Review: The Wolf Among Us

Man, those old fairy tales are pretty damned grim. Torture, bestiality, rape, dismemberment, incest, murder, necrophilia, suicide, cannibalism and some truly atrocious musical outbursts? Check one, check all. (Of course these are all stories we’re meant to read to children. The world suddenly makes sense.)

It was only a matter of time before somebody put this catalogue of sordid backstory to use, and indeed if you’ve ever laid eyes on Bill Willingham’s Fables – a series of comics that injects these fairy tales into the seedy mainline of modern New York – you’ll know he’s right on the money. It’s prime material for the interactive fiction treatment. Prime, but tricky – which is why it’s heartening that the task fell to Telltale Games, who more than proved their storytelling pluck with The Walking Dead. Telltale set the bar pretty high with their shambling masterpiece, so it really comes down to one question: does The Wolf Among Us settle that score?

Damn skippy it does.

The irony of this carefully crafted world kicks you in the face kinda literally as you take the role of Sheriff Bigby Wolf (yeah, that one) shortly before he puts up the ol’ dukes with the Woodsman, who has incidentally become a bit of a bastard since the glory days of Red Riding Hood. And when, shortly thereafter, a woman’s head is placed – with some ceremony – on your doorstep, suffice to say this game has your attention.

Episode 1 does not buck the Walking Dead approach. This is no bad thing; despite the occasional iffiness of the movement controls (which at times made me think, not un-wistfully, of the original Alone in the Dark), this isn’t a system that needs fixing. That’s because Telltale’s games are among the few that present narrative as more than just a selection of cut-scenes suspended like beads on a length of interactive string.

So you’ll find the same clock-is-ticking conversation mechanics, the same quick-time-events-that-actually-work beatdownery, and the same light puzzling that engages without marring momentum, all grafted onto a gritty-as-golly take on fairy tale brutality. And the yarn it spins comes together beautifully, helped a good bit by the mock-inked 3D visuals and decent voice acting.

Much of the spell is woven by the myriad choices that face you. Many of the options available at any given point don’t have any concrete impact on what happens next, but some genuine dilemmas await – and the cosmetic options are still significant, because they have a tangible effect on the personality of the characters and the tone of the plot.

And so far, what a plot. It’s hardboiled gumshoe to the core, but it’s done proper: full of questions you can sink your canines into, and full of little sensitivities that make the sucker-punches hit that much harder.

The end of the first episode is satisfyingly gutsy, and made me claw feebly at the screen for a few minutes in the hopes that the next leg would materialise immediately. (No such luck, however.)

Verdict? Mighty yes.

The Wolf Among Us is available on Steam for US$24.99.