The Wolf Among Us: Episode Two - Smoke & Mirrors review
The twisted fairy tale mythos of The Wolf Among Us continues in Episode 2, Smoke & Mirrors, a sequel that took its sweet time (at least by Telltale standards) to resume the story of Bigby Wolf, the Sheriff of Fabletown, and his quest for a killer. This time the mystery takes our hero to the dark and seedy corners of Fabletown, and then appears to expose a major revelation at the end—an end that comes faster than expected and exposes some of the pitfalls of the episodic format in a moderately disappointing chapter.
It may seem like whining to pound home the obvious—that it's been four months since the first episode was released, while in the meantime Telltale has managed to start another series and announce two others. But that issue goes beyond spoiled entitlement; the extended delay actually has a significant impact on the enjoyment of this game. If you're a serious fan of Telltale, or the Fables series that this is based on, or both, then you likely played the outstanding first episode (probably in one sitting) right when it was released. If you took my advice, you avoided replaying it so as not to dilute the unique path of the story you were creating. Then, if you're anything like me, you've been distracted a hundred times since and the exact memory of what choices you made and why you made them in Faith have faded from memory.
Telltale usually takes the opportunity to address that, of course, with their "Previously on..." introduction segment, but this time the intro drops the ball entirely, failing to provide a coherent reminder of the pertinent events that got us to where we are. Even worse, it fails to connect in a meaningful way with the decisions you made that (at the time) seemed to be of sincere consequence to the story. This episode does not begin well, and even if you did replay Faith again immediately before beginning Smoke & Mirrors, you're likely to feel like some of the momentum has dissipated.
I intend to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but the second episode deals with the previous cliffhanger in relatively short order, and then exposes the true identity of the murder victim and her connection to Faith. This revelation then leads to a lengthy conversation with the victim's family, and then the game proceeds into darker territory as the underbelly of the prostitution ring in Fabletown is explored. One important choice from the first game plays out in the last scene, which features the game's only real fight sequence (not nearly as violently entertaining as the Woodsman fight from the previous episode) and climaxes as the final clues of the killer's identity appear to be pieced together.
The strength of the series continues to be the nuanced character of Bigby Wolf and the player's ability to connect with him and his decisions in a genuine way. The two best portions of the episode are lengthy sequences that amount to interrogations—one in a formal interrogation chamber with your peers observing, and commenting on, your actions; and one alone with the new character Georgie Porgie in a dingy Fabletown strip club. You can proceed through each with a minimum, or maximum, of violence. You can conduct your investigation as a merciless savage, utilizing your superior strength and showing no pity for the property or well-being of others; whatever it takes is what is necessary. Or you can play the bleeding heart caretaker, showing force but ultimately seeking the peaceful path. And of course, there are nuances in the middle, and the game's portrayal of Bigby as you put him through these moments serves to really reinforce the emotional connection.
Those nuanced mid-interaction decisions are really the extent of the "choices" present here, a surprise given that Telltale has built their recent reputation on player agency to drive the story. The lack of real difficult, time-sensitive decisions is definitely a disappointment in this episode. There is really only one choice (involving whether to allow someone to come with you on your investigation) that feels like it could have a significant repercussion on the way events will play out, and unfortunately there is so little emotional support for the other decision that the episode’s final statistics revealed that 93% of players had made the same choice as me. That can't be a positive outcome for a design philosophy that aims for a 50/50 split in major decisions. It is also important to note that there are no decisions made in the first episode that appear to have any remaining relevance by the time this episode wraps up.
Then, just when you may be thinking you're on the cusp of a major new decision point, the episode ends quite suddenly. For me, this was 85 minutes in, making it the shortest Telltale episode I've ever played. It ends with a revelation that seems to come a bit too early, before the story has really banked enough emotional momentum to elicit a genuine gasp—and then unwisely shows a "Next Time on..." epilogue that appears to unnecessarily reveal some key information about how this cliffhanger will play out in the next episode! It's the last in a series of questionable storytelling decisions in this episode, and it's a bit worrisome that the story has become a weak element of the series.
However, you can be assured that the style-heavy elements of the first episode are still in fine form. The neon graphics are gorgeous, a blend of ‘80s garishness and squalid noir that I find as visually appealing as any modern game. And I really admire the facial animation; the detail with which the characters convey concern, fear, surprise, and other necessary emotions is remarkable, further reinforcing the emotional impact. The music is fine, but is relatively subdued when present and does not do a whole lot to complement the story beats. Though adult content should hardly be a surprise or disappointment to anyone who played the first game, be advised this episode is awash with profanity, graphic violence, and female nudity.
The voice acting is still exceptional, barring a couple slight missteps where characters don't seem to react with the right tone of voice (likely a product of the branching dialogue trees resolving back to the same line), and the voice actors are given top-notch noir-soaked dialogue. Dave Grossman is credited as lead writer this time and continues the perfect blend of murky human drama and dark humor introduced in the first episode.
On all technical fronts, the style of the game shines brightly. It's just such a shame that there isn't more of that style to see. The Wolf Among Us is such a cool-looking and interesting world, it's too bad there is literally no exploration to be found in this game. I do not think I've ever played a more severely linear adventure in my life, and even in the rare moments when you're walking around a room, the game positions you right in front of the next clue to click on. Though I still find it frustrating the game mandates WASD as the only walking option (unless using a gamepad), that complaint is pretty moot with the minimal amount of actual walking necessary. The effect of this game, other than the interaction sequences, is similar to clicking through a very cool and interesting (and short) animated PowerPoint presentation, rather than the necessary exploration that is so endearing in the adventure genre.
Smoke & Mirrors feels more like Episode 1.5 than Episode 2 of The Wolf Among Us. It's so short, and so linear, and so devoid of the type of meaningful shades-of-grey decisions that Telltale seemed to have mastered, that it feels more like a bridge. It connects weakly to the first episode, rushes headlong to its cliffhanger, and then seems to totally blow a potential surprise from the upcoming episode. Yet it's a delight to look at and it still features one of the most appealing protagonists in adventure gaming. I deeply enjoyed being Bigby Wolf and relished the feeling of having control over the manner that I used to dispatch his brand of Fable justice, and I loved looking at every visual element in Fabletown.
Even with its enjoyable moments, once I’d completed the game in record time I immediately looked back with a bit of disappointment and growing nervousness about the future of the series. Telltale certainly can't afford to take this long again, not with a story this short and only mildly memorable. Whereas Faith was a blazing fire of style, Smoke & Mirrors is more of a smoking ember that is not likely to win over those already skeptical of the series.
The adrenaline-laced interactive sequences of Smoke & Mirrors are fun to play, but in between the gameplay is far too sparse and linear, and its story loses some story momentum in the process.