Platforms: PC, PS3 (Reviewed Version), Xbox 360, iOS, OS X, PS Vita
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release Date: February 4 (PC, PS3), February 5 (Xbox 360), following week (iOS)
Launch Price: $4.99 – $24.99 (Episode – Season)
Werewolves, and strippers, and trolls, oh my! “Smoke & Mirrors” looked to remedy the criticisms of the first entry of the season by focusing more on the gameplay and puzzle completion aspects of the adventure game genre through the investigative actions of Bigby Wolf. But was it enough to continue the winning streak Telltale Games has been going through lately? Let’s look deeper into the neon-noir drama that is The Wolf Among Us’ next chapter.
Smoke and Mirrors picks up where Episode 1 left off, albeit very slowly. Character dialog choice drives the narrative once more, so much so that is the sole mechanic utilized by the player for almost 10 minutes. You will have earned your first trophy/achievement before you move an analog stick; an odd choice for a graphic adventure game.
Speaking of choice, we can already see the cleverness and depth in the game’s writing that the creative staff have brought to The Wolf Among Us. Between the heated altercation with the likes of the Pudding & Pie owner and the inquisitive talk with the re-imagining of a Disney princess, keen eyes that were lucky in their previous options will note just how exactly Bigby will encounter money problems and solutions born out of Episode 1. While we cannot expect changes as big as the prospective killer to come from a “Will they/won’t they” coin flip moment, it is comforting to see that the attention to detail has not wavered one bit.
An issue I have noticed with the execution of choice overall is that exactly when you have crossed the moral line from Big Good Wolf to Big Bad Wolf continues to be unclear. For example, questioning certain characters by playing the good cop can still get you scolded by colleagues if you take evem one mistimed step out of line (or even if you don’t). It can send mixed messages to players, especially if they are tailoring their character to fit a certain “good” or passive profile.
Telltale Games have managed to subvert expectations for The Wolf Among Us’ follow-up act by developing a core cast of characters in intriguing ways. The dialog between Bigby and others like Toad, the Magic Mirror and Ichabod Crane is bested only by a superb voice cast. Pairing the writing and directional talent from Telltale with the likes of returning voice actors and new additions (like those for Handsome Jack and Georgie Porgie), the balance of humor and drama is streets ahead of its competition. Combine that with the subdued electronic soundtrack and the neon-esque dark cell shading of the animated world and you have the perfect environment for a mystery to breed from.
If you’re as much a fan of gameplay in The Wolf Among Us as you are with its story, then Smoke & Mirrors will hopefully meet your expectations. I was critical of the first episode in that it held your hand too much in the puzzle department. While you shouldn’t be expecting Professor Layton levels of abstract thought, we do see improvements in Bigby’s investigative play.
For example, during the episode our protagonist not only has to piece together just how one of the murdered victims was killed, but you must also unlock a cylindrical container by turning the notches on its side to create an image. Additionally, you can learn key clues that aid in solving a crime scene’s investigation by searching your environments carefully. A seemingly-odd choice in observation can, and has, proven useful not only between episodes, but even in from one scene to the next. Even more rewarding is that such clues can be missed if you’re not paying enough attention.
From a design standpoint, Smoke & Mirrors was a welcome change in terms of balancing QTE’s with the rest of the game. Some may argue that this episode was light in content, that it was a means of simply setting up the rest of the season. However, involving wrongly-mapped button prompts and directional inputs as little as possible meant that Bigby doesn’t overwhelmingly become some sort of action anti-hero overused trope that the story of The Wolf Among Us should avoid as much as possible.
Playing this on the PS3, you are bound to get the same technical problems, bugs and glitches that you can expect from a Telltale Games product not on a PC. Loading screen freezes, certain action moments creating unsteady framerates and the constant puttering during the highlight reel that opens and closes each episode will remain a black spot until the developers put some time in to actually fix it.
If I must come to a focal complaint, it is that the development of the actual plot and the execution of the story’s key points seems to be a bit…predictable. As someone who always kicks back and tries their best to immerse myself in a game’s story without attempting to figure out the plot ahead of time, the way that The Wolf Among Us is treating some of its plot twists is beginning to hold noticeable patterns. I’m not saying I know “Whodunit,” but the way that the game has already programmed into players’ minds how to treat specific moments, I can’t help but think to myself, “I don’t believe ______ did ______.” When the focus of a game is centered around it being a mystery, this can become the game’s bane if not dealt with properly, and fast.
The Wolf Among Us Episode 2, “Smoke & Mirrors” is a great step forward for the series, from top to bottom. Their extra development time between episodes has given the team enough time to iron out most of the game’s kinks. Playing through as a silent, aggressive or passive type of Bigby will be an enjoyable experience through and through, even if we didn’t see any big pause moments that have you choose while looking down the barrel of a metaphorical gun. The crux of the overarching story is in motion; will we be surprised or be waiting for the other shoe to drop?
+ Telltale continues to write, direct and voice a great story
+ Gameplay and puzzle elements improved with great welcome
– Same old technical problems persist
– Harder to suspend disbelief in plot
(A code has been provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review.)