Neon yellow and purple seared into my retina as an understated synth score sunk its hooks deep into me. New York City in the 80's is not a friendly or forgiving place to anyone, human or non-human alike. The neo-noir feel continued to ramp up as a fellow named Bigby took a call from Toad. He arrives to find a large, well, toad awaiting him. It is the same from the Wind in the Willows story and Bigby is busting his balls about not having a "glamour". He is one of many characters from the stories we all know by heart who have went from the Homelands to New York in a hope to start fresh.
Toad, a rather surly amphibian, complains of the racket upstairs. Some big fella is making a mess and, well, the Sheriff needs to do something about it. He stalks up the stairs towards the rowdy tenant's door and kicks it in to find the Woodsman (Yes. That Woodsman) accosting a young woman with a ribbon tied around her neck. A very brutal and physical confrontation follows that leads both men through the nearby wall and out onto the street below. Bigby lands on Toad's car parked just outside while the Woodsman? He's face down in the pavement. Already he's up and pulling the aching Sheriff in for the kill. The two struggle further and Bigby starts to lose his cool, claws sprouting from his fingers and fangs coming into view.
The Big Bad Wolf is starting to show his true form.
It was at this point in Episode 1 that I was fully locked in. I was mashing buttons like crazy and just hoping I could find a way to dispense more indiscriminate justice upon the carousing Woodsman. It was also one of the most intense and physical action sequences I'd ever experienced within the realm of an adventure game. Tell-Tale is not screwing around here.
Tell-Tale Games, which has seen a rather meteoric rise to fame thanks to the Walking Dead Game, prides itself on one thing: storytelling. The story they crafted involving Lee and Clementine for Season 1 of the Walking Dead was wrenching, surprising and affecting on so many levels. I came into Wolf Among Us with a base knowledge of the source material ahead of time (much like I did with WD). If you weren't aware its based on Bill Willingham's Fables which follows the trials and tribulations of storybook characters from all walks. This particular story takes place before the comics, however. Episode one of the planned five does a lot of things really well and chief among them? Tell a compelling story with strong characterization and lots of threads to unravel. They also like to do more than tell the story but also show it as well. The confrontation mentioned earlier was a fantastic way of introducing us to the idea that Fables live longer and are far harder to kill than "mundys" (us normal human folk).
Wolf Among Us is, at its core, a detective story, replete with plenty of the usual cliché settings and archetypes that you'd expect. They are, thankfully, subverted to varying degrees to give far more resonance to each moving piece. Bigby, for example, is a chain-smoking, whiskey-guzzling and very grizzled fellow. He also happens to have a heart of gold. Sounds familiar. It is, however, quite clear that there are so many varying shades of gray depending on how you make your choices. That's important considering the duration of the episode is spent in the shoes of Fabletown's Sheriff. Adam Harrington imbues Bigby with the rasp necessary to meet the hard-boiled detective standard but also lots of nuance and surprising depth. Ancillary characters, whether they have far more involvement or just dwelling on the edge, are still possessed of unique qualities that give them life. These aren't just cardboard representations of characters we know from the original comic or even the fables themselves.
It is a true testament to the talent of the writing staff at Tell-Tale for giving us far more than just a necessarily interesting protagonist but the world feels lived in. It feels like Fabletown is a real place that is full of broken dreams, class separation and a lot of animosity towards the "establishment". It is quite clear that the manifest destiny dream of all these Fables to move away from the Homelands to a better life, well, that was not what reality held for them. Seedy bars are full of trolls, titans and fallen heroes. Street corners are populated with working girls (former fairy tale princesses) and users.
This city, for all the grime and filth, is lovingly rendered in cel-shaded glory and a palette of neon colors that provides a welcome contrast to the rather grim focus of the story. It apes the style of the original comics quite well but also looks quite good on its own. Character expressions are voluminous and articulated so very well.
There are, however, a few small problems that are quite familiar to anyone who's played prior Tell-Tale games. The console and mobile versions suffer from a bit of stuttering in scene transitions along with some longer load times in certain sections. It was something I hoped would they would have gotten around to fixing by the time we got to this new set of episode but it is still present. It is a very brief break in immersion that doesn't sully the experience or anything but it is very noticeable. The PC version seems to be best in regards to load-in and frame-rate issues.
The other problem? Length. If you don't really just linger and explore every single conversation option? You'll be done with the episode in about two hours. That's not real long but you're getting a whole hell of a lot in that two hours. Murder, intrigue and a real introduction to this fantasy juxtaposed with our reality. Magic is present everywhere but so are the same very human problems that plague our world. It is a brief visit to Fabletown but it is a damn good one. The pieces are moving now and clearly there is far more going on here than just a single murder. I can't wait to unearth the mystery.