The macabre mystery of The Wolf Among Us escalates rather quickly in “Smoke & Mirrors,” the story’s second episode. It’s not surprising given Telltale Games’ track record — or it is, if you consider this is the company behind Tales of Monkey Island and Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Adventures.
The darkness in The Wolf Among Us has begun to swell in a way The Walking Dead never could. In the latter, most of society’s more subtle terrors (e.g. trying to afford the rent) are a non-factor. In the former, the characters are faced with a very recognizable society (with several fairy tale creatures appended, but you get the point). What’s worse, the dangers of 1980s New York City and those of the fairy tales have begun to intersect.
“Smoke & Mirrors” puts not too fine a point on this by kicking things off with a particularly grotesque memory spell and a subplot about trolls shooting heroin. It’s not exactly virgin territory in the urban fantasy sub-genre, but it something video games tend to explore through thinly veiled metaphor rather than outright example. Thanks be to Bioware and Bethesda for all the invented magic-drugs and elf-racism.
It’s interesting to see how this has altered the developer’s telltale (see what I did there?) decision-making systems.
Choices are smaller, but just as meaningful to the characters that make them. They’re more subtle, too, assuming you ignore the “Snow Will Remember That” popup drilling the import of every action into your teeth. Beyond a few cosmetic changes I didn’t notice much in the way of consequence for my actions in the previous episodes, but the “in the moment” consequence was in top form.
Choosing whether to smash up some dirtbag’s strip club or get answers by merely hinting at the possibility alters my perception of this prequel-ized version of Bigby Wolf. It lends ownership over a character predefined by a less lucid medium in a way that accentuates the clear 80s-cop-movie aspirations Telltale had in mind.
The interior design of The Wolf Among Us, while not flawless, remains steady as ever. It’s the exterior forces at work that are so aggravating.
“Smoke & Mirrors” clocks in at just about half the length of the series’ first episode. I’m a vocal proponent of game’s being exactly the length they need to be (one of my favorite “choice-driven” games, The Yawhg, can be finished in about five minutes). However, this being the second in a five-part series draws the “reveal” (which, while not exactly shocking, is a well-earned plot turn) into question.
We’ve got three more episodes to expect from this puppy, so clearly Bigby’s investigation isn’t drawing to a close. It’s just another cliffhanger to string us along to the next bit, and after multiple delays, little communication from the developer and a healthy, final wait between episodes I feel just that — strung along.
It doesn’t help that Telltale’s engine is starting to stagnate. Artistically, The Wolf Among Us looks great, but the constant hangs between camera changes have got to go. At this pace, we’re looking at the series coming to an end in late 2014. That means a full year of slightly-off-kilter drama thanks to scene changes that, literally, can’t keep up with the storytelling.
“Smoke & Mirrors” is good. Actually, I think The Wolf Among Us might turn out to be Telltale’s best series to date. However, it’s hard to give it a clean recommendation to buy it right now, rather than just wait for the entire series like so many did with The Walking Dead (myself included). The technical issues, where the story is actually going, the long waits, the lack of developer communication — these are all problems that might be solved by playing something else for a few months. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s there.
But if you’re already sold on the world and characters, and you’ve got a good enough memory to recall what the hell happened in the first episode, “Smoke and Mirrors” is a dark, effective bit of connective tissue.
My, how things have changed since Monkey Island.
This review is based on a copy of the game provided by the developer.