Four months, by the standards of most developers of episodic game content, is not bad. By the standards of Telltale, whose episodes are increasingly short and reliant on some memory of what happened in the previous one, it’s an age. It’s not so long a gap that we’ve forgotten what happened in the first episode of The Wolf Among Us, but enough time has passed for a lot of the urgency to have leaked out. Loose ends are tied up throughout this episode, some more satisfactorily than others, and it’s a shame we had to wait so long. On the plus side the Xbox 360 version’s performance, which lagged well behind the PC release with episode one, has been tightened up considerably... which may explain some of the delay.
This second episode of The Wolf Among Us, the rather unimaginatively titled Smoke and Mirrors, does a fine job of re-establishing the stakes, the universe and most of the big players. New characters are introduced throughout, although for those of us who haven’t read the ‘Fables’ comics it’s often difficult to pick up on who they’re meant to be based on (I don’t remember what it was Little Jack Horner did beyond sitting in a corner, so I’m not sure if his grimy pimp character makes sense or not). The plot thickens a bit along the way, but it’s also fairly obvious that we’re still in the early stages of an unfolding narrative.
There’s an obvious theme running through Smoke and Mirrors: whether Bigby wants to live up to his reputation as the Big Bad Wolf or not. The big decisions are based on throwing punches, smashing up bars, being aggressive, and just generally getting rough. The problem is that the decision to be a jerk or to not be a jerk isn’t so gut-wrenching when the results are largely the same regardless. As with The Walking Dead chapters, a screen appears at the end telling you which percentage of players made which choices, and a fairly even split would be a good indicator that the choices were difficult ones, or at least that they required thought and dipped into murky grey areas.
The choices in this episode generally skewed around 64-70% in one direction, and one choice was made, at the time of writing, by 91% of players. Even the press release Telltale told me “don’t be afraid to PUSH”, but ultimately the decision is coming down to what sort of man you want Bigby to be rather than deciding which tactics are necessary to get to the bottom of the central murder mystery. It’s not as compelling as it could be, and there’s little incentive to chop and change around to develop a more nuanced version of Bigby.
Despite all this the formula, established nine episodes ago with the first Walking Dead instalment, still works. The script is well above what we’re used to from most games, adventure or otherwise, and there’s a general willingness to go to dark places in ways that don’t feel as exploitative or as ham-fisted as they have in other games that tackle similar themes. The game is still gorgeous too – the novelty of the visual style has worn off a bit, and there aren’t many unique locations, but this is yet another example of the potential of cel-shading.
Smoke and Mirrors establishes that The Wolf Among Us will likely be worth seeing through, although whether it’s worth doing so now or waiting for the season’s end is a more open question than one might have anticipated at the end of the first episode. It ends on a cliffhanger, but not one with a whole lot of bite, and the ‘next episode’ preview reveals a third episode that revisits a lot of already familiar locations and story beats. But then I felt the same way about The Walking Dead’s second episode as well, and the folks at Telltale are definitely working with a formula that they know inside out. It should be interesting to see where this goes next.
James “Jickle” O’Connor is a freelance games critic, journalist and occasional editor, based in South Australia. His favourite game of all time is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and he is absurdly, comically rubbish at most fighting games (except for Killer Instinct on the SNES, which was, incidentally, the first game he ever owned). He has huge soft spots for point and click adventure games, third-person shooters, and Deus Ex.
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