importance of their mission is the focus. Episode 1 is compelling, gritty and action-packed; more than enough to keep me entertained and to convince me to buy the Season Pass. I trust that Telltale will deliver another exemplary story with this one.