Note: This review is about 95% spoiler-free. Expect vagaries.
New York. Gotham. The City of Dreams. The City So Nice, They Named it Twice. Few cities in the world are quite as glamourized as the sprawling, steel-caged concrete jungle that is the The Big Apple. But the New York in The Wolf Among Us isn't that city, the one with the flashing lights, beautiful sitcom-people and the rags-to-riches stories. This is a darker New York, unembellished and disillusioned, the part that houses the unhappy, the damaged and all the ones who fell through the cracks while chasing their dreams. And it's glorious in a raggedy, oh-god-this-is-gritty-and-uncomfortable-I-wish-everyone-was-nicer-to-everyone-else sort of way.
But, to rewind a bit for those who missed the first ferry, The Wolf Among Us is TellTale Games' take on life before Bill Willingham's comic book series Fables. Set well before the events of the comic, The Wolf Among Us focuses on the titular lupine, the gruff Bigby Wolf who serves now as Sheriff and law enforcement for the estranged Fables. (Abridged story: Fables ran away from their Homelands, took refuge in New York, are now endeavouring to survive without being revealed as fictional characters.) In Faith, the first chapter of the episodic game, Bigby finds himself called in to deal with a domestic disturbance somewhere in an unsavoury corner of the Bronx. From there, it escalates, leading up to the inaugural chapter's cliffhanger. (Nope, no spoilers for you.)
Smoke and Mirrors opens a few hours after the aforementioned end, with a sullen Bigby answering questions at a mundy (that's their word for us non-magical plebians) police station. He doesn't stay long, however. Soon enough, our wolf in detective's clothing is on the streets again and things almost immediately begin taking a turn for the worse, leading players down a rabbit hole occupied by pimps and crack-whores. Unlike in Faith, which took seeming pleasure in the idea of introducing talking pigs and Anglo-Saxon behemoths, Smokes and Mirrors deals with more relatable monsters. Unconscionably high rents. Poverty. Drug addiction. Familial conflict. Too-human predators we've all read about at least once in the papers. The greatest thing about Smoke and Mirrors is how eloquently it reminds us that classism is a real, god-damned problem.
This is also precisely the reason as to why I'm so bloody frustrated with Smoke and Mirrors. Telltale Games did some incredible things here. The writing is mostly great, the voice acting is stellar, the setting appropriately mature without dipping into the realm of shock-jockeying and the characters, while not necessarily likeable, have more than enough personality to evoke proper emotional responses. Which is why, I suppose, Smoke and Mirrors' inadequacies feel the more pronounced. It's been commented before that Telltale Games' choice systems offer no real sense of player agency. Though we're led to feel as though our whims have actual impact on the game, few of our decisions really change anything about the narrative. And that's usually okay. But, in spite of its name, Smoke and Mirrors makes our impotency far too obvious for my liking.
An example: there's a scene early on where you're required to interrogate a suspect. I do, but I do it nicely - mostly to spite some people I don't like. As I dig information out of him, I'm pushed to decide, time and time again, if I'd rather go with violence or compassion. It's only at the last prompt that I elect to be something other than Bigby's awkward blend of pleasant as I opt to tighten the person's restraints instead of loosening them. No big deal, right? Right. Moments later, characters explode with accusations, demanding to know why I had hit the subject, why I had chosen brutality over professionalism. It had me gawping at the screen. When did I hit him? I snapped frustratedly, even as Smoke and Mirrors ploughed on, leaving Bigby to meekly accept his reprimand and me to fume over my own helplessness.
This is not the only time Smoke and Mirrors falters. Later, in the far-too-short chapter, we see characters fail at making logical conclusions, at articulating answers for the most obvious questions. Even when evidence is piled up as high as it'd go, they express surprise. Repeatedly. It feels like Telltale Games might have been trying to ensure no one, not even the lowest common denominator, is alienated by The Wolf Among Us's mysteries because I can't imagine any other reason for Bigby's occasional interludes of obliviousness. Having said that, this seems part and parcel of the episodic content experience. For all of its flaws, Smoke and Mirrors does build up to some interesting places. With luck, the next one in the line-up will feel a little less awkward.
After that crazy cliffhanger from the first episode of Telltale Games' A Wolf Among Us, Episode raises the stakes and violence level. After two murders are left on his doorstep, Bigby is still flailing around in the dark, trying to figure out who is killing women in Fabletown.
This is just episode two or a five-episode series and unlike The Walking Dead, you're not seeing lengthy jumps between each episode. So you'd think not much would happen in the second episode of the series, but things actually move along at a rather steady pace. By the end of Smoke & Mirrors, you'll know the identity of the murderer, even if you don't know 'why' yet. (The killer's identity isn't much a surprise if you know your fables.)
One thing I love about The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us is that Telltale's stories continue to be on my preferred side of 'mature'. There's a lot of profanity, but it makes sense where it's used. There's even some brief nudity in this episode, but it's not the focus of the scene and works within context. There's material here where the horror aspect could be played way up, like the examination of the second corpse, but the developer holds back on making it gruesome. The game features mature situations, but does it with some subtlety instead of screaming, "Look at that blood! Look at all that nakedness!" like some other games out there. I appreciate the even hand.
The Wolf Among Us continues to highlight the lengths people reach in order to survive. Fabletown is a far cry from the land the Fable came from and they've all had to be twisted and turned just to eke out a living. No one is completely exempt from the harsh fist of reality, not even the upstanding Snow White, who bristles against her inability to do anything for the people under her care. It could be crushing to wallow in this emotional mire, but that's why my Bigby did his best to be kind to other Fables, even if that's at odds with his nature.
The noir artstyle also goes a long way towards making The Wolf Among Us work for me. I enjoyed the comics, but artist Mark Buckingham's style is more cartoonish in nature. That means Buckingham was able to capture the lighter moments a series which could be very humorous at times, but certain darker scenes didn't have as much weight as they could've. Telltale's house artstyle lends itself better to this murder mystery.
All told, Smoke & Mirror is slightly shorter than the episode that preceded it, but it's also much punchier. The pace is increased and Bigby's stake in the outcome of this case goes way up to ten in the beginning of this episode. But who am I kidding? You're not just playing a single episode; in for a penny, in for a pound. The Wolf Among Us continues to tell us a new fable, albeit a darker and more nihilistic one than what we were told as children.