Telltale Games proved that their comic book adaptation of The Walking Dead wasn’t a fluke when they launched their first episode of their next graphic novel-turned-adventure game, The Wolf Among Us. But fans have been forced to wait months to see how the second chapter of Bigby Wolf’s investigation would play out – a delay the developer claims won’t be happening again.
Now the second episode of the series, ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ has finally arrived, taking the series’ already mature tone and content into an even darker corner of the “Fables” universe. Does the turn to the dark side keep the story building, or steal attention away from the core mystery?
The debut episode of The Wolf Among Us proved that Telltale wasn’t letting the fantasy setting or characters of the “Fables” comic series distract from the core narrative; in short, a hard-boiled detective story starring the Big Bad Wolf (read our review). The trailer for ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ promised that the story would be getting more mature, more graphic, and potentially even more shocking.
Make no mistake: ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ most certainly takes the series into a far more adult and oppressive genre; where the first episode hinted at what scum might be slithering underneath the stones on which Fabletown was built, the second turns them over, forcing the community’s authorities – and Bigby in particular – to see what they’ve allowed to fester. The added layer of fantasy and fairy tale provides a twisted dimension to the already troubling subject matter, but it isn’t really necessary.
With a detective story at its heart, large portions of ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ could take place with the “Fables” fiction removed entirely, with any detective, any deceased young woman as the catalyst for his investigation. The episode’s success, as was the case in the prior installment, is its restraint. There are a few action sequences present, but the bulk of the interrogations and evidence-gathering feels as calmly-paced and nuanced as the very best of the classic ‘detective story’ of film.
It would and should be enough of a compliment to the team at Telltale to say that at its best, The Wolf Among Us continues to share its DNA with the likes of Chinatown; also managing to avoid many of the missteps of the similarly-motivated L.A. Noire. Bits of evidence are uncovered quietly and contemplatively, with the developers refusing to spell out the finer details of Bigby’s reasoning. In other words: characters will connect the dots ahead of the dialogue prompts, just as Bigby has, urging players to do the same.
However, just as the slow-burn, less-is-more mentality of the detective story The Wolf Among Us emulates isn’t for everyone, neither will this game satisfy every player. The Walking Dead‘s premise offered an overwhelming sense of tension and immediacy, throwing threat after threat at the player and asking them to survive while compromising as much or little as possible. In ‘Smoke & Mirrors,’ the studio is leaving no doubt as to just how different their goals truly are for this series.
By asking players not to react to an outside threat, but take the lead in an investigation that has already hit close to home, there’s a good chance many Walking Dead fans will decide this series isn’t for them. Especially since the tone, pacing, and progress of the story reflects the fact that Bigby’s investigation is just kicking off. The less said about the plot the better, but with a pair of murders, the real legwork and clue-gathering take center stage. Colorful characters help keep the investigation engaging, but there’s no way to overlook the fact that the series is building towards its most gripping act.
Even so, for those who hunger for a well-spun detective tale, and are willing to take note of the subtle connections and leading statements, there are simply few games like this. The closing moments of the episode are nearly as shocking as its predecessor (although some will be able to see it coming), but the cliffhanger ending does call into question just how much the future installments will be concerned with surviving the fallout of the mystery, as opposed to solving it.
Unfortunately, the impression was given early on that one of the main elements of choice and consequence in The Wolf Among Us wouldn’t necessarily be the player’s ability to solve a mystery, but to decide how much of Bigby’s violent side they would let out. In episode one, that choice was given in an extremely violent (read: action-heavy) context, but in ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ the ability to guide Bigby’s morality is offered more frequently, but in much subtler ways. After all, Bigby has reason to become a bit more aggressive in his interrogations now that the case has become personal.
But if the lopsided results shown at the end of the episode are an indication, the choices are far less ambiguous than those offered in The Walking Dead, as a majority of players seemed to exercise similar control. Either that, or Telltale’s fans have developed a knack for seeing the most promising course forward.
Telltale has kept up its quality of writing, atmosphere and mystery, beginning to tie together story threads while heightening anticipation even further. However, there’s no question that the relatively slower, methodical pace of this episode will leave less of an impact on some players. Those who favor a slow burn will still welcome the experience, but if Telltale hadn’t made audiences wait four months to play this episode, they would have had a much easier time keeping both groups happy.
The Wolf Among Us: Episode Two, titled “Smoke & Mirrors,” is available now for PC, and Mac,, Xbox 360 and PS3 on February 5, and iOS devices soon. The episode costs $4.99, with the full season order costing just $19.99.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.