Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Wolf Among Us review


    I am a great lover of urban fantasy, Telltale games, noir, and fairy-tales. I'm not, however, a big fan of Bill Willingham's Fables. Bluntly, there's just something about his writing which pushes me away and I was never able to get past the first two of his graphic novels despite the absolutely gorgeous art.

    So, I entered this with a kind of trepidation.

    I shouldn't have.

    The Wolf Among Us is better than its source material.

    By far.

    The premise is that various fairy-tale characters such as Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Bluebeard, and more modern fictional characters like Ichabod Crane as well as Alice in Wonderland's Tweedles are living in New York City during the 1980s. They have been driven out of their homeland by a off-screen dictator who has impoverished some Fables while enriched others. As such, the majority of Fables are forced to struggle for money and position in a world which has very little place for monsters as well as hereditary nobility.

    And a world with no happy endings.

Bigby's relationship with the Three Little Pigs has improved markedly.
    Bigby Wolf, despite being one of the most monstrous creatures in the Old Country, has taken on a human form to help his fellow Fables as the Sheriff. His reputation works against him, however, as the more richer Fables consider him a monster while the more monstrous ones consider him a sellout. Bigby, himself, struggles with becoming a sheepdog after years of serving as one of the Fables' chief predators. This all comes to a head when he interrupts a prostitute named Faith being abused by her latest John, the Woodsman from his original myth. Bigby tries to do the right thing and intervene, only to get caught up in a horrible new investigation when faith turns up dead.

    And she's not the only one.

The thuggish-ness of the Tweedles is hilarious.
    Yes, the noir detective is investigating the murder of a dead prostitute as the premise. Except, the detective is the Big Bad Wolf and the prostitute is a former princess. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb, Snow White, Ichabod Crane, a flying monkey, Bluebeard, and dozens of other memorable characters from fiction. It's interesting how the strength of the game really relies on playing a normally tired premise very straight while filling it with bizarre characters.

    Poor Beauty from Beauty and the Beast is forced to work as the night manager for a sleazy hotel in order to pay her bills while her husband suspects she's cheating on him. Nerissa, the original Little Mermaid, is forced to act as a stripper for a club which may pimp her out. Snow White? Well, Snow White is doing the thankless job of keeping Fabletown running while her male superior takes all the credit.

Bigby is a knight in furry armor to a lot of girls. Something which, oddly, works for this noir-ish tale.
    Really, a large part of the game's appeal is getting to see the various adapted Fables and what they're up to in the modern world. Some of them have adapted very well to the modern world, like Bluebeard, while others have failed miserably. There's a lot of good social satire involved on America's relationship between the poor and rich, cops with the public, debt, plus the predatory nature of organized crime to those who think it can help them. There's a lot of important subjects tackled in the game and done so with a fairly deft hand. The fact the story probably would have been good even without all the fairy-tale characters just makes it so much better.

    The characters relationships are all well-handled, giving us a real sense of who Bigby is and what he thinks of everyone around him. He's painfully in love with Snow White who is not remotely interested, at least at the beginning, and trying to do the best job he can but frustrated with how everyone is constantly giving him crap. Even though you can choose how Bigby responds, everything feels in-character.

Snow and Bigby have a great contrasting set of personalities.
    The mood of the game is very gritty, down-to-Earth, and grim. Bigby is helpless to stop a lot of the criminal activities around him and trying to cowboy cop your way through things only make them worse. The Fables really feel like they're helpless in this new world and the worst sort of people rise to the top, even as the better fall on their face. I liked Bigby's relationships with Faith and Nerissa even more so than I did his with Snow White, which is quite the accomplishment since I liked Snow just fine.

    I give Telltale props for the art style of the game as well. Everything has a beautiful painted comic-book appearance which really transports you to the reality our characters dwell in. It's similar to The Walking Dead video games but has a lot more oddball stuff to animate like magic mirrors and werewolves. This is a lovely game even if it does depict a New York City which is hell for the impoverished and not that much better for the rich.

I loved the character of Faith, as short-lived as she was.
    I will warn people, though, that it's probably best to play this on a current generation console. I, originally, played this on an Xbox 360 and ran into numerous bugs despite repeated patching. The game frequently froze and I had many problems with keeping it going. All of these problems vanished when I moved to playing on the Xbox One. So, this is a definite case of, "Let the buyer beware."

    In conclusion, The Wolf Among Us is a really-really good game. One of Telltale's most entertaining and offbeat hits. The characters are strong, the storytelling excellent, the mood gritty, and the plot strong. Even the moral choices are well-handled as they actually have serious affects on how various characters end up.

10/10 (9/10 if you're playing on a past-generation console)

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