The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors Review

When people ask me why I like Telltale’s recent releases so much, I often struggle.

The games aren’t particularly pretty, they lack the polish that you might get from a bigger company, and they can be pretty buggy. My best defense for Telltale titles comes in the form of a hypothetical: If every game developer but one was to suddenly stop existing, who would you want that one survivor to be and why?

It sounds silly, but the answer, I think, is an abstraction of what is really important about the games that we play. With each new release, I’ve come to realize that Telltale is looking at the bigger picture here. Its The Walking Dead almost punishes its players, with agonizing decisions and literally torturous scenes. After the first episode of The Wolf Among Us, I thought the developer would pull the same thing here, but that’s far from the truth.

The Wolf Among Us: Smoke and Mirrors
Platform: PC (reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release Date: Feb. 4, 2014
MSRP: $24.99 (all episodes)

[Disclaimer: This review assumes you have read Ross Lincoln’s review of Episode 1, or are at least familiar with the first episode of The Wolf Among Us. I have also made every effort to avoid anything that could be taken as a spoiler.]

By now, Telltale’s formula has become spectacularly clear — take a beloved property and reimagine the work as an episodic game. It’s brilliant, but it also hints at the developer’s larger push for media integration. Over the years, Telltale has taken comics, movies and now television shows and repackaged them in fairly uniform, bite-sized chunks. The company refers to its new focus in creating the perfect “after dinner” game, and I think that’s definitely a fitting name.

Episode 2 took me a pinch over two hours – around the length of an average movie. And in that time, I’d interrogated a few people, cracked some skulls and taken several very large steps to unraveling the mysteries of Episode 1. With excellent scene-to-scene pacing and a brilliant patchwork of emotionally and socially relevant scenes, we’re now just far enough into this season to get a grasp on Telltale’s thesis. Where The Walking Dead taught us about redemption, innocence and parenthood, Wolf takes aim at the plight of the underprivileged. Time and time again tough situations and desperate people backed into corners lash out, and the obvious question, “Why didn’t you say something before?!” is met with a cold silence and the stinging realization that no one listened.

It’s a quiet thought, but it’s one that has deep ties to both the comics’ source material and to the real-world situations that inspired it. Bill Willingham’s comic series Fables, and by extension, Wolf, are both heavily centered on the diaspora of the eponymous refugees. These are people that have been forced from their homeland to an unknown place without the safety, the liberty or the resources to really live out the American Dream™. Telltale uses a brutal version of New York City, practically defined by its high contrast and hypersaturation, as an excellent backdrop for its neo-noir murder mystery.

Even better, as the long-standing symbol of American hope and prosperity, this seedy underside carries heavy implications that our history and our memories might be a bit more sanitized than we’d like to admit. Indeed, this kind of multifaceted, nuanced story-telling is hardly unique in other media, but it’s practically revolutionary for a “mainstream” game. Telltale is demonstrating their mastery, however, of the emotional spectrum. Bigby Wolf is a starkly different character than the quietly kind Lee of The Walking Dead: Season One, and that comparison helps highlight the best pieces of each.

Lee is a man who, through one mistake, lost everything he had. He was a murderer, yes, but it was a crime of passion and one that was classically sympathetic — despite its brutality.

Bigby is a man defined by his history of violence and cruelty, desperately looking to suppress his natural aggression to help those around him. Both are men seeking redemption, but that context helps inform their current struggle.

It’s tough to say what, if any, patterns will ultimately emerge from this series, though. The Wolf Among Us Episode 2 generally feels quieter and more focused on Bigby’s detective side. Even when you are given violent options, they are less primal than Episode 1’s lengthy action scenes, but it also draws attention to Episode 2’s weakness.

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3 Comments on The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors Review

Name*

On February 4, 2014 at 10:11 pm

I have no problem telling people why I like Telltale’s walking dead and TWAU so much. The art design, interesting characters, pacing and choices keep me invested

Swine Flew

On February 5, 2014 at 1:09 am

I like Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us because there’s no pretentiousness. Sure, they can be sad at times and in some cases the balance might be too much in favour of that, but there’s nothing as emotionally manipulative and artistically dishonest as the sort of crap you have to endure in, say, a Quantic Dream game where every scene has someone spontaneously start crying and you’re supposed to feel bad for them on that incredibly artificial basis instead of any engagement with the story, or the ending of Mass Effect 3 where there’s absolutely nothing you can relate to and you’re supposed to accept that it’s a big decision that only you have the power to make simply because some little knob jockey tells you so. Telltale games are all centred around the characters that you become attached to. They don’t try to make things more important than they are, they keep it contained, and in doing so it makes you care about them more than any amount of half-baked theology and grandiose terminology ever could. Plus, the choices you make actually mean something, even though they’re still binary and more limited than they first appear (if you have the option of saving someone’s life or letting them die, you can rest assured they’re going to die in a later episode anyway), and they mean something because they affect people that you can identify with instead of blanket ideas and wish fulfilment of plot.

That said, I hope the success of these games (and the impending Game of Thrones game that will kick all the arse) doesn’t prevent Telltale from still making some of their more lighthearted titles like Sam and Max. I also enjoyed Back to the Future, still hold out hope for a PAL disk release of Jurassic Park, and even quite liked the CSI games which honestly felt like a pretty in-depth police investigation and didn’t have to rely on sudden bouts of violence like LA Noire did in order to keep players entertained. I’d hate to see a situation where Telltale no longer experiments and instead just sticks with the maudlin because it’s been successful in the past. I don’t like Telltale games because they’re sad, I like them because they can successfully create and maintain a range of tones.

Cumt

On February 19, 2014 at 3:59 am

What was wrong with the recap? I thought it was pretty effective. The only major anomaly was not mentioning that Snow White’s head had been cut off, which would be like the Game of Thrones recap for Mhysa not mentioning the red wedding. But other than that, it was ok. Besides which, they decided Snow White wasn’t really dead anyway, so it didn’t matter. Bit of a lame reset-switching-hitting exercise mind you, I wondered what the point of killing her was anyway since she’s a major part of the comics. But whatever.

What was a bit annoying, though, was that the teaser for episode two ended up only having minimal relevance to what we actually received in episode two. Understandable given how long it took to make, maybe, but a bit disorientating. In fact, one of the bits from the episode two teaser (Bigby transforming and what sounds like Toad or one of the Tweedle brothers asking if it was really him) didn’t happen in the second episode and was just placed into the teaser for the third one!