The world of fairy tales has always had a dark streak. From mermaids perishing into sea-foam to wolves eating grandmothers alive, many of the long-running stories of our youth manage to squeeze in some grisly details before those familiar characters get their “happily ever after.”
“The Wolf Among Us,” a five-part episodic video game series developed by Telltale Games based on the “Fables” comics series, takes those details to a whole new level with its story of fairy tales gone horribly wrong.
The comic, published by Vertigo, portrays a gritty, underground fellowship of misplaced mythical creatures trying to get by in the mundane land Fabletown, located in modern-day Manhattan, N.Y.
Fable characters, like Ichabod Crane and Jack (of beanstalk fame), have now become middle managers and conmen alike. The player takes on the role of the scruffy, chain-smoking sheriff, Bigby Wolf, reformed from his days of blowing down pigs’ houses and stalking young girls in red hoods.
During the previous episode, “Faith,” Wolf was thrown into the middle of a seedy investigation involving the brutal murder of a fellow Fable. The episode did a great job of selling the setting, characters and, in a shocking cliffhanger, started what could be the first fairy tale serial murder mystery.
Since the choices the player make have an impact on the overall game’s story, “Smoke and Mirrors” makes it a primary goal to test what lengths Wolf will go following the events of the pilot episode.
While this makes for some great scenes, it lacks the same level of choices that could hurt its replay value. While Wolf may no longer eat pigs or innocent women, he’s still got an animal side to him. As the pressure mounts to find a killer, “Smoke and Mirrors” does a fantastic job of testing the player’s patience, intentionally riling them up.
Be it with a troll disguised as a simple barkeep or a slimy strip club-owning version of Georgie Porgie, every conversation Wolf has feels one button press away from turning ugly. And they often do. Every dialogue sequence feels important, and (with the exception of one particularly out-of-place brawl toward the end) every time fists, or rather claws, come out, it feels like an inevitability.
The way Telltale spends this episode trying to make players lose their temper is a high point for the series so far. I dare you to make it all the way to the end of “Smoke and Mirrors” without getting big and bad.
That said, as memorable as the heated conflicts between Wolf and the persons of interests are, there doesn’t seem to be any real major decisions that could alter the game’s plot.
Even though “The Wolf Among Us’” story is based around players’ decisions, “Smoke and Mirrors” seemed to have a more linear plot than the previous episode. The impact could be more subtly represented in the upcoming episode, but as far as I could tell, most of the narrative choice hinged on whether you restrained yourself or not during interrogations.
The game also had a few technical issues, but that could depend on the platform. At least on Xbox 360, the system I play on, there was frequent choppy loading that hurt the flow of the game.
Aesthetically though, “Smoke and Mirrors” is gorgeous, sporting a striking vibrant color scheme contrasted by bold, black shadows. I’ve heard others call it “neon noir,” which I find a fitting description.
“Neon noir” can even apply to the game’s tense electronic soundtrack, mixing thumping synthesizer with a moody backdrop. The voice cast is also excellent, despite several actors double-dipping into multiple roles. Adam Harrington, the voice behind Wolf, does particularly well as he juggles the character’s genuine desire to be good and seek justice, while struggling to hold back his brutish, predatory nature.
“The Wolf Among Us” continues Telltale’s trend of being one of the leading sources of good narratives in gaming. For a fraction of the cost of your traditional $60 title, they are providing great, story-driven gameplay that even non-gamers can get into.
While this episode has more of a “set ‘em up” feel than a “knock ‘em down” one, I remain committed to seeing this bitter fairy tale drama through to its not-so-happily ever after. I would rate this episode a solid four out of five stars.
Parker Wilhelm is a senior in mass communications. Please send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.