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Beta’d Review: THE WOLF AMONG US Episode 2: SMOKE AND MIRRORS

Note: There may be some minor spoilers contained herein about the events of The Wolf Among Us Episode 1. I’ll endeavor to not ruin anything, especially about this new episode, but just bear that in mind as you read on.

The wait is over and now the suspense can begin once again. After The Wolf Among Us Episode 1‘s brutal twist ending that had M. Night Shyamalan cursing himself that he didn’t think of it and had comics fans and gamers alike audibly wondering, “What the fuck just happened?,” we found ourselves saddled with a grueling four month wait between episodes. For some, the wait is part of the charm in Telltale’s episodic model (read Ben Kuchera’s excellent op-ed in defense of it); For me, I found myself retracing the episode in my head and obsessively refreshing my inbox in the hopes that there would be a review code waiting for me. Granted, Telltale’s sterling The Walking Dead: Season Two made its triumphant debut in the interim, and the company had to deal with all manner of red tape and the then-imminent holiday break, both of which contributed to the extended period between The Wolf Among Us episodes. But the important thing is that The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors is here at last, and, man alive, is it harrowing stuff.

I love adventure games, and I am particularly smitten with Telltale’s unique brand of gutwrenching choice-and-consequence gameplay. As a longtime reader of Bill Willingham’s Fables comic and a diehard adventure game fan, I agreed pretty much wholeheartedly with Malik’s review of Episode 1: FaithLike any adventure game worth its salt, there’s a grand mystery afoot: namely, who killed Faith in Episode 1 (and left a second grisly surprise for us at the end of that episode)? It’s up to Bigby Wolf in all of his gruff, huff n’ puffing glory to track down the killer and administer Fabletown justice.

The first installment did what it needed to do: set the stage in spectacular fashion for what’s to come, introduced players to the vibrant and storied world of Fables, and forced players to make hard choices that have palpable ramifications on the course of the story. Yeah, yeah, you may be saying, “But, Dan, it’s the illusion of choice! Everyone knows that!” Well, the hallmark of a good game is that it creates such an immersive reality that you don’t notice its mechanics; rather, they integrate organically, becoming one with the gameplay experience to create an interactive storytelling experience that sucks you in and spits you out after its roughly two-to-four hour voyage is through. Well, Smoke and Mirrors builds on the foundations laid by Faith and dials everything up to eleven.

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I’ve already read that some folks are knocking Smoke and Mirrors for its pacing, which to me is the height of absurdity. Were we playing the same game? Are you addicted to speedrunning? Smoke and Mirrors is expertly paced and laden with opportunities for the player to actually roleplay as Bigby, to make the tough choices that will determine the type of man you want him to be. At the end of episode 1, you have to apprehend one of two suspects trying to flee the Trip Trap Bar. At the beginning of episode 2, you must interrogate your suspect as Bluebeard and Ichabod Crane look on, judging your every move. Will you be the good cop, coddling the witnesses and trying to kill them with kindness? Will you be the bad cop and find creative uses for things like, say, a cigar or a whiskey bottle? After all, you’re the Big Bad Wolf, so what’s a little enhanced interrogation between friends? Regardless, the choice is yours to make, and it’s a fascinating bit of gamer psychology to see just how far you’re willing to go in pursuit of justice.

Atmosphere has always been one of Telltale’s strong suits, and if you thought Episode 1 presented a gritty, neon-tinged vision of New York, then Episode 2 takes us down a David Lynchian rabbit hole of sex, lies, murder, and some seriously fucked up tableaus. From dive bars to grimy strip clubs to poorly lit basement interrogation rooms and beyond, everything about the world of Smoke and Mirrors is a shade darker than in the series’ debut. This is like Blue Velvet meets Aesop’s Fables in all the right ways. At one point, a bus drives past the camera — it’s a split-second shot, but the ad on the side reads “Will you be next?” These are the kinds of details that elevate a game like The Wolf Among Us from good to great. Forced prostitution, human trafficking, the darker side of sexuality, and the efficacy of violence are all explored in great detail, and putting the player in the driver’s seat can make for an unsettling experience that you won’t soon forget. 

My one complaint is that I felt that the story telegraphed one of its big reveals fairly early without the option for Bigby to act on such knowledge, but I’ll just go ahead and pat myself on the back and chalk it up to being an ardent fan of BBC’s Sherlock. Still, at the end of the day, Smoke and Mirrors is one of the most riveting, compelling gameplay experiences out there.

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Though the build I played wasn’t quite final, it ran smooth as butter on my desktop PC and the graphics were as stunning as the first episode. There was one minor glitch that caused a $20 bill to get stuck in Bigby’s hand, which was kind of perfect for his interrogation of an exotic dancer, but I expect that such issues shouldn’t persist in the final build. For those of you going back and forth over which platform to play the game on, let me just say that it looked great on my Xbox 360, but absolutely jaw-dropping on my PC, so either way, you win. Overall, Smoke and Mirrors is a markedly different beast from Faith in its pacing, the depths of its depravity, and the capacity for roleplay, but the best part about it – and any Telltale game, for that matter – is that it’s your beast. The worst part is when the credits roll, because then you know the vicious cycle of waiting and ruminating on the choices you’ve made begins anew. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Highly recommended.

The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors is out this week on PC, Mac, iOS, Xbox 360, and PS3.

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