Editor's Note: Once again, this is a spoiler heavy discussion of the events of the latest Wolf Among Us episode. If you haven't played it yet and intend to, maybe don't read this.
With "In Sheep's Clothing," Telltale is starting to pull The Wolf Among Us' many plot threads together into something resembling an endgame. For three episodes, we've followed Bigby as he's tracked Ichabod Crane, The Woodsman, and the various cohorts of the mysterious Crooked Man, all in service of elusive justice. Innocent women are dead, and for Bigby, that's ample enough reason to hunt their murderer to the ends of the Earth. But to the writers of The Wolf Among Us' first season, it's not enough to just have Bigby hunt a simple killer. As the last three episodes have slowly revealed, there is an even greater evil at work, one that has extended its tendrils into every facet of Fable society. "In Sheep's Clothing" finally pulls back the mask on the Crooked Man's operation, showing just how far into disrepair Fable society has fallen. Death, drugs, vice, and desperation permeate every facet of the culture, and while Bigby has been busy chasing down unglamoured Fables and sending them off to the farm, the Crooked Man has been quietly building a criminal organization that would make most real world mobsters green with envy. Suddenly, it's not just about finding a single murderer, but about destroying an omnipresent corruption, one that threatens to undo what meager amount of good is left in Fabletown.
The last episode, "A Crooked Mile," set this plot in motion with its introduction of The Crooked Man, the fight against his main assassin, Bloody Mary, and the revelation that Crane's misdeeds only extended as far as embezzlement and troubling sexual proclivities. "In Sheep's Clothing" is all about finding The Crooked Man, and discovering just how far his reach extends. Unfortunately, how Telltale chooses to have you go about discovering these things is less than exciting. "In Sheep's Clothing" is another episode in which The Wolf Among Us struggles to justify its own structure, as it stretches clumsily for time, and plugs in new characters that fail to make much of an impact. There are maybe 30 good minutes of storytelling in this hour-long episode, which at once feels all-too-brief and somehow manages to drag through multiple scenes. By the end, I certainly felt like I'd learned all the necessary details to fully grasp the scope of The Crooked Man's grand scheme, but understanding and enjoying are not necessarily related.
Take "In Sheep's Clothing's" opening scene as a prime example of both the best and worst aspects of this series so far. We find Bigby badly injured from his encounter with Bloody Mary last time out. Snow paces about as the kindly doctor tries to remove all the shards of silver bullet that have lodged themselves in Bigby's torso, and Colin reappears just long enough to remind us he still exists. Here we find Bigby at his most vulnerable, and that vulnerability creeps into his interaction with Snow. The will-they/won't-they quality of their relationship hasn't ever really clicked for me in the series so far, and the time they spent together during this scene was the first where I actually felt anything besides indifference toward their relationship.
Unfortunately, even that bit isn't exactly unspoiled. As soon as the doctor leaves, Snow suddenly turns the conversation toward a debate on Fabletown policies. She decides abruptly that the only way to combat all this corruption in Fabletown is to suddenly start doing everything by the book, that strict adherence to the rule of law is the only way things will change. While I don't think she was necessarily wrong about this, the way the point is presented is jarring and sort of nonsensical. As a result of this bit, she suddenly decides that Colin has to go back to the Farm, where all the non-glamoured, non-human Fables are forced to reside. So, to recap, we've just learned that a murderous crime boss has corrupted these people's entire society, your sheriff just had a bunch of silver shards removed from his body, and the thing you're immediately worried about is sending a pig back to a farm? This is the first major player choice you're presented, and it could not have come off as more arbitrary. I probably wouldn't have chosen to send him back regardless, but I think I ultimately made the choice out of a kind of irritated defiance more than anything else.
This is a problem that pervades in The Wolf Among Us. It's following the design model of Telltale's other big choice-driven series, The Walking Dead, but it's rarely managed to keep up the illusion that the choices you make actually matter. "In Sheep's Clothing" may be the worst offender of the series yet, in this regard. Yet another Farm-related decision comes later on, involving Mr. Toad, and this scene feels even more unnecessary than the first. At another point, you're approached by Narissa, the stripper who keeps popping up to try and point Bigby in the right direction, despite the encumbrance of having her lips sealed via magic spell. The conversation between the two is a pretty good one, but it ends with Bigby deciding whether to try and pull the ribbon around her neck off or not. I chose to try, and she recoiled with terror, so I apologized. Then the story just moved on, with the ribbon never again mentioned during the episode. It's entirely possible that in the next episode, this act could have some kind of unintended consequence, but it's hard to imagine one important enough to justify putting this as one of the Big Five choices of the episode.
The only choice that seems remotely tough comes at the midway point, where you're forced to decide which of the two businesses currently being run by The Crooked Man to visit first. Beauty tells you about a pawn shop owned by The Jersey Devil, while Beast points you toward a butcher shop (of Butcher, Baker, Candlestick maker fame--no idea if the other two are corrupt front businesses too) where he's been forced to pick up and deliver mysterious packages. I chose the butcher shop, for no other reason than because I needed to make a choice. The end result? I met Johann the butcher, arguably the dullest character yet to appear in this series, and found a hidden workshop in the back. Here, The Crooked Man has been using slave labor to make illegal glamours, a fact the butcher very willingly ignored for years, following The Crooked Man taking over his business.
After doing a bit of poking around the back room and talking to Johann for what felt like an eternity, I then made my way to the pawn shop, where I found the Woodsman and the Jersey Devil arguing with one another. The Woodsman is understandably annoyed that The Jersey Devil has his ax and won't return it, which results in a scuffle that Bigby has to try to break up. As much as action isn't this series' strong suit, the fight that ensues between the decidedly horrific-looking Jersey Devil and Bigby/Woodsman is probably the best fight sequence so far this season. It's quick and brutal, lasting just long enough to leave an impression without dragging things out needlessly. The information you end up extracting from the Jersey Devil is arguably less interesting than the fallout with The Woodsman. As you leave the pawn shop, you have the opportunity to show him a little kindness by offering him a smoke, or continuing to be a dick to him. I decided to try being a little bit nice, and the resulting interaction is one of the few moments in this series where I felt like the characters actually showed a bit of growth. The Woodsman has been a real pain in the ass all season long, but with each episode, a bit more of his (admittedly broken) humanity has started to shine through. He's still an abusive piece of shit, no doubt, but he also seems a good bit more aware of what a heel he is, and hey, it's something.
The key takeaway for me from the choice between the butcher shop and the pawn shop was that I really couldn't tell if it actually mattered which one I went to first. It felt like I got all the key information I would have needed to proceed choosing as I did. If there were any consequences for choosing one over another, the game never found a way to make that remotely obvious. Instead, the story simply plods along until the mirror is fixed (after an overlong scene involving Buffkin having to "soothe" the magic mirror back to health, and the aforementioned conversation with Mr. Toad), and Bigby has everything he needs to find The Crooked Man's lair. You learn from the Jersey Devil that the door to the Crooked Man's lair moves from place to place at random intervals, but once the door lands somewhere that Bigby and Snow recognize, all he has to do is go there.
It does, he does, and finally Bigby arrives inside the Crooked Man's hideout. He is greeted by Tiny Tim, who apparently works as something of an assistant for the Crooked Man. He's meant to take you to his boss, and the conversation you have with him is all about whether or not you want to let him do his job. You can simply leave him behind as he limps after you, or slow down and let him introduce you. Why? I don't know. I chose to be nice and let him do his job, because there didn't seem to be any benefit to being a dick about it. Likewise, when the Crooked Man is finally revealed, I chose to accept his invitation to sit down and speak with him, rather than barge through and demand his surrender. Why? Again, I don't know. It just seemed like the right move to make, given that I've mostly played Bigby with an eye toward consideration, versus enraged action. Considering that upon Bigby's arrival, you find the Crooked Man surrounded by his entire murderous entourage, it didn't seem likely that I'd be able to just arrest him anyway. So I chose to sit down and listen, and the result? I don't know. This is where the episode decides to drop its cliffhanger, leaving the player to wonder what sorts of conversational delights may await in the next episode.
I wish I could say I was super excited to find out The Crooked Man's motives next episode, but I feel like I already know them. "In Sheep's Clothing" is all about establishing this big bad as the kind of charming, but deadly mob boss that's been portrayed in just about every piece of mob fiction ever made. I expect he'll tell Bigby just how deep this rabbit hole goes, explain why Fabletown needs him more than they need the obviously inept home office, and so on and so forth. There will probably be fights. Maybe Bigby will get his man, or maybe he'll discover that there are forces out there too strong even for him--which will only be acceptable if the finale closes with Colin turning to a beaten down Bigby and saying, "Forget it Bigby, it's Fabletown." Probably not, though. Probably Bigby will take down at least some of the Crooked Man's organization. I suppose on some level I am looking forward to the prospect of Bigby exacting some justice on these killers, but even that feels tempered by what a drag so much of "In Sheep's Clothing" turned out to be. There's still reason to hope Telltale can stick the landing, but at this point I'm tempering that hope considerably.
- If you're curious about what the Crooked Man looks like, just hover over this text here to get a look at him.
- I couldn't find a good way to insert this into the main text, but man, Beauty and Beast could not have taken a lousier turn than they did in this episode. Those two characters haven't gotten a lot of development, but it always felt like there was maybe something more interesting about them bubbling beneath the surface. Turns out, not so much. All along, they've just been a naive, upper-class couple desperately trying to hang onto the lifestyle they're "accustomed to" by doing odd jobs for the Crooked Man. If there was an option to punch Beast built into that conversation, I'd have probably used it sometime after the second or third time they threw out that lifestyle excuse.
- Props to whoever on the Telltale art team drew up the Jersey Devil's true form. Easily the creepiest character design in the series yet. I very much enjoyed ramming one of his own horns through his midsection during that fight.
- Regarding the ribbon around all the girls' necks, I think I know where that's all headed, so to speak. From the first episode, I recognized the ribbon as something associated with an old story, but couldn't remember what it was. Then this week I suddenly remembered: "The Green Ribbon" from the old children's horror collection In a Dark, Dark Room, which was one of my favorite books as a kid. I'll leave it to you to investigate further, if you're interested, but I think it all ties together (*cough*) with what's going on here.
- I'm glad Colin came back. I wish Colin had more to do in this story.