Review for The Wolf Among Us: Episode Four - In Sheep’s Clothing
It would be fair to expect a lot from a penultimate installment of an episodic adventure series like The Wolf Among Us, given how good this series has been in spots, and especially given that Telltale Games has proven they know how to tell a great story. You want the episode leading into a finale to crackle with the energy of inevitable conflict and build a legitimate head of storytelling steam, with hopefully one final twist or reveal to stoke the fire of anticipation to see how it all wraps up. Unfortunately, In Sheep's Clothing is everything you wouldn't hope for: a crashing bore that jogs in place through endless, often irrelevant dialogues and regresses the main characters and story to the point where any anticipation you had from earlier episodes will likely give way to well-deserved skepticism.
Coming off of the visceral and violent conclusion of the prior episode, A Crooked Mile, which seemed to shake off the rust of Episode Two and get the series firmly back on track, I was certainly expecting to dive right back into the pursuit and detective work with appropriate urgency. Instead, this episode opens with an excruciatingly long scene which finds Bigby being stitched up from the grotesque wounds suffered in the previous cliffhanger, and integrating the "fight sequence" mechanics into a grisly manner of dealing with your own compound fracture, a scene that seems more than a little gratuitous. Colin the pig, possibly the most entertaining supporting character from the first episode but summarily ignored until now, adds a nice bit of levity with his welcome return, but can't compensate for a sudden sharp turn in the character of your constant companion Snow White, who has taken her new role as the chief executive of Fabletown a bit too seriously and is now an annoying, emotionless drain constantly setting you up for games of good cop/depressing cop.
After this drawn-out first chapter, Bigby first sits down in his office with Nerissa, the dancer from the Pudding & Pie club who has some information that she can only share with Bigby—except she can't due to the power of an outside force, so the conversation ultimately does not go anywhere interesting. Bigby next responds to a call to visit the home of Beauty and Beast, and again the game drags down for a lengthy conversation that really undermines the supposed urgency created by the last episode. These two characters probably found the end of their usefulness in the first two episodes, but sadly this sequence finds them wallowing in self-pity and being drained of any real energy or appeal that they had as supporting characters.
The episode then offers another "which two mentioned locations will you visit first" decision, between a pawn shop and a butcher shop. The events play out differently depending on your decision (a key item will be at the second location either way), but with no lasting consequence. The butcher shop really wastes some atmospheric potential in a sequence where Bigby makes his way through an array of hanging meat toward a backroom. Instead of feeling creepy and hazardous as it should, instead it feels like clumsy wandering, more like stumbling around an unlit room with no real threats. The pawn shop features the game's only moment of actual intensity and confrontation, a big fight with Jersey Devil that has a couple great moments of inspired violence and an appropriately brief and impactful dialogue with the Woodsman.
After a trip back to the home office to gather some final clues and pass the time with another lengthy supporting character conversation that is not germane to the main storyline, it appears the episode’s finale is poised to deliver a grandiose confrontation and end with a bang—and then, right as you enter into the mouth of the beast with the entire season's rogues gallery in full view—the game ends on a dime, with no legitimate cliffhanger, no indication of actual danger, no new information revealed to provide some added suspense. It just ends, barely over 70 minutes of playing time in, feeling so incredibly short and abrupt, yet so stretched and lengthy with all of the bloated conversation scenes.
The real flaw with the way the series has developed is the total emasculation of Bigby as any type of detective. There are no "clues", no real "leads", nothing approaching problem-solving. This episode features the final nail in the coffin of any type of traditional adventure puzzle trappings, as there is literally no longer any inventory and only a miniscule amount of free walking—the game is all dialogue choices. Bigby just wanders through these protracted conversations and all the filler information necessary to get the game to any type of acceptable release length, and eventually is shuffled off to the next conversation. I used the analogy in an earlier episode, but more than ever this series has been reduced to the feeling of simply clicking through a PowerPoint presentation with a modicum of fluidity in the content of conversations. The rewarding feeling of having actually done detective work to uncover a clue is never offered.
These faults in storytelling and pacing do nothing to undermine the appealing visual style of the game. Almost all featured locations are new to this episode, so I applaud the consistent generation of new, attractively colorful art assets. The fight sequence would not be nearly as entertaining without the visceral detail, and as interminable as some conversations feel, the camera direction and facial animation are often brilliantly cinematic. The episode is very light on music but uses it well for atmosphere; the background music of the office scene with Nerissa notably adds a nice melancholy tone. It's difficult to find much in the way of art and sound criticism; this game's faults are almost purely mechanical.
Recently Telltale has been able to dispense with most mechanical criticisms, because the presence of choice has been the trump card. The feeling of creating your own story, bending the narrative (regardless of how much actual malleability there is behind the scenes), and living with the consequences of your in-game decisions is exhilarating when done correctly. There have been such moments in this series, even a great one at the very end of the third episode, but the choices identified by Telltale here as the five worth displaying statistically really highlight how little of importance has happened. Two of the five are identical, relating to sending Fables to the upstate farm if they can't obtain a human-form glamour, and both decisions are made at the end of too-lengthy conversations that negate the urgency of the brewing confrontation with the Crooked Man. Another of the five major choices is simply "which of the two potential locations did you visit first", a decision with clearly no lasting effects. The last two are just subtle measurements of how you interacted mid-conversation; the fact that these decisions are hovering around 50/50 right now means nothing other than they are utterly boring and unimportant distractions.
I just love the style of The Wolf Among Us. It looks so good and the voice acting is generally solid and so well-directed. When it clicks it really brings the spirit of Fables out in a big, violent, ultra-stylized way. Unfortunately, it is now failing as a compelling game and is diminishing, or under-using, its strongest supporting characters. Whether this is due to a distracted developer nursing three other big-name franchises simultaneously, or due to a sudden rush to get episodes out the door on a certain schedule, Telltale has backed itself into a corner and now has only one chance left to deliver a solid final episode and reclaim the promise that the first episode had in spades. I don't care if the last episode takes six months to come out; this series has too much potential to end on another whimper.