Note: As always with an episodic game, there are potential spoilers here that may impact your enjoyment of previous episodes if you haven't played them yet.
One of the pleasures - and pitfalls - of reviewing an episodic game is that the usual approach doesn't work. We can't judge the whole, so each piece must be considered on its own, the end of the journey which may or may not tie everything together still shrouded in mystery. In a way, it's exactly like reviewing a TV show - you're commenting on the journey as it goes, rather than after the fact.
So at the halfway mark of Telltale's fairytale noir The Wolf Among Us, if this were a TV show, would I still be tuning in? Almost certainly: it's a good story, well told, with interesting characters. But I'd also be starting to worry that it's not going to stick the landing when it comes to the final episode.
A Crooked Mile picks up after the cliffhanger ending from last time. Bigby Wolf, sheriff of Fabletown, has followed his trail of clues and discovered what looks like proof that the person responsible for the grisly murder of two Fable prostitutes is Ichabod Crane, the Director of Operations and de facto mayor of the Fabletown community.
This episode, then, is a chase as you try to find out where Ichabod is hiding before he flees for good. The Magic Mirror which reveals the location of any Fable has been smashed, so you can't make use of that handy deus ex machina device this time. Bufkin, the winged monkey, overheard Ichabod arranging a meeting with someone after he smashed the mirror, so you must do some old-fashioned detective work by choosing between three potential leads to find out who Ichabod is meeting, and where, as the clock ticks down.
That lends the episode a much-needed jolt of urgency, though it's somewhat undercut by the knowledge that the timer is scripted rather than real-time. There's no way the game is going to make one of the choices be the wrong one. Whichever route you choose through the story, the fear of getting it wrong is never quite as pressing as it might be simply because, unlike a real murder investigation, the game has to play fair and offer a way forwards from each path.
This is a pitfall of any detective story in gaming. There's no way to present all the possibilities of every line of enquiry, where thousands of variables could be crucial, without the player getting utterly lost. Nor is there any way to realistically simulate the complex interplay of psychology and emotion that happens in an interrogation, as LA Noire's blunt tools illustrated. All you can do is suggest the confusion and uncertainty through dialogue and story, while making sure the real breadcrumb trail is unmissable.
So it is here, as we get another episode where a large portion of your time is divided between wandering around closed locations interacting with every object conveniently highlighted for your attention until you pick the right one, and engaging in conversations where your choices are defined by the fairly limited parameters of your character: do you want Bigby to be violent in his quest for truth, or merely belligerent?
This all sounds like I'm not enjoying The Wolf Among Us, but I am. The twists so far have caught me off-guard and I look forward to seeing where they lead next. It's a good story. I'm just not yet convinced that it's a good game, because I'm still not sure how much impact I'm having on this world and its characters. I keep being told that Snow White will remember this and the Huntsman will remember that, but I'm none the wiser as to how that's impacting my experience. I certainly don't feel like I've suffered for any of my choices, nor been made to pay for their outcomes. Going back and replaying A Crooked Mile and picking different options, there are only a few instances where they don't lead to the same outcome moments later.
Is that cheating? It feels like cheating, but it's something I never did with the same developer's The Walking Dead. To go back and undo choices in that game would have felt like sacrilege; I really felt I had to live with what I'd done, that there was an emotional weight to my mistakes and victories that I didn't want to lift. Experiencing Fabletown's fantasy world, one step removed, through the eyes of Bigby Wolf, I feel no such compulsion. I'm happy to go back and tinker, just to see what footprints I could have left.
Snow White has remembered a lot of things I've done and said, but I'll be damned if it seems to have changed our relationship. She tuts when I go too far, bristles when she does the same and I don't back her up. The story keeps moving forwards regardless and no avenues have closed in my face. There's a certain "damned if you do, damned if you don't" issue here with regards to invisible storytelling. If my actions have changed the narrative in such a natural way that I don't even notice, is that a success or failure of the form? How do I know the change is even there? It perhaps wouldn't be so noticeable if Telltale didn't keep pointing out when you've done something meaningful with its little pop-ups.
I like the characters, but I don't feel like I've got under their skin. I like their world, but I feel like an observer there rather than a participant
Where The Wolf Among Us remains at its best is in the smaller conversations, the ones where the interplay between the characters isn't driving the plot. These are the moments where you feel the pull of impossible situations: as you try to make peace with someone who blames you for their bereavement, or in the rare moments when Bigby has to be the one playing mediator rather than the one who needs to be held back. It's here you get to play Bigby with a little more light and shade and get to consider the other characters on their own terms, rather than as obstacles requiring the right inputs to get past.
It perhaps doesn't help that in terms of forward momentum, this episode turns out to be something of a wheel-spinning exercise. It's one of those chapters where you spend all your time chasing a goal that ultimately turns out not to be so important after all, and as the credits roll, you realise that the goalposts have been moved ready for the next episode. As a plot development, it's fine. As the payoff to an interactive experience, it's not quite as satisfying.
And that's still my reservation about The Wolf Among Us. (Well, that and the loading times and chugging frame rate, both of which rear their heads again.) There's just something that isn't clicking for me with this series. I'm certainly enjoying the story, but I'm not quite hooked. I like the characters, but I don't feel like I've got under their skin. I like their world, but I feel like an observer there rather than a participant. I feel like I should be making big choices, but I'm only seeing small outcomes.
I hope that Telltale is playing the long game here and that the final two episodes will pull everything together in a satisfying way. Not so much for the story - I find myself curiously unconcerned by the prospect of discovering the identity of the killer - but because I want to feel like I made a real difference during the time I spent in Wolf's clothing.