Bigby Wolf isn't worried about survival. Before he left the Homeland, he was the Big Bad Wolf. The one who terrorized the Three Little Pigs. The one who schemed to have Little Red Riding Hood for dinner. He can handle himself. But he is worried about his job as the sheriff of Fabletown, a community of fairytale immigrants hiding in plain sight in 1980s New York. And as Bigby looms over The Wind in the Willows' Mr. Toad, separate button prompts for questioning Toad and hitting him in the face force me to decide what kind of sheriff Bigby really is. I'm sure as hell worried about my reputation.
Bigby's reformed, you see. He's trying to leave his big bad days behind and help people. Problem is, it's not always easy to do the right thing. Telltale Games' now-signature moral dilemmas form the core of The Wolf Among Us , which proves last year's The Walking Dead wasn't a fluke of mature video game storytelling for Telltale. Wolf trades the zombie apocalypse for a murder mystery, but the dialog options and tough moral decisions are familiar territory.
Except there's that job to think about. The Walking Dead's Lee Everett was more or less a blank slate with a big moral compass to follow: Do what's best for Clementine. When I played Walking Dead, choosing who would live and die twisted my guts, but I always tried to make choices that would keep Lee and Clementine safe. She was my North Star.
Bigby Wolf, on the other hand, is an established character from Bill Willingham's Fables comic series with established relationships (most everyone fears or hates him). As a result, I never feel like I'm trying to build emotional bonds with Mr. Toad or Bigby's boss Snow White the way I did with The Walking Dead's survivors, who were all meeting for the first time. Without a moral anchor like Clementine, though, guiding Bigby's character is harder, more nuanced--and more fun as a result.
"Faith," which kicks off the five-episode story of The Wolf Among Us, introduces Bigby and Fabletown--the game is set about 20 years before the comic--before dropping a grisly murder on the sheriff's doorstep. Investigating the crime doesn't involve much more than walking around and clicking on highlighted items in the environment--in fact, Telltale has further distanced itself from old adventure game trappings like item collection and environmental puzzles. In this case, the simplicity works. Walking Dead's occasional puzzles felt out of place sandwiched between moral crises. Without them, Wolf is a leaner, moodier detective thriller.
The Wolf Among Us is so moody, in fact, that when Bigby remarks that there hasn't been a murder in Fabletown for a long time, I'm surprised. Telltale's artists did an incredible job envisioning '80s New York through the lens of fairytale neo noir, where harsh shadows collide with neon pinks and purples. The bold colors give Wolf an oppressive, grungy '80s vibe. This looks like a place where people would be murdered all the time .
But Fables, as it turns out, are tougher than humans, which is a convenient basis for some brutal quicktime event brawls. The fights are flashily animated and choreographed, but they're also my least favorite portions of the game, because I mostly lose control of Bigby's character. Thankfully, most of the first episode's snappy two-hour runtime is devoted to conversation, and Bigby does talking very well. The dialog system in Wolf is identical to The Walking Dead's, with four conversation options covering the spectrum from gruff asshole to gruff silent type. Bigby also does not talking very well--I grinned more than once when I passed up speaking in favor of smoking a cigarette and glaring. Ominously.
Wolf presents a couple major binary decisions in its first episode, and these big choices (as well as smaller ones) will influence how future episodes play out. My favorite moment, though, is a tense sequence that's unusually open-ended for Telltale. I have to decide when to ambush a suspicious ruffian rooting around a crime scene; If I jump out of hiding too soon, I won't learn why he's skulking around. If I wait too long...well, there's a gun in the room, and I don't want to find out what he might do with it. The risk sets my heart pounding.
The more I've thought about The Wolf Among Us, the more its choices and their ramifications have gotten under my skin. I lie to someone in the first episode, thinking it's better not to get involved in their problems. But what if they learn the truth? I also let a violent Fable escape, and he's prowling Fabletown's shadowy streets, somewhere. I don't think he's a killer, but if he is, will the next death be on my hands?
I'm afraid to find out, which means The Wolf Among Us is already weighing on my conscience. And the meanest thing I've done, so far, is threaten poor Mr. Toad. How am I going to feel when I do something really bad?
The Wolf Among Us deftly merges Walking Dead's moral quandaries with a noir murder mystery starring Fables' cast of fairy tale legends.