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The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 - Smoke & Mirrors Review | Driven Snow

Author:
Jonathan Lester
Category:
Reviews
Tags:
Adventure Games, PC games, PS3 games, Telltale Games, The Wolf Among Us, Xbox 360 games

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 - Smoke & Mirrors Review | Driven Snow

Platforms: PCPSNXBLA

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.

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 - Smoke & Mirrors Review | Driven Snow

Good cop or big bad wolf?

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.

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 - Smoke & Mirrors Review | Driven Snow

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.

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 - Smoke & Mirrors Review | Driven Snow

Beauty and Beast's subplot receives further attention, but isn't particularly interesting

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.

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 - Smoke & Mirrors Review | Driven Snow

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.

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • 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.

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 - Smoke & Mirrors Review | Driven Snow

Add a comment7 comments
Zeipher  Feb. 5, 2014 at 17:42

*POTENTIAL SPOILER?*

Even though the picture above shows Bigby and Beast fighting, I don't want to ruin anything.

I for one made a conscious choice not to fight Beast, thinking that I did in fact have a choice. I thought Beast would realise I wasn't fighting back, and calm down... Instead, he killed me...

First time I've got the Game Over screen in this game, and I was slightly disappointed... both in that moment, and of this chapter as a whole.

Again, I read that the story was re-written because people figured out the killer... but still, having to wait 3 months for an hour's gameplay? Not very impressed, and you're completely right that the first chapter is a little less 'gasp' worthy now.

Breadster  Feb. 5, 2014 at 19:38

Disappointed to hear about the lack of decisions, the first episode was awesome. I guess I'll just wait for the whole thing to come out before I decide on getting it. It looked like it had the potential to be as good as TWD so I hope it gets back on track.

Lemming  Feb. 8, 2014 at 13:40

I rather enjoyed it but I'll agree it lacked the impact of the first episode. As for decisions I did get a breakdown at the end of the game, there were some pretty significant ones *trying not to spoiler here* such as if a character will come with you or not and if you choose to use violence during questioning. As with the last episode I'm sure these sort of decisions will affect how helpful other characters are in later parts of the game and how much information is available to you.

Last edited by Lemming, Feb. 8, 2014 at 13:41
X10  Feb. 8, 2014 at 14:14

Interesting review Jon.
I'm starting to wonder if the 'decisions'/'choices' you make are really worth worrying about with the TellTale Games.
I certainly felt like with The Walking Dead it really made no difference to the final outcome how I treated anyone, what I chose to do or what I decided to say to particular people. Ultimately I ended up at the same destination that everyone else did.
It seems like the same is happening with The Wolf Among Us and it feels almost pointless in worrying about how you might affect a character with the choice you make as ultimately you and I will have the same outcome at the end of the series.
It seems like this 'futility' to actually change the outcome makes me feel *more* detached from the characters rather than other people's seeming engrossement into the narrative by being given choice.

X10

Last edited by X10, Feb. 8, 2014 at 14:19
JonLester  Feb. 8, 2014 at 19:06

@Lemming: "As for decisions I did get a breakdown at the end of the game,"

Interesting, thanks for letting me know! X) Perhaps it's classic Telltale launch day issues that have now been ironed out. Mind you, having tried two different playthroughs, I'd argue that you're basically only able to influence Bigby's attitude, not actions.

This is totally fine - or at least it will be, so long as "these sort of decisions will affect how helpful other characters are in later parts of the game and how much information is available to you." I really hope they do - in more than casual, ultimately meaningless ways.

@Zeipher: "Again, I read that the story was re-written because people figured out the killer."

Hmm. I'm aware of this argument, and there's a compelling case, but... that particular character... suggests that Telltale might be double bluffing here.

Last edited by JonLester, Feb. 8, 2014 at 19:08
Lemming  Feb. 8, 2014 at 20:10

@Jon I wouldn't be surprised if it was a bug.. I only got to play the thing today thanks to the mess over the season passes on the 360!

I'm tempted to replay ep 1 and 2 totally differently and see just how different it can turn out. Telltale seem to be getting better at this but it would be great to see the story diverge further. I really want life and death decisions that change the whole story, is that too much to ask though?

Zeipher  Feb. 10, 2014 at 18:39

@Zeipher: "Again, I read that the story was re-written because people figured out the killer."

Hmm. I'm aware of this argument, and there's a compelling case, but... that particular character... suggests that Telltale might be double bluffing here.


I'm not so sure... remember in the first scene, if you say a certain something to the lady it comes up with "she will remember that". I imagine that means something... but I'm not exactly sure how.

I can't imagine them taking 3 months to make this episode if they already had the story laid out, which I imagine they would have. Seems to me that they had to do some last minute re-writes for whatever reason.

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