Warning:The following Wolf Among Us season 1 review contains critical spoilers. Please do not read the main copy below unless you have finished the game. The final score and evaluation are spoiler-free
If the Walking Dead demonstrates the profound potential of episodic interactive drama, then the Wolf Among Us is a reminder of the genre's limitations.
Telltale's latest adventure is bathed in moody neo-noir, which is one of its biggest draws, but as a detective story it doesn't quite hold everything together. Clearly it wants you to connect the dots, but there is an unavoidable futility in memorising the finer details of a story in which the first episode aired ten months ago.
Such a problem isn't exactly remedied when playing The Wolf Among Us in a single sitting either. This is a detective story that ventures down paths which, considering the revelations at the start and end of episode five, will be looked back on as a big bad wolf chasing a wild goose.
Despite being tasked with solving the riddle behind two seemingly connected murders, the Wolf Among Us is too thin on detective work. The big answers are handed to you, not discovered, and there's not enough scope to build or pursue your own theories. On several occasions the game will ask who your prime suspect is, and each time that comes with the dissatisfaction of not knowing enough about each character's motivations to give an educated response.
That final twist at the end of episode five, meanwhile, is particularly dissatisfying. Not because it's hard to stomach the idea that our protagonist Bigby has been puppeteered (in fact it fits well with his motivations) but because a bit-part character is revealed as the Iago figure pulling strings.
Plot twists depend on the strength and length of the lie. They are at their most effective when we are taken on a journey with a character, building up a mental profile of their intentions, only to be betrayed at the eleventh hour.
Keyser Soze, Darth Vader, the ghost of Bruce Willis, Tyler Durden; these are people you thought you knew. By contrast, the Wolf Among Us pins its twist on a character who you rarely speak to, or if some theories are to be believed, someone you've never even met.
The Wolf Among Us also misses its mark at the crucial moment. The final revelation is too ambiguous to give closure to the story and too clouded in doubt to enjoy as a plot device. That's not to say stories necessarily need a clean ending, but they do require one which fits the narrative that leads to it.
"It is the depiction of the characters, and the dank, dark and drear apartment blocks they dwell in, which is so absorbing"
Granted, dwelling on such mistakes is perhaps unfair on a game that deserves praise for twice as many reasons. But the Wolf Among Us is so soulful, so effortlessly interesting, that one can't help imagine what could have been.
The source material certainly deserved something nearing perfection. The Fables line of comics, written by Bill Willingham, is an infectiously imaginative spin on fairytales and folklore. It depicts the real-world adult lives of these supernatural beings that we were first told of in childhood.
Snow White, the Frog Prince, Aunty Greenleaf et al have been cast out of their fictional world and now survive as illegal immigrants, hiding away in a gloomy New York suburb, masking their true identities in fear of persecution.
It is the depiction of these characters, and the dank, dark and drear apartment blocks they dwell in, which is so absorbing. Beauty and the Beast's relationship is strained by its own legacy, and Mr Toad is a single father who resents his treatment at the bottom rung of the social ladder, while the Little Mermaid works as a showgirl, or perhaps something worse, to make ends meet.
At its best, the Wolf Among Us is reminiscent of James Joyce's other masterpiece, Dubliners. Like with Joyce's collection of short stories, the patrons of Fabletown are symbols of social paralysis, of apathy and shattered dreams, of persisting in the face of frustration. It is powerful, tragic and beautiful. If fairytales teach children that fantasy is magical, the Wolf Among Us reveals that reality is complicated.
Bigby (née the Big Bad Wolf) is a sheriff haunted by his own reputation for bloodlust, while Colin - one of the three little pigs - is an unemployed layabout with an alcohol problem who sleeps on Bigby's couch. The Woodsman, who in certain folklore kills the Big Bad Wolf, has become a combustible, self-pitying loner who is grieved by nostalgia.
It is these three characters, and their mutated relationship, who best embody the bizarreness and bitter reality of Fabletown, and partly why the first two episodes of the Wolf Among Us are the best of the five.
"If fairytales teach children that fantasy is magical, the Wolf Among Us reveals that reality is complicated"
The latter three episodes tend to thrust the plot forward as opposed to explore the world, with an escalating reliance on QTE action sequences, and to an extent it loses its charm. The action scenes themselves are accomplished, at times admirably so, which just about manage to not outstay their welcome.
But no one will venture into such a meaningful world, with the bottomless depth of its characters, and look back on the button sequences as the highlight. Such a pedestal is reserved for Bigby himself, voiced impeccably by Adam Harrington, who stands out as the charismatic outcast who typifies the charm and melancholy of Fabletown.
The music is also exceptional, with some of the broodiest synth you'll hear, complemented by one heartbreaking track that sounds like a rhodes piano confessing its sins.
With Telltale now turning to less noble cash-in projects (Game of Thrones, some Borderlands thing, more sequels) it's hard to tell whether the studio will ever have an opportunity like this again.
The Wolf Among Us is scattered with flaws that the source material doesn't deserve, yet through the magnificent portrayal of its themes, it also excels in areas that matter most. Like its central character, it's far from perfect, but its heart is in the right place. It deserves a chance.
Soulful, powerful, tragic and flawed, the Wolf Among Us won't be remembered as one of the finest adventure games. But it will be remembered nonetheless.
- Profoundly imaginative setting
- Unique characters, superbly performed
- Music is beautifully brooding
- Plot underperforms at key moments
- Not enough freedom to think and play