Posted on February 4, 2014, Dan Starkey 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.