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Putting you in the shoes of the Big Bad Wolf himself, Telltale’s latest effort will huff and puff and (almost) blow you away.

Coming off the back of 2012’s spectacular The Walking Dead – considered by many critics to be their game of the year – Telltale has once again struck gold by combining an emotionally-demanding, choice-driven narrative with a universe full of intriguing and flawed characters that are as equally troubled as they are entertaining. This first episode of a five-part murder mystery is a startlingly mature two-hour adventure, and will likely be considered Telltale’s finest example of the point-and-click adventure to date – warts and all.

Acting as the prequel to Bill Willingham’s DC comic book series, Fables, this first episode introduces players to the clandestine community of Fabletown found deep within the bowels of New York. Unbeknownst to regular citizens, the city is littered with skewed interpretations of childhood fairytale characters that use magic to blend in with everyday life – having been exiled from their homelands. Taking the role of sheriff Bigby, the now reformed Big Bad Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, players are tasked with keeping this rabble out of trouble and out of sight in whichever way they see fit.

The city is littered with skewed interpretations of childhood fairytale characters that use magic to blend in with everyday life.

The story focuses on the murder of an important fable, with it being left to Bigby to discover who is responsible and then bring them to justice before the incident is made public. The entire world is truly imaginative, and there’s a real enjoyment in seeing these tales brought to life through the lens of urban reality.

However, the game’s real strength comes from how the fables embody broader human emotions. Snow White, for instance, struggles to justify the greater good of giving fables a place to live when the majority are falling victim to a corrupt and taxing system of government. Bigby’s relationship with figures like Mr Toad, Beauty and the Beast all have a surprising level of maturity about them, with Telltale wisely underplaying more fantastical elements in favour of gut wrenching and morally-dubious scenarios.

Is it better to stand aside and let a parent shout at his frightened child, just so the investigation runs smoothly? Should you lie to a worried husband about knowing the whereabouts of his wife in an effort to keep her from harm? Great writing really sells the experience, with all your choices carrying over to the following episodes in the series.

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Building upon this notion of choice and consequence through dialogue, The Wolf Among Us introduces similar decision making into its very structure. During several moments in the story, rather than just deciding to play good cop or bad cop, the game will force you to make a decision as to where you wish to take the investigation. As two suspects flee in different directions, you can only pursue one – leaving the other to escape and have the upper hand if you are ever to encounter them again. A strict time limit forces you to act on instinct, and is yet another brilliant way of creating a more personalised story.

Choice has similarly permeated into the combat, resulting in a real sense of physicality in action scenes. By deciding whether to hold a suspect down, or throw them out of a window, there is a real excitement and cinematic flair to confrontations. You don’t simply press a random button to throw a punch; you drag your cursor to where you want to strike, and pull at either the left or right triggers to deliver a left or right hook. This much needed change of pace and sense of ownership over the experience successfully involves you in what could have been stale and uninteresting fights.

The game’s biggest improvements are also what hold it back from being truly excellent.

Unfortunately, the game’s biggest improvements are also what hold it back from being truly excellent. Although forgiving, the quick-time events that make up the majority of the action flash on the screen so fast that there is barely any time to react. You can fail several QTEs without sequences being restarted, but their speed means that players are likely to end up frustrated because they weren’t given enough of a chance to respond.

Likewise, the detective work essentially boils down to interacting with every icon on the screen before you move on to the next room or sequence. Having a time limit on dialogue options when you are interviewing suspects is also inorganic, hampering both the players investigation – by making you ask questions without thoroughly thinking them through – and their enjoyment. Sadly, there are no Columbo-esque interrogations to be found in The Wolf Among Us.wolf among us 3

The prolonged loading screens, slowdown during transitions between scenes, and an occasionally choppy framerate (most noticeable during the adventure’s halfway mark), similarly threaten your immersion and frequently pull you out of the experience. These technical limitations have been a staple of earlier Telltale downloadable games, but they are all the more disappointing here as – rather than resolving them – the issues have actually magnified.

These problems don’t particularly spoil the game as a whole, but the lack of fluidity makes the experience, at times, feel very artificial. The story is so strong that you’ll easily push ahead, but it was disappointing to see how linear the gameplay is. These issues can be overlooked, but it’s understandable that a large portion of the audience will feel a little cheated.

Loving appreciation of the source material had me hooked from the very first chapter.

In a year where The Last of Us‘ masterful storytelling and gripping gameplay played with players emotions, and Grand Theft Auto V redefined expectations of what videogames can offer, The Wolf Among Us: Episode One scratches an itch that few other games have. The atmosphere, the dialogue, the characters and loving appreciation of the source material had me hooked from the very first chapter, proving that Telltale’s winning formula is transferable across properties and even genres.

There’s definitely room for improvement across the subsequent episodes – especially with regard to remedying the technical inconsistencies – but, if this first foray into the world of Fables is anything to go by, The Wolf Among Us easily earns its place among this year’s standout gaming experiences. I cannot wait to see what grim fate awaits Bigby and the residents of Fabletown, and for an episodic downloadable game where the story is the prominent focus that’s high praise indeed.

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Michael Stratford

 

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