WARNING: This review is spoiler-free for “Smoke and Mirrors,” but mentions several key spoiler moments in “Faith.”
“Our stories used to be so simple. We had a beginning, a middle, and an end,” says a contemplative Ichabod to Fabletown Sheriff Bigby Wolf at the start of “Smoke and Mirrors.” And though we’ve nearly reached the middle point of Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us, this particular story is anything but simple – with twists, turns, shady characters, and violent crimes around every corner.
As the second episode of The Wolf Among Us, “Smoke and Mirrors” has been a long, long time coming. Even with all the hype building during the wait, however, Telltale did not disappoint; this is a solid and entertaining episode, seamlessly introducing new characters and developing the stories of the old ones. We finally get to meet the unsavory Bluebeard, snarky Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk fame, and Georgie Porgie the Tattooed Pimp (as evidenced in the episode trailer), while a few familiar faces – Tweedle Dee, Holly, Magic Mirror, and more – make reappearances. All the while, in the wake of Snow White’s beheading at the end of “Faith,” Bigby tries to make sense of a string of serial murders.
“Smoke and Mirrors” amps up the tension right off the bat and never quite lets up, using a fantastic score and pulp noir-esque dialogue that’s on just the right side cheesy to its advantage. Events carry an air of urgency with them that completely sucks players into the story, keeping them on the edge as they move through the mystery.
Compared to episode one, the investigation aspect of gameplay here felt more involved. “Smoke & Mirrors” gives you several interrogation scenes similar to Mr. Toad’s in “Faith,” where you need to wheedle answers out of uncooperative characters. You can have Bigby be calm and collected, patiently poking at a suspect’s weak spots… or he can take the more direct route and just torture the shit out of them until they squeal.
These are very different paths you can take in regards to Bigby’s characterization – from anywhere between “reformed Big Bad Wolf suppressing my urge to rip everyone’s throats out” to “fuck it, everyone sucks, I’m embracing my dark side and ripping all the throats out” – which help add to the feeling that the player’s choices matter.
Personally, I tried to go non-violent as much as possible, partly because I thought it would be a good strategy, and partly because I ended up feeling sorry for half of the people I was interrogating. I know, I know, bleeding heart, here. But it’s a testament to Telltale’s nuanced storytelling that every time I chose the non-violent options, I found myself second guessing myself. Maybe I’d been a little more pushy I could have gotten the information faster. Maybe if I’d gone into every confrontation with fists and cricket bats a’swinging, I could have accomplished a lot more – but at the cost of possibly feeling like a dick beating up on weaker individuals, plus having sideline characters react negatively to you. Nice morality check, there, Telltale Games. But fear not, bloodthirsty brethern; even if you try your hardest to play nice, there are several fight scenes Bigby won’t be able to talk his way out of, and then it’s a one-way trip to Knuckle Punch City.
It’ll probably take a few more varied playthroughs of the finished game for me to see just how much, if at all, my decisions affected the plot – but even if they made no real differences, The Wolf Among Us manages to get me so invested in the game and its characters, that that’s enough of a payoff in and of itself. If you thought the ending to “Faith” was shocking, the scene in Holly’s bar is borderline tragic, and the ending was nothing short of bafflingly brilliant.
What I appreciated the most in “Smoke and Mirrors,” besides the aforementioned emphasis on interrogation, were the intense investigation of all the crime scenes. Feeling like I was limited on time made me feel way more apprehensive; I was forced to frantically prioritize what I would look at first because I felt like we could be interrupted at any time (and indeed, we nearly always were). By the time I finished my first playthrough, there were still several pieces of evidence at each crime scene left uninspected – pieces that may or may not have helped me with the case in later episodes.
One point that did bring down this otherwise great second installment of The Wolf Among Us: the final crime scene investigation involved “connecting the evidence” found in a room; Bigby would inspect some piece of evidence and then some answer choices would pop up. It was always glaringly obvious which choice was the correct one, since the other choices made no sense whatsoever, so that aspect of the game was a bit of a let-down. Deductions only make me feel accomplished if there was actual deducing going on.
Overall, however, with its engaging characters, solid storytelling, and involved gameplay, “Smoke and Mirrors” was a lot of fun to play – and with a cliffhanger like that, definitely leaves you wanting more. Let’s hope Episode 3 is among us much more swiftly.