The Wolf Among Us 'Smoke and Mirrors' review: Of wolf and man

Fairy tales are stories for children, and as such are full of magic, fantasy, and wonderment. What we tend to forget, however, is that murderers lie in wait for the princesses, and monsters lurk in the shadows, waiting for the perfect moment to destroy happiness. Episode 2 of The Wolf Among Us, "Smoke and Mirrors" reminds us that our fables are full of twisted characters who prey on the innocence or desperation of others. It's harsh and bleak and will make you uncomfortable, even when you're not examining the corpse.

As a quick reminder, the characters of Wolf Among Us are Fables, the actual characters from our storybooks, who've fled their Homelands and taken up residence in a section of New York called Fabletown. You play as Bigby Wolf, sheriff of Fabletown, who is continuing his investigation into the murder of Episode 1, "Faith," finding himself with another dead body and even more questions. Between his responsibilities as sheriff, his checkered past, and his own less-than-stellar interpersonal skills, Bigby's constantly being pulled in several different directions at once – is he the wolf, or the lawman, the reasonable symbol of justice, or a thug? He is all of these things, and more, and the events of "Smoke and Mirrors" reveal his complexities. He's a marvelous character to role-play, never quite one thing or the other, and he provides the anchor that the story needs to keep from spinning off into the darkness.
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The Wolf Among Us - Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors

Episode 1 certainly had its grim moments, but it was also filled with humor and whimsy. Look, a giant talking pig! A toad in a cardigan and his adorable little boy! Simply identifying the various characters of the first chapter was lighthearted fun, recognizing these icons from our childhood in a new context. Episode 2 makes it clear that those children's stories are fiction, and the reality is far worse than any wicked witch or haunted forest. Prostitution, drug abuse, poverty, violence: These are as much a part of their lives as castles and fairy godmothers once were. Even more painful for Bigby is the realization that, from a certain perspective, he's partly to blame. He's the sheriff, after all, the one person whose job it is to protect the Fables - and he's failing.

I won't spoil the plot of the quite short Episode, but you'll see threads begun in Episode 1 start weaving together in unexpected ways as previously-introduced characters get mixed up with new players. Beanstalk-climber Jack makes an appearance, and his run-in with Bigby is exactly what fans of the comic might expect. (Newcomers, watch your valuables. Jack's got some bad habits.)

As has become typical for Telltale's episodic method of storytelling, there's simply no telling what impact a decision might have. Seemingly insignificant characters and events reveal their true weight, making it even harder to know what the "right" thing for Bigby to do might be at any given moment. Though at times this interconnectedness can feel a bit too game-like – as though elements exist solely to provide a dramatic reveal somewhere down the line – the overall effect is to make you feel like you're in over your head, which is appropriate for Bigby's situation.

The gameplay of Episode 2 feels somewhat sparse compared to Episode 1, because it doesn't require nearly as much exposition and explanation. "Smoke and Mirrors" is also a far less active Episode than its predecessor, relying much more on investigation and conversation than fisticuffs. Bigby does get into a few scraps, but this time around he's trying to use his head more than his claws, which is perhaps why the Episode feels a bit more sluggish than "Faith." The interface for taking action in the world suffers from the same problem that The Walking Dead often had: The icons are so small or abstract that it's sometimes difficult to determine exactly what they are. I selected what I thought was a chat bubble only to belatedly realize that I'd instructed Bigby to sniff around. Fortunately, he lent his nose to a door and not the butt of the young lady he was with, so it worked out okay, but an earlier scenario, featuring similarly vague icons and an interrogation, didn't pan out quite as well. When you're in a delicate situation, these unintended consequences can be annoying.

Fiddly iconography aside, the main difference between "Faith" and "Smoke and Mirrors" is how it makes you feel. Episode 1 was shocking, thrilling, exciting – sure, bad things were happening, but the game was afoot, and there was a whole new world of bizarre characters to explore. In Episode 2, it feels intrusive to be poking around these wretched Fables' lives, learning their sordid secrets. Each new fact you uncover feels like another weight added to your shoulders, your burden to bear as part of the system that isn't working. Wolf's well-crafted characters, combined with strong voice work, make it nearly impossible not to feel emotionally drained as the credits role.

And yet, within that darkness, there is a glimmer of hope, because through your actions you might make it better. You can't fix it, of course, that kind of magic is reserved for the pages of storybooks, but maybe you can make it just a little less awful. Not quite happily ever after, but something. As bleak as "Smoke and Mirrors" is, it makes you want to help these characters, to give them something besides another day of nothing but despair and heartache. Things in Fabletown will almost surely get darker before they get better, but "Smoke and Mirrors" guarantees we're in this for the long haul.

This review is based on a Steam download of The Wolf Among Us, provided by Telltale Games. Images: Telltale Games.

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