Fairy tale characters sure are into some weird stuff.
That's the moral of Telltale's The Wolf Among Us, an adventure game series based on Bill Willingham's decidedly R-rated Fables comics. The game returns this week with the second episode in its five-episode first season. What do the shocking events at the end of episode one mean? What new mysteries will Bigby Wolf uncover? Wouldn't it be cool to smoke cigarettes all the time without worrying about lung damage?
Those questions and more are answered in the new episode, titled "Smoke and Mirrors," which launches this week for pretty much every platform possible, save the Wii U, PS4 and Xbox One. Last night I played through the second episode in a bit under two hours, and while I enjoyed myself, there are still things about Telltale's venture into Fabletown that feel a touch off to me.
It's difficult to write about episode two without spoiling some things, so let's do this. First, some general impressions with no substantive spoilers for episode two (but some spoilers for episode one). Then, a spoiler section where I'll talk more in depth about specific things that happened in the episode.
Many of the nagging issues I had with the first episode return in the second one—I still don't love Adam Harrington's performance as Bigby, which lacks the grit and growl I've always imagined in a character as ferocious as the Big Bad Wolf. The characters still mutter a lot, and some scenes feel like a bunch of halting low-talk. Action sequences are still sloppy reflex-tests. The controls are still a drag.
Gripes notwithstanding, I generally like how The Wolf Among Us is taking its time and spooling out a more slow-paced, twisty noir mystery. As fun as it is to meet more characters I like from the books—Jack and Bluebeard make brief appearances, the latter wonderfully voiced by Dave "Lee from The Walking Dead" Fennoy—I liked that by and large "Smoke and Mirrors" carried forward threads and characters from the first episode.
It would be easy to allow a Fables game to devolve into cameos and fan-service, but at some point a good mystery needs to limit its cast of characters so that the audience can find their footing and start trying to guess whodunnit. I'm still not entirely convinced that The Wolf Among Us won't fall into the too-many-characters trap, but the restraint demonstrated by parts of the second episode made me more optimistic than I had been.
After spending my last review grumbling about constant performance problems on the Xbox 360 version, I switched to the PC version and have had a much smoother go of it. There are still a number of annoying technical hitches, but the game runs much better on PC, and the art in particular looks great in high definition.
I do have to say I'm becoming increasingly concerned about Telltale's seeming inability to overcome the crustiness of the tech that runs their games. The Wolf Among Us still feels thrown together and largely incapable of presenting action and dialogue at the same time without frequently pausing to load in new dialogue and animations. It's distracting and sometimes even comical. Midway through the episode, Bigby threatened and interrogated a bartender. Bigby'd ask a question, only to have both of them sit silently for a couple of seconds while the guy's response loaded. It was stilted and strange, and the sort of thing that happens too often. As Telltale's profile increases and their big-ticket licensed game portfolio grows, those sorts of hitches are increasingly difficult to overlook.
"Smoke and Mirrors" takes several significant steps toward solving the mystery introduced in "Faith," and resolves many of the lingering questions from that first episode: What happened to Snow? What was the Woodsman's involvement in all of this? Where was Faith working before she was killed? What's going on with Beauty, and what is she hiding from Beast?
I continue to enjoy the game's aesthetics—those saturated neons and long, hard shadows—to the point that I didn't mind so much that several of the answers the episode provided were a letdown. Or maybe I'm just used to that sort of thing; after all, this is the Fables universe, where "A witch did it!" is the crude tool by which many a seemingly world-changing plot twist can be reshaped or undone. Who knows how magic and glamours and hypnotic spells could flip the script on a murder mystery?
All the same, it'd be nice to feel as though the stakes had been raised, when in fact I felt as though episode two lowered the stakes. The episode also felt less interactive than the first one, with no major decisions to make, minimal room for exploration and a large percentage of the story taking place during conversation-only cutscenes. Most of the game just has Bigby examining a crime scene, looking at each piece of evidence and then triggering the end of the scene.
I didn't actually mind the lack of interactivity all that much—I played the episode alongside my girlfriend on the couch and the whole thing was like watching a mid-season episode of Hirsute Sherlock—but I did notice it. I can't say for sure which of my choices will actually matter in episode three, partly because the end-game choice breakdown bugged out and wouldn't show my results, but mostly because the choices presented in "Smoke and Mirrors" felt far less dramatic than in "Faith."
"Smoke and Mirrors" is a bridge episode, and it feels it in a way that, say, mid-season episodes of The Walking Dead never really did. That's probably okay—the success or failure of The Wolf Among Us is going to depend on how the primary mystery plays out. Hopefully the story will play fair, feed us clues and breadcrumbs along the way and give us an opportunity to solve the case ourselves rather than just telling us the answer. If it pulls some sort of magical cheat, drops the answer out of nowhere, or pulls an impossible-to-predict twist in the final goings, it'll be much less satisfying. For now, I'm happy to be along for the ride.
- For real, spoilers follow.
- I can't say I was surprised at the big fake-out with Snow, but I was a bit surprised that they pulled it out so early on. And relieved, I guess - anyone who's read the comics knew that Snow wasn't really dead, but her "death" had me questioning Faith's death as well, which undercut the tension of the central mystery. Unless the story pulls a truly unfair second glamour out of its ass in the last three episodes, Faith really is dead, and we really are investigating her murder. Which is good. I'm also happy that Snow is back in the game, since I've been enjoying her and Bigby's flipped take on the Gal Friday, especially considering how much their relationship grows over the course of the books.
- I chose to grab the Woodsman at the end of episode one, so I wound up taking it easy on him in interrogation. I never thought he really had much to do with Faith or "Snow"'s murder anyway, so the optional torture scene lacked some of the dark bite that it might've had with Tweedle Dee. I did enjoy Fennoy's performance as Bluebeard, and thought his desire to intercede and get to the torturin' seemed lifted straight from the comics, in a good way.
- I felt more railroaded by the conversational options in episode two than I did in either "Faith" or in most of Telltale's The Walking Dead—for some reason, the conversational option I wanted to choose often just didn't seem to be present. For example, I wanted Bigby to tell Snow that no matter what, he was happy to have her keep coming along on the case, but somehow any option I chose wound up with him implying that he'd be happier if she stayed at home. Which upset her, and left me feeling like I was having a conversation Telltale wanted me to have, not the one I'd wanted to choose. I rarely felt that way while playing The Walking Dead, so I was surprised to feel it here.
- I really liked the scene with Bigby and Snow examining Lily's glamoured body, and Snow's increasing discomfort at being in the room with her own corpse. A nifty, sick scene. Certainly the most L.A. Noire-ish part of a very L.A. Noire-ish episode, though even more simplified than that already simplified game.
- Nice to see Ariel from The Little Mermaid, and it was a well-done reveal. Pity for her that she's been reduced to enduring humiliating stripping lessons from her creep of a pimp, Georgie Porgie. Ariel's scene could've done with a bit more development, but hopefully we'll return to her story in future episodes. Poor Ariel.
- I was frustrated watching Bigby continue not to get that "These lips are sealed" is obviously a charm of some sort - the guy is experienced with all kinds of magic, surely he'd notice a repeated phrase like that? He has godlike powers and supernaturally keen observational skills, but mundy that I am, I'm still noticing things that he doesn't seem to grasp.
- The sequence with Beauty and Beast didn't really work for me. Her deep, dark secret from episode one is that she's… working the front desk at a hotel frequented by prostitutes? To pay the rent? I didn't understand why she couldn't just tell Beast that. It felt like a contrivance designed to get Beast and Bigby into a fight, and I never really bought it. The speed with which it all began and ended was disappointing, and I wonder if we'll even see either Beauty or Beast again. I was hoping for something more directly connected to the larger mystery.
- That said, I really liked the bit in room 207 with the gruesome crime scene (reminiscent of Se7en) and the increasingly creepy revelations of what had been going on in there each night. That Mr. Smith would make his troll prostitute take a glamour to look like Snow, then re-enact her endless sleep (while he presumably engages in who-knows-what sex act) is pretty twisted, even for the regularly twisted Fables universe. The music that played on that cassette tape… eek.
- Crane seemed like the obvious choice to be Smith, though as with most of the detective work so far in The Wolf Among Us, I thought the reveal felt hand-holdy and unearned. I'd love to have been given the opportunity to put the pieces together myself, to assemble clues and observations and put my finger on the person I thought was guilty. Instead, the game just had Bigby find a photograph that obviously implicated Crane. Disappointing.
- Predictions: I think Crane was indeed acting out his weird Snow fixation in room 207, but I don't really think he killed Lily or Faith. He knows something (or maybe a lot) about what's going on, but not only does it feel too early to reveal the killer, bloody murder doesn't quite square with what we know of Crane. He's a creep, yes, but he doesn't seem like a ritual beheader. (Now, his friend the Headless Horseman... that's another story.)
I turn it over to you. What did you guys think of episode two? Do you think we've already met the killer? Got any theories on who it is? Sound off in the comments, and please include spoiler warnings.