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Neither Big Nor Bad

When Telltale Games announced that their next game would be an adaptation of the comic seriesFables — rather than a follow-up to their widely and justly praised The Walking Dead — more than a few were confused by the notion. Turns out, mixing things up with The Wolf Among Us was awonderful idea.

In the world of TWAU, the fables of yore have blended into modern day New York City and have developed a semi-working society. Keeping everyone in line is Bigby Wolf — aka The Big Bad Wolf — one time antagonist of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. But, he's "good" now, or at least somewhat well-behaved. In fact, things have be going well in Fabletown, at least until the first murder in years takes place.

And here's where we players come in.

If you’re wondering how gameplay works, it’s nearly identical to TWD, so getting a handle on the controls should be a breeze for those that experienced last year's post-apocalyptic romp. If you’re unfamiliar with Telltale’s previous work, both are third-person point-and-click adventure games, drizzled with QTEs and drenched with real-time conversations.

The most significant difference is absolutely in the combat. Fighting in point-and-click titles can often feel clunky, but this is not the case in TWAU. Your actions must be swift and precise, but both the mouse and Xbox 360 controller handle well under duress. My only gripes emerge during the walking-about sections. The movement is a bit imprecise, and I found myself bumping into walls every now and again. But, at the end of the day, a minor critique to have for an otherwise smooth game.

Undoubtedly, the heart of any Telltale game lies within the story. The world of Fabletown and its citizens are instantly enthralling. Each and every one of them nearly drowns you in character. Seeing childhood memories turned into drunken women abusing fools or snobby political figures is a perverse and surrealistic joyride. When I came across Mr. Toad in some crummy over-sized clothing, waddling about a rundown apartment, smoking, drinking, and swearing up a storm — that was amazing. There’s something about gazing upon these once innocent and beloved faces out of their element and reduced to being . . . well, human. Sure, seeing a talking toad is pretty fantastical, but once you realize he’s no better than most trailer-trash, it's rather disarming. The magic is drained, and what remains is contrast. Contrast of our world, and the world we only knew from fairy tales.

The tough choices of TWD have returned, but with far more grace and less heavy-handedness. It’s not something so blunt as choosing which character to save. It’s more like having two options, both with clear benefits and disadvantages. In fact you’ll find them to be nearly equal. However, the apparent "facts" can be rather misleading and no choice is easy. Even when you decided, the results of the other option aren’t so readily apparent, giving way for plenty of opportunities to regret your actions.

Telltale’s greatest achievement in TWAU is their ability to keep the player guessing. Few writers in general are capable of maintaining unpredictability, but in my roughly two-hour playthrough, I was often left in the dark. I had my inklings about a few possible directions, but nothing concrete. The tension rapidly increased, and an overwhelming feeling of futility consumed me until the very end.

For you noir fiends out there, TWAU is certain to satiate your hunger. The under-appreciated and distrusted Bigby swims in a sea of moody atmosphere cut straight from Chinatown and Double Indemnity. Toss in those terms and phrases game journalist overuse — immersive, for one — to describe such things. They all apply.

Speaking of noir and classic crime stories, as you might imagine, on multiple occasions you’ll be expected to survey the area and question potential witnesses. Incoming double-edged sword!Playing detective and putting two and two together is a thrill. That is, until you find out how mechanical it can be. Most situations come down to finding evidence, and then properly questioning people. At face value, this is fine. "Failure" is a possibility, as you can get too tough with people or simply miss evidence. However when you succeed, this is when the proverbial strings controlling the puppets become visible.

 

I had my reservations going in. Telltale has a hit-or-miss history, and simply being on par with TWD is a tall order. Somehow, someway they have positioned themselves to match — and possibly even exceed — TWD. It’s too early to tell for sure, but TWAU is shaping up to be another unforgettable experience from Telltale, one surely to shock you right out of the gate. While we don’t know when the four remaining episodes will hit, it’s safe to assume a few will fall in 2014. In fact, considering how spectacularly things have started, there’s a good chance scheduling will be the only factor holding TWAU back from being a GOTY contender.

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