We’re 4 Episodes into their voyage through Bill Willingham’s world of Fairytale characters trying to fit into modern America, and Telltale has finally found their stride. Now they feel like old hands. In fact, so accomplished is their work with the franchise that you’d be forgiven for thinking they created the setting in the first place.
They didn’t, of course; Fables has been going for over a decade now in the comic world, but the weight of that history hasn’t prevented Telltale from crafting an original – not to mention engrossing – tale of murder, betrayal and downtrodden outcasts trying to carve out a life for themselves in a world that doesn’t know they exist.
Its been a scant three weeks since the release of Episode 3. Thankfully, Telltale has managed to avoid the delays that plagued them at the start of the series and now A Wolf Among Us truly feels like an episodic game, with the waiting time between new installments brief enough that you eagerly return to pick up the dangling plot threads from your last sojourn into Fabletown without feeling the need to reach for your nearest wiki. But if you’re fearful that this rapid turnaround might have had a negative impact on quality, you needn’t be. In Sheep’s Clothing sees Telltale continuing to improve their craft: the narrative has been tightened up, as we are shown how desperate many of the residents of Fabletown are as many of subplots converge. If you’ve been following the season thus far you would know that the mysterious Crooked Man is heading a criminal organization that has its fingers in every aspect of Fable society.
Having suffered a life threatening attack from the agents of the Crooked Man in the previous episode, Bigby Wolf starts this latest installment rather worse for wear. Bloodied and defeated, he is at the lowest point in his Hero’s journey, and in true noir fashion he can’t afford to stop, as he’s come so close to learning the truth. How far will he go to unravel the conspiracy that started with the murder of Faith, the lone prostitute?
In Sheep’s Clothing deals in dark truths for both Bigby and the player, as word of the Crooked Man’s open aggression spreads throughout all of Fabletown. The message is clear – there is a new authority in position to usurp the publicly-elected government of the Woodlands, who up until now has neglected the plight of the poor and disenfranchised Fables. Finally, we are given a glimpse behind the downfall of so many respected Fables and why they turned to the criminal underground for aid. It brings a new perspective to the evil you’re up against, a more human side that is easily empathized with. The most insidious evil is that which is allowed to flourish by appealing to the desperation of others, and in that respect the Crooked Man joins an elite pantheon of gaming villainy in an industry where most villains are simply evil because… well, because.
The economic boom of the late 1980s has not been plentiful for many of the Fables in living in the city, and those who cannot blend in with human society are suffering the most. It should be no surprise that the wealthiest of the Fables are the ones that look the most human, having most of their income free from needing to purchase spells that hide their true form. However, these “glamours” are expensive, and can easily be worn down – leaving those who cannot afford them unable to work in human establishments. Driven by desperation, many turn to the loan shark agents of the Crooked Man, who are more than willing to provide the safety net that the Woodland’s office does not provide.
But everything comes with a price.
This being the fourth episode of the season, Telltale has done an excellent job setting up the story for the finale. Much like with The Walking Dead’s first outing, which went from strength to strength as it progressed, In Sheep’s Clothing is better than any of the previous episodes; we are given half answers to questions we barely knew we had, and a series of game-changing revelations means that there’s a never-ending feeling of furious momentum as the plot races to its conclusion. Fans of film noir will appreciate all of the nods to the genre: the lines between right and wrong are blurred even further, and we question whether or not Bigby should continue. The best noir villains always challenge the morality of the protagonist, and we can foresee a Walking Dead-style ending, where Bigby being is held accountable for the actions you chose for him to take.
While Telltale has been working on adventure games for a number of years now, rather than let themselves fall into a rut they have always incorporated feedback from fans and critics, and used it to hone their subsequent endeavors. With the latest season of The Walking Dead and A Wolf Among Us, the developer has made minor incremental changes and tweaks to their engine as they go, and over the course of the last year they have come a long way towards shoring up the holes in their mechanics and disposing of the frequently intrusive – and often unnecessary – QTE sequences. There are still a few action pieces in In Sheep’s Clothing, but their execution is leaps and bounds ahead of what we’ve seen in the past, and they are usually quick and to the point, with few control issues.
The art direction of A Wolf Among Us should be praised as it has perfectly captured the tone and feeling of Bill Willingham’s comic series Fables as the pages come alive on screen. While Telltale has put their own spin on the characters they look much as they do in the comics, and are easily distinguishable from their graphic novel counterparts.
We stated in our review of The Walking Dead – In Harm’s Way that it contained one of the most graphic scenes we’ve ever seen in a game, and that was true at the time. However,Telltale has one-upped itself with In Sheep’s Clothing. The opening scene made us cringe as Bigby sets a broken arm back in place. The crunching sounds of grinding bones are like nails on a chalkboard, and combined with the image of his compound fracture it’s an opening which can easily upset the more squeamish of viewers. Make no mistake, although A Wolf Among Us deals with childhood fairy tales, this most certainly isn’t a game for a younger audience.
Furthermore, it has never been explicitly stated how hard it is to kill a Fable, or how strong they are, but are we to assume that Bigby can set his own arm back in place, wrap it up with some cloth bandages, and then get in a few rough and tumble fights in the same day? Sure, he’s a supernatural being – and we’ve seen other characters sustain tremendous amounts of damage only to get up and dust themselves off shortly after, but without the game clearly laying out the internal rules which govern its fiction, it’s hard to remain unquestioning in the face of such events. This wasn’t a terribly major concern, but it almost broke the immersion for us, and made the horrific ending of the previous episode almost pointless, as the violence against Bigby can apparently be easily shrugged off.
There were also a few sound issues, and that’s a shame, because Telltale has always excelled at pulling you into their worlds as much through the aural experience as the visuals. One scene in particular was spoiled for us when the background audio was louder than the foreground dialogue during what we suspect was the conclusion of the Bigby and Woodsman sub-plot which has run throughout the season. We were unable to hear most of what was said between the two men as they concluded their business and went their separate ways, and the dramatic impact of what was a pivotal story moment was lost thanks to technical shortcomings; we hope this was a one-time bug that was unique to this play through.
Minor quibbles aside though, we found this to be the best episode of the season, and the most engaging. Just enough story is teased to create more agency for the series climax than in previous episodes; and every location and decision is starting to feel more impactful, as the fruits of our labor are starting to show, with characters we’ve assisted along the way coming back to aid Bigby in solving the crime within a larger crime.
We’ve said before how much we enjoy and appreciate the direction that Telltale has taken with their Film Noir styled story, and as A Wolf Among Us approaches its conclusion, all the twists and turns are starting to pay off. There’s still a disconnect between how characters treat Bigby because of his past and how we’ve chosen to play him, but you can never really escape your past when you’re the Big Bad Wolf. Sometimes, all that biting comes back to bite you.