The third episode of Telltale's pitch-black fairy tale noir The Wolf Among Us finds the series now deeply dug into what it wants to be, for better or worse. A Crooked Mile is another extremely short chapter, but it packs as much emotional and physical punch as it can into its abbreviated running time, continues to drive home the strength of Bigby Wolf as the player-character, and pushes the series in a much stronger direction than the previous episode.
Episode 2, Smoke & Mirrors, ended with a revelatory cliffhanger and the apparent knowledge of who the evildoer behind the Fabletown murders actually is (with photographic evidence to prove it). This revelation puts your partner Snow White at significant risk, so the immediate priority this time around is to find her and get her out of harm's way. Snow happens to be tying up some loose ends from last episode's events, and the first major set piece of the episode is an explosive multi-way confrontation driven by your interruption of Snow's work. The investigation proceeds as you attempt to identify a Fabletown witch who may be involved in some dirty dealings, and then reaches a climax as you locate what you hoped would be your bad guy—just in time for a new confrontation to explode as another apparent villain steps out of the shadows.
The word "confrontation" is a key to the success of A Crooked Mile—the game's best sequences are two lengthy confrontations involving multiple characters all at red-line levels of tension with a very short fuse before serious blood is spilled. It's almost a direct response to what I felt was a rather boring second episode with too much one-on-one conversation. Although Bigby's appeal as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense sheriff is brought out by those type of moments, the entire Telltale mechanic of choice-driven gaming succeeds best in these pot-boiling confrontation scenes. Characters are yelling at each other, weapons are produced, and that timer for you to make your dialogue choice recedes rapidly.
Although the story isn't necessarily moved forward a great deal by these situations (since the entirety of your focus is just reacting to the events of the last episode, with no new information really learned until the climax), the immediacy of the scenarios taking place is so much stronger, partially because of the better structure of confrontation and interaction scenes, and partially because of some really strong writing. Moreso than I can remember in other Telltale episodes, I often found myself legitimately tongue-tied in the middle of a conversation because, placing myself into the shoes of the Bigby Wolf I was portraying, the situation was often so intense and frenetic that none of the three dialogue options stood out as “the right one.” Silence as a dialogue option can be very poignant when faced with a scenario so combustible that the wrong word is sure to blow things up, and I often saw so much grey in the situation in front of me, I could not make up my mind and the time ran out. It's rather impressive to me that the developers can convey this type of emotional urgency in a setting that is really just a dreary noir fairy tale; it's hardly The Walking Dead, where every choice really feels like human life or death is at stake, but the emotional weight here is remarkable.
Despite this sense of player urgency, there aren't too many major story-bending choices to be found in this episode. There is one moment where you can choose which of three clues to pursue first, knowing that you are on the clock for finding an answer, and this choice does appear to have an impact in how the story proceeds—I know I found myself regretting the decision I made when all the facts were known. There is also a major, character-defining decision that you'll make near the end of the climactic confrontation that appears to be nearly a 50/50 split for players according to the end-game statistics, which seems like the truest mark of success for Telltale. However, three of the five "landmark" decisions that are highlighted at the end of the game appear to not be particularly difficult—I found myself in agreement with over 80% of the player base on all of them, and on one the decision was so overt that 97% of the players were on the same side as me (and I hope I never meet one of the sociopathic 3% in a dark alley).
I'm aware that other players decry the fact that these choices, including the minute-to-minute conversation branches, are too artificial and ultimately lead back to the same place anyway. My response to that: I'm fine not knowing if that's true, because I play my story my way and only once, and whether or not there is a better way or a true branch of the story, I wrestle with the implications of each decision with an uncomfortable uncertainty that a game like this should always elicit. The two major confrontations in this episode are violent and incredibly intense, and they may end with some severe injury or even loss of life depending on how you play it out. I am not sure what the "ideal" path is, if such a thing exists, but I ended both sequences shaking my head and feeling certain that I could have handled that better. It's that sincere sense of regret and questioning that makes this type of gaming so rewarding.
These confrontations and interactions would not be nearly as meaningful without very capable, and very well-directed voice acting. The actors are not only trying to capture the gravity of their scenes, but are also trying to embody the ascribed traits of their fairy tale characters, which makes it that much more impressive how well the voices of characters like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (the menacing psychotic private detectives) are executed. There is not a mediocre performance to be found, and it’s all brilliantly assembled in a very well-produced package. Though it's hard to pick up without pulling yourself out of the story to observe, the cadence of these conversations is so important to their success, and there is never a pause or questionable spacing in any confrontation; each interaction proceeds in a rapid-fire cinematic burst, exactly as you would hope any good noir crime thriller would. The game also uses flickering lighting and other similar visual effects to continue emphasizing the tense atmopshere, while toning down the neon pastels that dominated the last episode.
When I mentioned earlier that this game reinforces what this series wants to be, it's not all for the best. There were a couple moments of exploration and puzzle-ish challenge in the first episode, but that is totally out the window now. There is absolutely zero inventory in this game, no puzzles or exploration to be found—hardly any walking at all, and absolutely no chance for the game to last any longer than the 90-minute play time that I experienced. The series is starting to lean too heavily on moments of "click all five hotspots on this shelf, then watch cutscene" as a somewhat lazy excuse for intellectual challenge, and while I appreciate the lack of narrative speedbumps in a momentum-driven story, this series is becoming the epitome of linear progression with only conversation trees to keep you clicking.
That's what The Wolf Among Us is now, and while I'll have a hard time ever considering it to be a perfect adventure in that sense, once you're comfortable with what you're getting into, A Crooked Mile delivers a very strong transition episode to drive the series toward its penultimate episode with a lot of momentum. With some exceptionally well-written and directed confrontation moments, a disquieting level of tension and violence, and a whole array of questions opened up about the true identity of the villain from the climactic scene, this series has regained some lost traction and is now well-positioned to take our heroes head-first into whatever dark choices they will have to make to solve the Fabletown murders. Play A Crooked Mile in one sitting with the lights down low and you'll really enjoy this brief but tension-filled experience.