Editor's Note: As a reminder, this is a spoiler-heavy discussion of the latest episode of The Wolf Among Us. Those who have not played the episode but intend to probably shouldn't read this.
The episodic structure of Telltale's The Walking Dead franchise is arguably one of the best things about it. As a series that deals regular moments of sheer soul-draining sadness, there is a feeling of emotional reprieve that comes with the end of each episode. Maybe you're still itching to see what's going to happen in the next chapter of the story, as I often am, but more times than not, I'm also grateful that I get a break after two hours or so of constant character deaths, tough decisions, and abject misery pouring in from every corner of the game's world.
The Wolf Among Us is a game that certainly deals in moments of dread and unexpected death, and comes with a generalized feeling of depression that permeates every personality you come into contact with. But it's nowhere near as pervasive as in The Walking Dead. After all, this is a noir-flavored detective procedural, and not an apocalyptic survival tale. Yet the two series offer similar gameplay designs and an identical release structure, and only one of them directly benefits from either of the above. Unfortunately, it's not The Wolf Among Us.
Overall, I've been enjoying The Wolf Among Us so far. Visually, it manages to bring together the neon-tinted grime of 1980s New York with the fantastical world of Fables in a stunning way, and the story has plotted out some nifty twists that I never saw coming. But its third episode, "A Crooked Mile," finds this first season suffering a bit from its own structure and game design. Lacking that sense of relief one gets from finishing an episode of The Walking Dead, every episode feel like it blows past, like you're just getting to something good before the rug is pulled out and you've got another month-long (or longer) wait until the next story piece. That's especially true of "A Crooked Mile," and episode that laser-focuses on Bigby's hunt for the vile presumed murderer, Ichabod Crane. While it makes sense from a storytelling perspective, that intense focus on investigation puts the onus on the game's investigative mechanics to pick up the slack left by the lack of surprises in the episode's plot, and that's just not something this series' gameplay is well-suited for.
After episode two left him standing in a blood-soaked hotel room, glaring angrily at a photo of Crane molesting a prostitute "glamoured" to look like Snow, it's no surprise that Bigby becomes hellbent on finding his former employer. But even with that reveal at the end of the last episode, it becomes clear early on that Crane as the murderer of Fabletown's working girls still doesn't make a ton of sense. Crane's twisted way of sating his unrequited desire for Snow certainly deserves some justice (as does the reveal that he's been embezzling money from Fabletown for years), but nothing about the guy strikes as a cold-blooded killer. Still, with Crane being the only available suspect, it's no wonder that "A Crooked Mile" becomes all about finding him before he skips town.
I've been playing Bigby as a character always on the verge of unchecked rage, allowing him to express his frustration with the constant stonewalling by the other Fables he encounters, while only resorting to actual violence in the most dire circumstances. At the beginning of "A Crooked Mile," as Bigby storms off to find Snow so he can tell her what's been going on, I was initially worried that room for that kind of nuance might be lost in favor of an anger-fueled revenge bender. Thankfully, as you show up at Lily's funeral looking for Snow, the game continues to offer you nicely varied choices for how to proceed. No matter how mad Bigby might have been, I wouldn't have felt right barging into the funeral service, so I chose instead to let Snow continue her speech and inspect the tributes people had brought to honor their fallen friend. This is the first of the "big" choices the game offers you, though it also seemed like the least consequential. Regardless as to how I chose to proceed, the thuggish pair of Dee and Dum would inevitably arrive to cause a commotion, apparently on the hunt for the same man that I was. I tried to play the sequence as coolly as I could, allowing Lily's sister Holly and her friends to intimidate the pair. Yet I still ended up with a gunshot wound for my trouble. Of course Bigby survives, thanks in no small part to the help of a kindly doctor, but it wouldn't be the last wound I'd suffer over the course of the episode.
Once Bigby is patched up in the main Fabletown office, the game branches in a way that calls back to one of the choices in the series' first episode. Here you're confronted by an enraged Bluebeard, a magical mirror that can't be repaired (due to Crane stealing a piece of its shattered glass before skipping out), and multiple locations that must be investigated prior to 2 A.M., when Crane is apparently going to be meeting the witch that's been supplying him glamours. The three locations--Crane's penthouse apartment, the offices of Dee and Dum, and the bar managed by Lily's sister--would each take a considerable amount of time to poke around. For my part, I opted to go to Crane's apartment first, which led me to find Jack Horner robbing the place blind. Jack pleads with you not to arrest him, and despite being given multiple opportunities to ruin the guy--especially after Snow shows up asking what's going on--I decided to not reveal that Jack was burglarizing the apartment. For all I know, that may have zero impact on the story going forward, but I preferred the idea of him owing me a favor. Jack does give some useful info about the witch, who is named Auntie Greenleaf, but not enough to indicate where she might be.
For the second location, I chose to go to Holly's bar. There I found Grendel and the Woodsman, drowning their sorrows following the funeral. To me, the relationship between the trolls and the few Fables who frequent the bar has been the most interesting. They're the hardest luck cases among the Fables, it seems, and their contentious relationship with Bigby (and any authority figure, for that matter) has resulted in some of the most interesting dialogue in the series thus far. You don't get quite as much out of the conversation that follows here, due mostly to the time constraints and your singular desire to look through Lily's belongings before Holly burns them, but there are a few good moments here with both Grendel and the Woodsman, who seems far more defeated than in previous episodes. This is another opportunity for the player to be a dick, or extend an olive branch to a group of people who seem utterly wary of him. I chose the latter, as I often have, and once again, it's debatable whether I made any inroads with them at all. The mistrust these Fables feel toward you seems to run incredibly deep, and I'm beginning to wonder if this series has any designs on allowing the player to ever repair those relationships.
After talking to them for a while, and a bit of conversation with a barely-awake Holly, I was allowed to go through Lily's things. Among some other trinkets, I find an address book that points you directly to Auntie Greenleaf's location. By the time I got there, it was past the 2am deadline, and a little girl opened the door, playing confused in a way that had me immediately suspicious. Like, who leaves a little girl all by herself in a seedy apartment in the middle of the night? Plus, this is a witch who supplies glamours, the cloaks that Fables wear to keep themselves hidden from the real world. The game seemed like it really wanted to surprise the player by revealing that, yes, this girl was Greenleaf in disguise, but I had that feeling from the moment she opened the door, so it fell a little flat for me. Still, Greenleaf is an interesting new character that, unfortunately, you don't get very much out of here. Snow makes a lot of threats, demanding that Bigby put her under arrest and burn the sacred tree she uses for all her magical spells. That's certainly a change of pace for Snow, but makes sense considering how violated she must feel knowing what Crane was up to. Still, being a dirty hippy at heart, I couldn't bring myself to burn the tree. Instead, I made Greenleaf an offer: report to the officially licensed witches of Fabletown and work for the good guys, or lose her tree. Begrudgingly, she accepted, and told us that Crane was on his way to the Pudding and Pie, AKA the Fable-owned strip club we uncovered in the last episode.
Why would Crane go there? Evidently he meant to brace the girls working at the club to try and find out the identity of the true killer. He'd taken a ring from Greenleaf, one designed to make anyone tell the truth--even those with spells cast upon them to keep them from saying anything. Unfortunately, the ring's magic has long since been drained, and when you arrive, you find Crane futilely trying to shake the truth out of one of the girls. With every utterance of "my lips are sealed," Crane becomes more frantic, but eventually he has no choice but to give up. He knows he's screwed, and when faced with the prospect of fighting a very angry man-wolf, he gives himself up.
Unfortunately, you never get the chance to properly question him, as you're immediately greeted outside by Dee and Dum, alongside a new character to the series: Bloody Mary.
Right away, it's apparent that Mary is a psychopath. She cracks a twisted smile at every utterance of potential violence, and she's here at the behest of a mysterious figure known as The Crooked Man. We don't know much about The Crooked Man yet, though it's strongly implied that he's something of an underworld boss in Fabletown, and likely Georgie's benefactor in his club management and prostitution schemes. Whatever his role, Mary makes it clear that he wants Crane. Ostensibly, he wants him because Crane owes him a goodly sum of money, but the implication also seems to be that he doesn't want Crane talking to the cops, which probably means that Crane's a dead man if he's taken by Mary. So naturally, Bigby and Snow resist giving Crane up. That goes very poorly right away, with gunshots ringing out and Bigby down on the pavement.
But then it happens. The moment the series has been building to for a while, where all of Bigby's defenses go down and the wolf truly comes out. Even with all the diplomacy and dialogue I've been making Bigby engage in, I knew eventually he'd lose it, and what better time than with a pair of ugly twins peppering you with shotgun blasts as you creep ever closer to them. This is maybe the most awkward moment of gameplay in the series yet, unfortunately, as you're required to keep mashing a button to shrug off the gunshots and make your way to Dee and Dum. It goes on for a weirdly long time, and it's not especially fun. It becomes more fun once you finally get there and extract a bit of revenge on the twins. Yet, even while going full bore on the two of them, I was able to stop myself from killing one of them outright. As (justifiably) angry as Bigby was here, I still can't see him as a reckless murderer, so I let Dum live. Not that Mary was looking to afford me any such mercy. The episode ends after Mary shoots Bigby with a silver bullet (one of those mythical methods of monster slaying that apparently proves true in this world), and Crane is sent off to The Crooked Man, possibly to never be seen again.
It's an appropriate enough note to close things out on, though I couldn't help but feel like "A Crooked Mile" was missing something. In the first episode, the writers spent a great deal of time just introducing you to, and explaining the basic mechanics of the Fables' world. In the second, all of the investigative work was bookended by two big twists that managed to shake up everything you thought you understood about what was going on. "A Crooked Mile" introduces new characters and throws a couple of curveballs in the player's direction, but nothing seems to land with much impact. As a result, the gameplay is forced to do more heavy lifting, and that's not something Telltale adventures ever excel at. The Wolf Among Us is at its best when the story is driving the player forward, and while the hunt for Crane had its moments, it never felt like it was terribly important in the grand scheme of things--why would you reveal the true identity of the murderer this early in the story?
As a result, much of what you do in "A Crooked Mile" feels like investigative busywork. It's connective tissue, meant to bridge the first act of the season to its eventual conclusion. Having those kinds of episodes in your seasonal structure isn't by itself a bad thing, but as I mentioned at the top, The Wolf Among Us already has this issue of feeling a little light as each episode comes to a close. At least in the first two episodes, I felt like I learned quite a bit about the world and characters I was interacting with. In "A Crooked Mile," the solitary focus on tracking down Crane ensured that I wouldn't be learning much of anything new, and the introduction of Bloody Mary and Auntie Greenleaf didn't do anything to counteract that. While I'm certainly very curious to see what happens to Crane, what The Crooked Man's true role is, and what will ultimately become of Bigby, "A Crooked Mile" is ultimately the least satisfying episode of The Wolf Among Us yet.
- Apologies for the lateness of this recap, as PAX preparations got in the way of me doing this in a more timely fashion.
- So the one place I didn't go, Dee and Dum's office, apparently would have introduced me to another new character in Flycatcher, otherwise known as the Frog Prince. He's working as a janitor in their office, and will take you into a hidden room where they have a bunch of evidence pertaining to Crane stashed. Not having seen the bit, I still think I picked the two more interesting locations to investigate, as the part in Crane's office does a lot to flesh out Jack's character, and the part in the bar is probably the most vital scene in the whole episode. The office scene sounds like one of those bits in a Law & Order episode where they talk to someone for like five minutes and then you never see or hear from them again.
- Of the choices I made, it looks like I was on the majority side of everything except with how I handled Jack. When you first encounter him, he tries to make a deal with you to avoid getting arrested, but I chose not to make it right away. I also had no intention of turning him over, but I thought it would be more fun to make him sweat a little. Interesting that only 29% of players (so far) opted not to make a deal with him right away.
- Looks like it's a near 50/50 split on those who did/didn't kill Dum. I dunno, it really didn't seem like the right move. I've only had Bigby choose to even punch people twice (including a particularly satisfying clocking of Georgie in this episode), so to have him go full murder on a suspect didn't feel right. I'm sure I'll probably pay for that decision in the end.
- Considering what a terrible thing it must be to learn that a creep like Crane is using your image as a sexual plaything, we get surprisingly little development from Snow in this episode. Apart from that bit in Greenleaf's apartment, Snow maintains pretty much the same exact demeanor and personality she has all season long. It's weird, but it seems like only the worst characters are getting much in the way of character progression in this series. I still feel like I barely know much of anything about Bigby, Snow, or any of the other "good guys," outside of their storybook histories.
- Bluebeard's involvement in all this is the one piece I can't fit right now. All I recall of his involvement from earlier episodes--another problem with the multiweek delay between episodes is that my broken-ass brain can't always remember the major plot details--is that he's one of the wealthier Fables and is doing his own police work because...he just feels like it? There definitely appears to be an ulterior motive at work, but Bigby and Snow frequently just letting him do what he wants feels odd as hell. This might be one of those cases where the lack of a complete understanding of Fabletown's power dynamics might just be confusing me.
- When is Colin coming back? I miss that little pig dude.