The Wolf Among Us - Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on PC, Sony PS Vita and Sony PlayStation 3
The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors
[Please note - this review may contain spoilers for Episode 1]
With the shocking conclusion to the first episode of Telltale’s neo-noir fairytale The Wolf Among Us, we were left agog, desperate to find out what the impact of that last gruesome murder meant for Bigby Wolf’s investigation. Waist-deep in a complex mire of red herrings and shadowy suspects, one can only feel for the poor chap as he comes to terms with this new loss whilst simultaneously being interrogated by mundy (“normal”) police who view him as a potential killer.
Smoke and Mirrors wastes no time in throwing him - and you - in at the deep end, and watching you flounder. Compared to the excessive handholding most games force upon you this is admirable, but if you consider the length of the wait for this second episode, a bigger refresher on what occurred previously would have been welcome. Instead, you’re expected to recall the main characters, their history, and their prior interaction with Bigby from a two-hour debut delivered almost four months ago. To compound matters, the frame rate of this “previously on” segment is shocking. Staccato animations combine with black screens and out of sync audio to produce a confusing mess of an introduction, which does little to jog your memory about the decisions you previously made. It’s like streaming a HD video over a 56k modem. Interestingly, these issues are far less pronounced on PS3 (we can’t comment on the PC version, but please feel free to add your thoughts below!), so if you’re a console gamer lucky enough to have the choice, we’d recommend that version over the 360’s effort.
Thankfully, things improve once the episode actually starts and you’re back in Fabletown, ready to crack skulls. Having selected a likely suspect at the end of the last instalment, the choice you made will determine who is tied up awaiting questioning at the beginning of this one. The nuances of Bigby’s character are even more key this time around, with Adam Harrington once again giving perfect voice to the seething rage lurking beneath the Big Bad Wolf’s surface.
Several features from Faith appear to have been jettisoned in Smoke and Mirrors, for both better and worse. The QTEs have been scaled down to allow you enough time to action them, but at the cost of the directional choices available in the first episode. Rather than having the option of choosing how to fight, you’re left with simple “push down” or similar commands, which is a step back from the innovative possibilities available to you previously mid-fight. Furthermore, the fights themselves feel extraneous and unnecessary, as if they were thrown in at the last minute to try and add some frisson to proceedings.
A bigger loss is that of time-sensitive choices. Whereas Faith posed a life-or-death decision which hinged on the order in which you tackled proceedings, there are no such quandaries here and the game suffers because of it. There are calls to make, no doubt, but they seem less substantial and the implications of each is not clear at this stage. This is perhaps a symptom of the episodic genre, especially with such a linear narrative. The expectation is that events will ramp up to a climactic finale where the result of your agonised decisions will culminate in something which ties up all loose ends and provides a satisfying conclusion. The reality is likely to be a little different. With around ten hours of storytelling and multiple decision trees, it simply won’t be possible to account for and relate back to every on-screen flash of “[Character] will remember that”. Even the players themselves will be unlikely to recall all of their choices, unless they waited for the entire story to be released and played through in a single sitting. Instead then, the bigger decisions are the ones that generate excitement and fear, regret and happiness. We’ve come to expect this from Telltale now, so it seems odd that this episode lacks the very choices which put them on the map with The Walking Dead - we can only attribute this to a combination of a compacted narrative and a clearly rushed release, and hope that it’s a temporary blip for the series.
Whilst negative comparisons to its predecessor seem easy to draw, the high points shouldn’t be overlooked. The quality of the dialogue is again superb, in both structure and delivery. It seems regional UK accents are here to stay, as we’re treated to new addition Georgie Porgie’s Lancashire brogue alongside the Cockney grit of the Toads and Tweedle brothers. As with the previous episode, this is mature storytelling which doesn’t hold back on expletives, especially in the case of gratuitously foul-mouthed Georgie. It certainly fits the grimy setting of his surroundings and the dark nature of the game as a whole, but is not something you want to be caught playing when Granny pops around. For every heated exchange, there are moments of tenderness. Bigby’s paternal nature coming to the fore whilst gently questioning TJ is a particular highlight, but other characters also have a chance to shine in their interactions far more than before.
This is tempered somewhat by the overall narrative taking more of a back seat in the episode, with the frequent locale changes failing to hide the fact that events progress ponderously until the expected cliffhanger ending. More galling is the overall length, clocking in at around an hour and a half if you take your time and explore every hotspot, and about an hour if you push through. With such a long wait between episodes, the lack of playing time in the finished product feels like something of an insult, although it could be argued that being left wanting more demonstrates how effortlessly the game and story engage the player.
And it does engage, despite you not having to actually do anything of note, other than clicking on hotspots. A basic puzzle is chucked in half-heartedly at the midway point which will take all of ten seconds to work out, but otherwise there is far more of an emphasis on detective work this time around. Whether you’re searching a body for clues in an LA Noire-style scene or piecing together the violent events which took place in a hotel room, the story grips far more than it deserves to given how little of it there is, especially when delving into the fantastical nature of the world it is set in. You could replace most of the Fabletown characters with those in a Raymond Chandler novel, and it would still hold up. Does this point to underutilisation of the series’ unique properties, or simply that the murder-mystery itself is strong enough to stand on its own? In this case, the answer is somewhere in between.
Visually, the game continues to stand up as some of Telltale’s best work, Whether you’re in the cold gloom of a makeshift morgue or a seedy neon-drenched strip club, the art direction never fails to impress. The occasional glitches do annoy though, with a wad of money becoming embedded in Bigby’s hand for the duration of a scene, mirroring a similar issue with a bench and the Woodcutter in the previous episode. Hopes of the protracted release providing a seamless playthrough should be set aside - Season Pass owners are even experiencing issues actually being able to download the episode.
Ultimately though, Smoke and Mirrors is a short but engaging chapter, hindered by some odd decisions around the choice mechanics but bolstered by a deeper look into Bigby’s heart, for better or worse. Do you go in hard or play nice cop? We opted for a more restrained approach this time around, but only multiple playthroughs will determine the true differences in the way the story unfolds. That this is something we are eager to do is recommendation enough, but the ongoing engine issues and the length of time between instalments risks damaging the IP. If Telltale can address enough of these concerns in the next episode and release something made from bricks rather than sticks, it will certainly reduce the amount of huffing and puffing from gamers.