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Mega Review: The Wolf Among Us Episode 2 – Smoke and Mirrors
The Mega Review is Leviathyn’s brand new style of review that gives multiple perspectives on the same game. With each writer giving the title in question its own score and personal review, now it’s easier than ever to pick the personality who you believe best reflects your taste in games! Read one, read two, read them all or simply skip to the end to witness those holy numbers that run the industry.
Fergus Halliday’s Review (PC)
Smoke and Mirrors moves the plot of Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us from its fantastical introduction in Faith to the neo-noir mystery that it was arguably created to tell. In contrast to the first episode in the series, Smoke and Mirrors is one with a core theme behind it – deception – and it doesn’t take long before it becomes clear to Bigby that everyone in Fabletown has something to hide.
Without going into it too much, I found the resolution to the first episode, Faith’s cliffhanger to be very well executed. Like any good fake-out, all the clues were there but cleverly hidden away. Additionally, a number of the subplots introduced in Faith are developed a bit more in this episode, with the intriguing trouble-in-paradise story of Beauty & The Beast taking center stage towards the end. It’s all very well done, however between these subplots and the resolution of the previous episodes cliffhanger, there isn’t all that much new happening in regards to the main plot.
In terms of gameplay, Smoke and Mirrors is pretty typical Telltale fare with a good balance between quick-time-event heavy action scenes and well directed dialogue sections. While Smoke and Mirrors doesn’t stray too far from the formula established in the first episode, it does nail the same sort of dynamic player-driven characterization that I really enjoyed. Once again, players can choose to play Bigby as the self-destructive and ruthless enforcer of law in Fabletown or as a wounded anti hero struggling towards redemption – both equally compelling paths in their own right.
Although there is a reasonable amount of asset recycling in Smoke and Mirrors, there’s also a number of new environments that show off the series’ unique visual style quite well. I really liked the environmental design of the Witching Well and the later parts of the episode set within a dingy motel. Similarly, I quite enjoyed the new characters who made their debut appearance in Smoke and Mirrors such as Bluebeard and The Little Mermaid. Once again, the animation and voice acting behind these characters was fantastic and I’m very keen to see who else pops up as the series goes on. That said, I was very disappointed at the lack of Colin in this episode; I hope he makes a triumphant return in the next installment.
Another aspect of the episode that I found compelling was the thematic focus. From the reveals surrounding the last victim and TJ’s lie to his father, deception was clearly rife throughout the episode’s duration. Whatever choices you made at the end of the previous episode, a good part of Smoke and Mirrors involved sorting through the many red herrings and false leads the series has already thrown at Bigby. While this thematic angle to the storytelling might not be for everyone, it’s certainly the kind of thing that helps further distinguish The Wolf Among Us from The Walking Dead.
If there’s any real criticism that I have regarding Smoke and Mirrors it’s that it feels distinctly more linear than Faith did. Everything feels more on-rails – which worked well for the episode’s opening. Overall it felt a lot more constructive and less branching than the first episode did. To be honest, the only chapter of the episode that I felt approached the same level of freedom in storytelling as Faith was the final one. Even still, that’s a bit of a letdown.
Without harping on about it any longer, Smoke and Mirrors nails its landing and manages to hit the ground running on the back of the series’ superb opening episode. While Smoke and Mirrors doesn’t have the impact of its predecessor, the slower pace works well to set the stage for things to come. If the ending of the episode is anything to go by, things are going to get chaotic and grim real quick.
Cameron Wade’s Review (PC)
It’s hard not to imagine what happened to Smoke and Mirrors during its prolonged development cycle. The new episode looks, sounds and plays the same as its predecessor, but something’s different. All of the elements of Telltale’s adventure game formula are present, but they’re not assembled in the right way or in the right amounts. It’s as if in the four months between this episode and the previous, Telltale forgot what exactly it was that made that first episode so great. Not to say that this episode isn’t good, but gone is the awe from the premiere episode Faith and what’s left can’t hold a candle to what came before. In short, the magic’s gone.
The biggest strength of the newest episode is how it continues to characterize Bigby, that is to say, how it lets the player characterize him. How do you treat a scared young boy who has information you need? Do you destroy somebody’s business to force them into helping you? How violent do you need to be when defending yourself? These questions and more plague Bigby as he continues to navigate a world where, good or bad, people don’t trust him. He struggles with doing the right thing or the effective thing, and part of that is rooted in the way he treated his fellow Fables in the past. Do you act tough and mean just like they all expected you to, even if it might help the investigation? Telltale forces the player to walk this tightrope and along with Adam Harrington’s careful, layered voice acting, Bigby continues to develop into one of the more compelling video game protagonists in recent memory.
Unfortunately the narrative isn’t handled as well as Bigby’s character. After setting up a fantastic mystery in Faith, Smoke and Mirrors largely wastes its time by retreading the same ground for most of its duration. Bigby goes from one clue to the next and visits new locations and characters, but until the final sequence nothing noteworthy or interesting really happens, and then the episode just ends suddenly with no climax or payoff. There’s also a lack of major decisions to be made that could drastically change the narrative. Episode one featured a number of decisions that felt like they impacted the narrative and the characters, but episode two is distinctly more linear and for this style of adventure game that’s a major problem.
A slowly developing plot might be okay if the episode didn’t plod along like it does. The Wolf Among Us, in a style taken from The Walking Dead and apparently Telltale’s design standard going forward, essentially has three types of gameplay: action, investigation, and conversation. The conversation and action sequences are the most compelling considering they’re the ones that have the biggest effect on the story. Investigation scenes generally just consist of clicking on all the highlighted items and listening to exposition until the game lets you move on. The first episode was a perfect mix of the three, changing in the play style so that it was natural within the context of the story and doing it before any of them went on for too long. Episode two fails to properly pace itself, being almost wholly dominated by dialogue sequences. Compared to the three action sequences in the first episode (all of which were tense, exciting, and narratively appropriate), there’s only one disappointingly short one here. Not only is it too underwhelming to serve as the episode’s sole action scene (despite one particularly violent moment), but it has no bearing on the main plot and the conflict that starts it is basically over once the sequence ends.
Even running on a high-end PC this episode featured technical problems that didn’t appear in Faith. After every single load screen there was noticeable stuttering, including in the recap cut-scene at the beginning of the episode and in the teaser at the end. There was also one instance in my playthrough where Bigby didn’t start moving his lips until after dialogue was mostly over. None of these problems are huge but in a game so wholly dependent on the execution of its story, small consistent irritations disrupt the experience.
With the release of episode two, The Wolf Among Us has gone from great to good. It’s still one of the most gorgeous games ever made, it still has an incredible score that establishes its mood perfectly and it still tells a more involving story with more interesting characters than 90% of video games out there, but its stumbles with episode two have left it in a shaky position. Hopefully, whatever caused problems for Smoke and Mirrors won’t affect the next three. Hopefully, like The Walking Dead, it comes out swinging in episode three and puts itself back on track. Hopefully, The Wolf Among Us rekindles the magic.
Alex Shedlock’s Review (Xbox 360)
To say that my first experience with Smoke And Mirrors was rocky would be understatement. Like so many others who have had problems with downloadable titles and DRM, for example with Diablo 3 or SimCity, I couldn’t play Smoke And Mirrors for two days due to an online marketplace issue. What really rubbed me the wrong way was that the issue arose specifically because I invested in the series and bought a Season Pass to get all the Episodes for free- but the Xbox Live Marketplace wanted me to pay again anyway. However, the problem was possibly just a Microsoft one; there’s a chance it might not reflect on TellTale Games’ service whatsoever.
The brief cameo by Jack (of Beanstalk fame) is highly appreciated. His voice actor, surprisingly, was pitch-perfect. As an episodic narrative, Smoke and Mirrors is definitely better than Faith. The highlight of Faith for me was the interrogation scenes: trying to get the situation out of Toad, or grilling the Huntsman for info. Smoke and Mirrors embraces this out-of-the-box crime procedural stuff more than Faith, and really comes into its own. There are more high-stakes conversations in this offering, and they all feel like you genuinely have something to lose from asking the wrong question or pushing someone’s wrong button. There’s less off-topic social dialogue and more pure investigation, in line with Detective Shelby’s capers in Heavy Rain, though frankly The Wolf Among Us does a better job of it than either Heavy Rain or, Rockstar’s genre classic, L.A. Noire.
Heavy Rain is a point worth dwelling on: like Quantic Dream’s great yet flawed adventure, some of Smoke And Mirrors’ dialogue choices are a bit iffy. Telltale really perfected the writing of these make-or-break dialogue choices in The Walking Dead: you know exactly what Lee was going to say when you chose something, and it usually had the effect you were going for. The Wolf Among Us: Smoke and Mirrors, however, has more than its fair share of problematic and ambiguous dialogue choices.
Choosing the option “You know more than that” results in a pretty aggressive showing from Bigby, scaring the other character. I chose this option to specifically press the interviewee gently. I felt a familiar pang of frustration and guilt at this, familiar from when Cole Phelps would yell at a witness or suspect in L.A. Noire if you chose “Doubt.” This problem occurs several times in Smoke and Mirrors.
What’s worse is that occasionally not even the unambiguous “item finding” bits of the game work perfectly. At one point near the episode’s conclusion, a piece of key evidence was hidden from me behind a piece of furniture in the foreground. (I have graphical signposts switched off, so the little image didn’t show up through a bed. The signposts ruin part of the challenge and fun, in my opinion, but not to the point that I can’t proceed in the game.)
If we look only at the writing itself, the story and the dialogue in Smoke and Mirrors are up to Telltale’s usual excellent standard. I’m still not sure how I feel about Bigby and Snow’s voice acting, having read the comics, but the thrill of playing a murder mystery set in the heart of an incognito neighbourhood of fairy tale characters… it’s ingenious. We see more of this world in Smoke and Mirrors, and the episode ups the ante in terms of the mystery and gallery of suspects. The deeper you delve into the world, the more you’re rewarded with insightful and delightful realisations about who you’re talking to.
Yet no matter how much I enjoyed the narrative, I was repeatedly left flabbergasted by how choppy the whole thing was from a technical standpoint. Not even considering the gameplay problems I had above, the game’s frame-rate is totally inconsistent from literally its first seconds to its last. One moment two people will be chatting in a taxi with all smoothness, then the game will cut to a panorama of a New York City street, and it’ll suddenly start jerking and freezing; when nothing’s happening. Even loading times are worrying; on several occasions I thought the game had crashed because the loading icon stopped moving for a full minute. Clear audio clipping happens every time there’s a chapter change. TellTale’s Xbox 360 code clearly has some odd, off-key jazz going on in it. And I don’t mean the good kind of off-key.
The final plot point, the final twist of the episode, is incredible. On the whole, I love Smoke and Mirrors’ narrative and style and whodunnit mystery dearly. Watching Bigby look at a cheap soda machine in a sleazy hotel and mutter, “This s**t’ll kill ya,” then taking a drag on his cigarette is one of countless tiny moments that make me love it. Like all the greatest noir thrillers, this is a tale about the characters rather than the mystery itself.
However, good story development only barely seems worth the two months wait and frustrating near-DRM bug. The Walking Dead‘s tightrope plot which dripped with tension only worked so well because it released on a monthly basis. The model, when it works, is similar to a weekly TV series: you feel desperate for the next episode, but know the wait won’t be too long.
If The Wolf Among Us’ third episode is going to take another three months, I’m really not sure if it’s worth the wait. I’m fine with the episodes being short, which is understandable for the release model, but when the experience is plagued by technical incompletion, still-not-perfect dialogue choices, and downloading issues it may not be enough payoff for the wait. Unlike with The Walking Dead, I just don’t feel desperate for the next episode.
After combining their powers and channeling their minds to unify into one, supreme reviewing mind. The final, average score for this game is…