While Episode 2 of Telltale's adventure-game take on Fables is a step forward in narrative quality from 'Faith,' Sheriff Bigby's investigations into the supposed murder of Snow White are a bit by-the-numbers, gameplay-wise. The Wolf Among Us, then, feels like an experimental game series for the storied studio, with dialogue and behavior decisions of less consequence to character life and more consequence to how Bigby is treated and viewed by the eclectic cast of fairy tale mainstays around him. 'Smoke and Mirrors' is all about that cast, and just a little bit about how Bigby's investigative style--decided by you, the player--shapes his image.
Bigby's detective work begins with revelations concerning Snow White's murder at the end of Episode 1. To say much about what twists and turns the case takes risks ruining a compelling narrative that injects traditional, hard-boiled detective action a la L.A. Noire with surprising concepts and rules of this magical world. Black-market spells run amok. The pretty faces of Fabletown's finest women inspire sexual role-play following real-world stories of the Brothers Grimm. Georgie Porgie runs a strip club. Narrative surprises around every corner build a remarkable sense of place--a tangible window into a storybook world whose residents have been living complicated lives in a clandestine New York community long before the player showed up. And Episode 2's plot benefits from a reduced need for exposition. 'Faith' felt like a roller coaster ride through unrelated locations that ended in a murder. But 'Smoke and Mirrors' never loses its focus, pulling threads from the first episode and weaving a host of new ones before satisfactorily tying off most and staging a new conflict for Episode 3.
That's to say nothing of the game's visuals and art direction--in a word, stunning. Never before has comic-book art been emulated so closely. Bold, rich colors fill every shape drawn by stark lines. Color dissonance--purple walls, red lamp light, and pitch-black shadows--mimic the comic panels of classic noir. Superfluous background detail (words on posters, logos) are more likely drawn in nostalgic scribbles than actual words and textures. Every moment of the game is visually striking, and a low, synthetic score is the perfect accompaniment. The darkly mysterious, hard-boiled theme song from the first episode makes its return alongside low, uneasy rhythms and urgent chords to fit Bigby's investigations and actions scenes, respectively.
That's to say nothing of the game's excellent voice performances. Melissa Hutchison's Belle is disarmingly reserved, lost innocence murmured with every quiet sentence of determination. Toad's pub-brawl demeanor is charmingly brutish. Bluebeard, an interrogation expert with little regard for suspect welfare, is devilishly sly in a way that just screams 'I'm waiting to betray your trust.' Actually, the only weak link might be Bigby himself. The grizzled, 'I'm dangerous if you push me' act works well for the character's inclinations, but it isn't particularly interesting or dynamic. Of course, this leaves more room for meaning to be derived from his actions and words, which are almost entirely player-driven.
While the same aspect of choice applies to gameplay--which objects to pick up, body parts to examine, and punches to throw--'Smoke and Mirrors' is a pretty linear affair without many readily apparent ways to change the course of the story. Investigations are somewhat restricted as well, with crime scenes full of obvious clues you won't have trouble noticing nor seem crucial to different outcomes. At least one conversation tests your common sense and knowledge of a scene to improve your reputation, but nothing of consequence happens as a result. At least the same polish I enjoyed in The Walking Dead: Season Two's debut is present here. Quick-time action cues like flicking the analog stick are easy to see and interpret at a moment's notice, and the right analog sticks pairs with the face buttons to make object interaction varied and intuitive.
And to my elation, the Telltale Tool performs a bit better than in past outings. Those stuttering transitions between cutscenes, especially bad and immersion-breaking in the introduction and Episode 3 preview, are present as usual, but the framerate is consistently high throughout. I didn't feel like I spent as much time waiting through loading screens, either, though one could chalk that up to Episode 2's abbreviated runtime: only 75 or 80 minutes, by my estimate. It's deflating only because of the nearly four-month wait.
With a stronger, more focused story and stunning visuals, The Wolf Among Us: 'Smoke and Mirrors' is a more compelling game than the series' first installment, even if it's not necessarily more fun or exciting to play. Regardless, I can't wait to see where the story goes from here--if only because Telltale has proved it doesn't need frequent deaths, utter hopelessness, and zombies to tell a good tale
-The Final Word-
A more focused, hard-boiled narrative and comic-book artistry make 'Smoke and Mirrors' a more compelling game than 'Faith,' even if it's not necessarily more fun or interesting to play.