For every tug of the heartstrings that Telltale‘s Walking Dead adaptation effected, their take on DC Comics Fable series, The Wolf Among Us, remains steadfastly focused on being a detective thriller with an impossibly macho character at the forefront.
None more is this apparent than in the series’ sophomore episode, Smoke and Mirrors, where brutal interrogations, tense encounters and further exposure to the amoral underbelly of Fabletown underscore a dialogue-driven adventure that while highly enjoyable, feels all-too brief and remains hobbled by familiar technical issues.
Smoke and Mirrors kicks things off in earnest with Bigby trying to piece together the clues leading to the tragic climax of the first episode and well, he doesn’t exactly play nice. At all.
As before, Smoke and Mirrors carries on the noir-detective style story beats with Bigby questioning, coercing and depending on the whim of the player, smashing up property and putting fists in faces to get the answers he needs. As cool as it is to see Bigby do his thing, it becomes apparent after a while that the player really isn’t afforded a lot of creative latitude in how they play the character.
In almost all instances, Bigby’s growling retorts and responses are aggressive in some measure; after a while it just feels like you’re playing a cool character, but one that is a bit of an asshole for the most part. As such, choosing to not smash up somebody’s club to get answers or just destroy a few things here and there makes you realise that you aren’t choosing bespoke and very different responses, you’re just electing for one shade of asshole over another.
While it is undoubtedly cool to an extent to play as this swaggering, take-no-shit, Clint Eastwood type character, engagement with Bigby and by proxy, player investment in his ultimate fate suffers as a result. The guy seems pretty much untouchable and because of that you never go into The Wolf Among Us thinking he could conceivably kick the bucket at any point.
And that’s the thing – the peril, the sheer peril that made The Walking Dead such a compelling vendor of cliffhanger endings just isn’t present in The Wolf Among Us. Simply, Bigby never feels weak or comprised; his macho exuberance a world away from the vulnerable and swagger-free denizens of The Walking Dead’s desperate cast who suffer and die with nail-biting frequency.
Where The Wolf Among Us continues to excel however, is in the script itself with Bigby and his Fabletown pals being treated to some of the best videogame writing that’s been seen in a long while.
More than its inaugural episode, The Wolf Among Us’ second offering takes us spiraling down Fabletown’s seedy rabbit hole, with some of the most beloved fairy-tale characters being forced into situations and vocations that utterly compromise the innocence that their tales had them synonymous with.
Some of the exchanges are classic stuff and the new characters feel like great additions to the burgeoning digital cast; northern accented Georgie Porgie being a particularly vile specimen whose strip club ‘puddin’ and pie’ is as much a grim inversion of its fairy tale origins as Georgie himself.
Elsewhere, existing characters are fleshed out admirably, with Beast getting a little more screen time and Beauty’s secret which was hinted at during the course of the first episode now coming to light. Other characters such as Ichabod Crane and the Tweedle brothers are developed further too, and without spoiling anything major, this second episode provides a turning point for more than a few of these characters.
The climax that Smoke and Mirrors ends on is potent, but elicits nowhere near the overwhelming emotion that The Walking Dead managed to achieve with such frightening reliability. Even by its own standards, the ending, while grim in its own, nasty and horrible way, isn’t quite on the same level as the concluding events of Faith, the previous episode.
In spite of such comparisons though, it succeeds in setting up the events of the next episode with due aplomb, even if it doesn’t boast that same emotional grip as the last one.
Smoke and Mirrors is essential then for folk who have sampled the ample delights of that first episode, the problem is that it’s all over far too quickly. At just under two thirds the size of the first episode, it’s difficult not to feel a little short-changed; doubly so considering the wait of over four months for this episode to arrive.
Another problem which remains from the previous episode and is also a probable part of The Walking Dead’s legacy are the technical issues tied in with data streaming.
On the Xbox 360 version of the game, whether it’s switching scenes, starting up the game or loading your save game, the engine really seems to struggle with streaming in the visual assets. The ‘next time on The Wolf Among Us’ post-episode sequence especially stutters about manically; the dialogue often sprinting ahead of the jerkily loaded and slow-down rife visuals.
It’s a shame too, as such inconsistencies also put the perfectly-styled, cel-shaded visuals of The Wolf Among Us in a bad light; a mystifying fact given that the engine isn’t exactly chucking around loads of visual effects to warrant such worryingly variable performance.
Fans of Bigby Wolf and whodunit mysteries will continue finding much to love here, and Telltale Games certainly know how to weave a compelling narrative stuffed with intriguing characters and dialogue that aptly honors the original source material. Sadly, the combination of an unreasonably modest length, a real lack of suspense and the continuance of familiar technical problems all hamper an episode which qualitatively strays from its episodic debut.
A season pass for the Xbox 360 version of The Wolf Among Us was independently acquired by the reviewer.
Published by Warner Bros Interactive and developed by Telltale Games, The Wolf Among Us is available on PC, Mac, PS3, Xbox 360 and iOS
Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4 | Episode 5