The first episode of Telltale's new game series, The Wolf Among Us, was a fantastic little surprise. Not only because of the quality of its production and storytelling, but the way that it so effectively differentiated itself from Telltale's previous game series, the groundbreaking The Walking Dead. While both games share the same DNA in terms of their adventure game mechanics, the first episode of The Wolf Among Us crafted its own identity thanks to a much more appealing visual style, fleshing out a unique and refreshing setting, with thrilling combat scenarios and a disturbing tale of violence.
But The Wolf Among Us' real test would be whether or not it could be engaging throughout its season. The Walking Dead's biggest problem apart from its technical issues was its inconsistent quality between episodes. It was a rough ride that -- while still my Game of the Year of 2012 --was sometimes hard to get through a really bad episode.
Thankfully Episode 2 of The Wolf Among Us: Smoke and Mirrors is not a bad episode. It carries the powerful momentum of the first episode forward, even if not as gracefully.
Without spoiling it, Smoke and Mirrors' chief concern is addressing and ruminating on the cliffhanger moment at the end of Episode 1. The serial murders of Fable fairytale women is escalating at an alarming rate. Bigby Wolf, the former Big Bad Wolf and currently serving as the sheriff of the Fable communnity, is under more pressure than he has ever been under since escaping his dying fairytale homeland with his magical kin into the mundane human world.
This drives him into making some questionable morale choices to try and catch the serial killer before they select their next victim. Or rather, drives you. Decision making is still the primarily form of interactivity in The Wolf Among Us. What kind of character Bigby becomes is up to you. And as you dig deeper into the seedier elements of the Fable society and see the miserable lifestyles that have been forced upon Bigby's fellow people, even the most paragon of players will have a hard time not getting angry. But the complex sociopolitical environment of The Wolf Among Us and brilliantly written characters could give the renegade in us pause in the middle of a fistfight to consider what a thrown punch could mean. What message it sends into the next episode.
Even just two episodes in, The Wolf Among Us is determined in showing you that your choices, whether you threw that punch or not, already have consequences. A broken wall, a broken arm, a couple broken hearts, there's already a great variety of ways that players can diverge from each other. Though there won't be a lot of opportunity for breaking arms in Smoke and Mirrors as action is scarcer in this installment. Episode 2 is more interested in letting you soak in sinister, violent situations but stripping the thrill of combat out of it.
It's a quieter episode that instead focuses more on crime scene investigation and traditional detective work. More than once you'll be asked to explore an area, look for clues and coming up with your own deductions to move the story forward. While I love these scenes because they separate The Wolf Among Us the most from The Walking Dead, each of these scenes are fairly abstract in how they progress forward. Every time these sequences concluded by awkwardly ending my investigation for some arbitrary reason. With obvious clues lying in the open, my character walked away from these crime scenes while I was yelling at him to stop and go look at the clue. Every time this happened it was aggravating and perplexing, the only times that I've been frustrated with any aspect of The Wolf Among Us.
But apart from that, the pacing of this episode is really strong. Despite being more straight-forward than the first episode, Smoke and Mirrors moves the story along in profoundly meaningful ways. It also introduces you to some of the seedier corners and characters of the Fable society which introduces even darker, more adult elements of sexual and economic exploitation that made my skin crawl. Even in these despicable environments though, the incredible neon noir style shines with a strong synth soundtrack guiding you through these dark, dark times.
While not as powerful as the first episode, Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors continues The Wolf Among Us series strongly. It's a much more straight-forward episode with some awkward pacing as the game crudely drags you away from its investigation scenes, but takes you to some really dreadful places and challenges your humanity in some really fascinating ways. The episode moves along at a good clip, dealing out a good mix of mysteries and answers to keep you hooked until whenever Telltale decides to release Episode 3.
And hopefully that won't be another 4 months. Jesus.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)