Telltale Games surprised me with the first entry in their new series, The Wolf Among Us, last year with the debut episode “Faith”. In fact it was one of my favorite things I played last year. A curious, hard-boiled story taking place in a grimy 1980’s New York City filled with Fables, or storybook characters such as Snow White and The Big Bad Wolf (known as Bigby Wolf here), hiding out amongst the rest of the normal or ‘mundy’ population, it was a unique and slightly ridiculous story. It ended up being my favorite episode of anything Telltale Games has done, so I was eagerly anticipating episode two of the series.
I was happy to find that the second episode “Smoke and Mirrors” mostly kept up with the style, quality of writing, and sense of player agency as the first. While not quite as vibrant and well-tuned as its predecessor, “Smoke and Mirrors” does an excellent job of pushing the murder-mystery story forward. Focusing on exploring darker, more adult themes of violence and sexuality, “Smoke and Mirrors” does a good job of increasing the tension and drama of the story, and while I missed some of the humor found in “Faith”, the more serious tone of this episode worked well within the genre. The more grim tone also creates an interesting juxtaposition, taking characters most of us are familiar were first introduced to by Disney films and putting them in a violent, harsh, 1980s New York reality. In all honestly, the way the Fables are depicted is likely more accurate in tone to their darker, Grimm Brothers Fairytales origins than the more recent commercial depictions.
The detective fiction story is still the strongest thing The Wolf Among Us has going for it. It fits the interactive fiction style formula of games developed by Telltale Games by having predictable beats and a wide cast of characters to explore scene-to-scene. The drama, often at its peak through the many confrontations I went through as Fabletown Sheriff Bigby Wolf. In Telltale’s distinctive animation style staring down suspects while baring my teeth, or having people recoil away from me as I questioned them were easily and expressively conveyed by Telltale’s animations. The detective genre also works well in dialogue puzzles, where inference and intuition (albeit, not too much) are used along with traditional adventure tropes of inspecting items in a room to put together clues of what happened. On the balance “Smoke and Mirrors” works well, if it is a bit of a slower burn than the first episode, as Bigby delves further into the mystery of the murders of the Fables.
Which is probably one of the main problems with “Smoke and Mirrors”. While there is on paper good plot progression, the nature of the investigation means that more questions are raised than answers and “Smoke and Mirrors” feels very much like a transitional episode. Compounded with Telltale’s historic variability in timing of the release of sequential episodes, it will be quite disappointing having to wait for another three months to play the next installment. Another problem of the episode is that it can no longer rely on the uniqueness of the art style and premise to entertain, and the series now needs to continue to work hard to keep the audience engaged. “Smoke and Mirrors” does a decent job of this, but the episode suffers comparatively to “Faith”. Lastly, the series depiction of women is still stuck in the history of the genre, and every woman Bigby meets is generally helpless, victims, . While the hard-boiled genre was partially defined by this in the past, I long for a stronger female character in future episodes of The Wolf Among Us.
As Bigby digs deeper into the murders, it became increasingly unclear as to whether the actions I’m taking as Bigby are justifiable. Telltale has done an excellent job here at simultaneously encouraging you to play the Big Bad Wolf as a rough detective, using violence to get what you want while also making you feel guilty for being such a ruffian and trying to get you to show a kinder, gentler side of Bigby. As I my actions were constantly being questioned by others regardless of what route I took, I generally felt unsure as to either path, and the table is clearly being laid for some interesting character dilemmas for Bigby in future episodes.
While many of the characters encountered in the first episode return, the cast also expands nicely. Most of the new characters are interesting, well voiced, and appropriately relatable or despicable. Telltale does characters and character interactions well and that helps keep The Wolf Among Us a joy to play. One issue here would be the introduction of Bluebeard early in the episode, voiced by Dave Fennoy (who voiced Lee Everett in The Walking Dead). Fennoy’s Bluebeard comes off as a two-dimensional, rich, slightly exotic villain and feels a bit forced. Outside of that, the cast does a wonderful job, with Chuck Kourouklis’ performances as both Toad and Bufkin being particularly delightful.
There are fewer action sequences in “Smoke and Mirrors” than there were in “Faith”, and nothing stands up to the prologue sequence of the first episode, which is a bit disappointing. The choreography of the actions sequences is still strong, but given the game is already light on ‘traditional’ game mechanics, it’s definitely noticeable and disappointing. That said, the real draw here is role-playing as Bigby in a world of fantastical characters, and whether you’re gruff and violent (like I am in my playthough) or altruistic and kind, “Smoke and Mirrors” does a good job at making you doubt your actions. The game does more in its 90 minute or so runtime in terms of characters than most AAA games can, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to the next installment.