Developer: Telltale Games
After the brilliant and bittersweet gut punch that was The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1, it's no surprise that Episode 2 gives us time to recover. Time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start making sense of the preceding few hours.
Yes, it's time for the difficult second album. Smoke & Mirrors is exactly what you'd expect: a slower, shorter, more thoughtful and somewhat less satisfying episode that still keeps you raptly glued to the screen for its two hour runtime.
If you're reading this, I assume that you've already got a working knowledge of Bill Willingham's Fables universe and played Episode 1. Here's the skinny just in case: all your favourite fairytale characters are real, living in 1980s New York in an underground society and doing awful things to survive. After a hunt for a serial killer and sickening revelation leaves sheriff Bigby Wolf (The Big Bad Wolf) reeling, Episode 2 opens with our antihero facing police interrogation, before eventually picking up the scent of a shocking new lead.
The quality of Telltale's writing and dialogue brought Episode 1 to life more than the stylish cel-shaded visuals, and it's even more impressive here. Bigby is now an established character -- your established character defined by your actions and attitude in Episode 1 -- meaning that Smoke & Mirrors can build on things further. Little details will come back to haunt you as you visit new locations and revisit old haunts; a severed arm here (or not!) and a casual reference there, while the emphasis is very much on choosing whether to define Bigby as a brutish violent thug, more sensitive inhuman being or a nuanced mixture of the two. Whatever you choose, the supporting cast react realistically and relateably to your personality and actions, strengthening the relationship with your fellow Fables even as your suspicions deepen and trust becomes an increasingly scarce commodity.
A handful of major set pieces test our moral mettle. Will you treat a prisoner interrogation with respect and decency, or extract information with shocking violence? How far will you push a traumatised child to discover what he knows? These are questions only you can answer, and even though gameplay boils down to the same click-heavy and highly linear affair we're used to from The Walking Dead, Telltale's peerless writing makes even the most minor of character interactions a moment of intense thought-provoking gravity. It's a good thing too, because there are few of the pulse-pounding QTE sections that worked so surprisingly well in the first episode, leaving the script to do the heavy lifting.
Smoke & Mirrors hits its peak in a sleazy strip club run by Georgie Porgie, who's found his niche as a thoroughly detestable pimp who treats his girls without the tiniest shred of decency. He's a superb villain, a rakish nasty piece of work, and such a tempting target for a full-on cricket bat shakedown. From the rakish camera angles to dialogue bubbling over with barely-suppressed menace and brooding synth soundtrack, this masterful scene exudes sinister style from every line and cut, whether you use threat of violence or the act itself to get what you want.
"Georgie won't forget that." No sir. Neither will I.
Naturally Smoke & Mirrors introduces more loose threads than it ties up, ending on another shocking cliffhanger that forced a bizarre squawking sound out of my disbelieving larynx. However, a cheap and cowardly narrative decision midway through the episode also declaws much of the first chapter's impact, for reasons that I'm not at liberty to discuss due to our anti-spoiler policy. Suffice to say that some of the more glowing comments I made in the Episode 1 review now come off as a little premature.
Regardless, this latest episode is another masterpiece of style and storytelling, but I do have to haul Telltale over the coals for some basic game design infractions. Occasional visual glitches and clumsy animations notwithstanding, they still seem to be unable to craft environments that are easy to navigate without getting hung up on the scenery, despite only needing to make the smallest of spaces. Expect plenty of clumsy fumbling as Bigby finds it difficult to move past a bed or table. Sort this, Telltale. Some players also report save file problems, but nowhere near the extent that TWD suffered. I encountered no issues whatsoever on the PC version.
Oh, and considering the months we've had to wait, it's not really long enough. Conversations can be teased out for extra backstory and unlockable 'Book Of Fables' entries, but an extra half hour of character-building dialogue wouldn't have gone amiss.
And there's a bigger problem.
When I reached the end of the episode, I was surprised to not run into a metrics screen showing how other players dealt with key decisions. Pleasantly at first, since I personally believe that this spoilery contrivance is obtrusive and ought to be optional, rather than outright telling players where the narrative diverges. However, after playing Smoke & Mirrors through a second time, I gradually realised that there aren't actually any decisions to make.
However you play Bigby, regardless of how you deal with each situation, whatever you do or say, you'll end up at broadly the same conclusions and in exactly the same place. Smoke & Mirrors sticks to its rails to an almost patronising degree; never giving us any way to influence the story at large or any real detective work to sink our teeth into, save the occasional opportunity to piece a few facts together or fiddle about with a facile tumbler puzzle. All that changes in the grand scheme of things is how the supporting cast feel about us - or at least, what the game tells us through its glib text prompts.
Of course, our love and/or intense hatred of the characters makes us care deeply about how they view Bigby, and makes each "X will remember that" or "Y noticed that" feel important. Ultimately it's up to episodes 3-5 to make these relationships important in terms of story progression and late-game twists. We won't know how successful Smoke & Mirrors is until the killer is caught, and we can assess The Wolf Among Us in its entirety.
As such, the score I've agonised over for several hours is effectively meaningless. Season pass holders will love it, but if you've yet to take the plunge, you might want to continue holding off until the next episode.
- Peerless writing, dialogue and voice acting
- Fleshes out and builds/destroys relationships with superbly strong, memorable characters
- Freedom to further define Bigby in thought-provoking emotional situations
- Compulsive, sleazy, edgy atmosphere loaded with style and menace
- I've eaten ham sandwiches that were more interactive
- Short, narrow and disappointingly railroaded
- A cheap and cowardly narrative decision will prove controversial
The Short Version: As the second episode of a five-act drama designed to deliver story details and strengthen character relationships, it's difficult to know whether Smoke & Mirrors lays essential groundwork or treads water. Though restrictively linear even by Telltale standards, the truly masterful quality of its writing and stylish atmosphere cannot be denied, leading to a compelling if slower continuation of the gritty Fable.
Having set the stage, future episodes now need to give us more in terms of puzzles, real detective work and big decisions to make... while translating the cast's deepening respect or hatred for Bigby into pivotal game-changing moments.
"Georgie won't forget that." Prove it, episode 3.