Arriving some four months after October's first installment of Telltale's adventurish adaptation of fairy tales in the real world comic Fables, Smoke & Mirrors sees protagonist Bigby Wolf continue to investigate a series of murders. Given the cliffhanger ending of episode 2, you'll forgive me if I'm plot-light in the below. I.e. no spoilers, but it does presume you're fairly familiar with the game already.
Four months of waiting, for around 60-90 minutes of game (even less, if you're a dialogue-skipping hurry-pants). Whatever the reason, it's a big dent in Telltale's recently-skyrocketed reputation, and one that makes it significantly harder to keep faith in the oft-broken promise of episodic gaming. I'm invested in Wolf Among Us' story, some of its characters and especially its neon-brooding mood, but it's only reviewer's duty that keeps me from deciding to wait until the whole lot's released rather than play episode by episode.
The wait was too long, for too little, though Smoke & Mirrors' tone and characterisation does at least remind me why I cared in the first place. But its inevitable cliffhanger fails where the first episode's succeeded, because this time around I feel like I'm being baited. (Also I'd already second-guessed it, but that's because I make a habit of striving to do so rather than that it's screamingly obvious. Never, ever watch a detective series in my company, I'll drive you spare). It is so much harder to care, and no longer natural to feel that nagging need to know, when one is aware that answers may not be forthcoming for months and that you're simply at the whims of someone's misjudged schedule. If I want to pay another visit to the narrative Skinner box, there are any number of reliably monthly comics or weekly TV serials to turn my attention to instead. My point being that a schedule is coal to this kind of fiction's engine, and not a matter of angry internet people acting over-entitled.
Perhaps Episode 2's brevity reflects Telltale trying to get back on track, to get something out ASAP now whatever caused the delay has perhaps passed, in order that a regular schedule can be maintained. That helps, especially if it means episodes 3 and onwards aren't quite so slight, but it still feels faintly insulting. I say that not purely from entitled grumpiness about the delay and the short running time, but also because Smoke & Mirrors is a lesser adventure game than the preceding episode. While the latter-day Telltale formula, with its focus on choosing dialogue options and navigating quicktime events, has long invited justified debate about interactivity and style over substance, this is even more of a reduction to barebones.
Despite nominally being in charge of the investigation into the murder of multiple Fables, you're a complete passenger here, ferried without warning from location to location (six in total, three of which allow no movement whatsoever, two of which are recycled wholesale from episode one and only two of which consist of more than a single room) and repeatedly forced to end investigative lines moments after they've begun. Every event is distractingly brief, and every scene feels like ticking a few boxes rather than exploring or deducing. It has the manner of a game in a dreadful hurry, which creates an internal tension with the sombre, brooding mood. And while there are several, enjoyable opportunities to roleplay either Jekyll or Hyde, with likely supporting cast consequences further down the line, there is strong sense that the plot is railroading the player, playing anxiously for time until the next big pre-ordained revelation.
Furthermore, and I'm putting things very carefully here (the following is the sole paragraph that the overwhelmingly spoiler-averse should not read), there is a heightened sense that perhaps this game does fit into the established Fables canon after all - raising a question of if a known status quo will ultimately be re-established, and in which case just how seriously we should take some of Wolf Among Us' more shocking reveals? A Revenge of the Sith-style exercise in putting all the chess pieces back into their starting positions would be deflating, given all the affecting tension in Wolf Among Us. This is why The Walking Dead games' decision to use a completely different cast from the comic was so smart. Spoiler-averse types may safely resume reading now.
In context as part of a complete series - presuming later episodes are longer and involve a little more activity - I don't expect Episode 2 to be too much of a problem. If we regard Wolf Among Us as police procedural - The Bridge with wolfmen and flying monkeys, say - then this is the necessary early-series episode that moves the detectives from identifying victims and on to establishing suspects. If it follows procedural procedure, next we'll find out the colour of its various herrings. What's included here is a necessary pivot point for such genre fiction, and as part of a complete package the Is This It? issue will hopefully go away.
Unless the following three episodes have the same problem, of course - there is a great danger that Wolf Among Us becomes far more about simply sticking with it for answers rather than because you're able to meaningfully alter the course of events. While the police procedural's quest for a fixed answer is innately a different formula to the Anyone Could Die Any Time ethos of survival fare such as The Walking Dead, there's little that feels urgent here, and the sole scene that offers scope for any true deduction comes off so patronising that I wondered if the incorrect dialogue options only existed in order that one can elect to roleplay as a witless cretin if one so desired.
I'll also note that there's a relatively lengthy nudie dancey lady in there that, while perhaps not as brazenly salacious as it might have been, certainly didn't have to linger (or even show) anywhere near as much as it does. Moreover, it's bewildering/aggravating that clearly quite a lot of effort was put into that when the 'game' aspects have been treated like a red-headed stepchild. Perhaps that was a case of an artist and animator or two being free during the delay while other staff were not, but even aside from the male gaze issues here (which I perfer to reserve judgement on until the series is complete), there's a broader question as to just what Smoke & Mirrors' priorities are.
Length and simplicity grumbles aside, broadly we're looking at a very similar offering to episode 1. You pursue leads, interview uncooperative witnesses by means fair or foul, and get repeatedly told that everyone thinks you're a right prick (even if, like me, you've repeatedly demonstrated that you're as much of a teddy bear as a chainsmoking part-lupine sheriff who's surrounded by unrepentant arseholes could possibly be). Y'know: Chandler with magic and gore. And quick-time events, though there are fewer of those this time, unless you count the conversational time-limit. Bigby remains an appealing player-character, all barely-concealed aggression when he's being nice and feral brutality when he's not, and aside from the occasional still-atrocious attempt at cockney accents, it has assured vocal performances backed by characterful animations and an appropriately menacing soundtrack, while most of all intrigue seeps from its every pore. I want to be here: but I want more than simply being shown it.
I'm frustrated because I really like it, by which I mean the series (so far) as a whole rather than episode 2 specifically. It gives excellent tone, the writing's sharp and generally finds a comfortable half-way house between noir stereotype and distinctive unusualness, and there's just enough hinted at to allow the inquiring mind to start forming whodunnit theories. I want to see it soar with what it's built up, not withdraw into a safe and hurried shell because - wild speculation warning - there are bigger fish in the Telltale popculture licenses net now. Wolf Among Us is too intriguing and too atmospheric to deserve such perfunctory treatment, and I sincerely hope this is just a one-off wobble.
It's by no means whatsoever a disaster, and I remain determined that so far this is the most conceptually and narratively compelling Telltale series to date, but I'm disappointed that the all-too-aptly-named Smoke & Mirrors achieves nothing more than to hold my attention.
The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke & Mirrors is out now, though can only be purchased as part of a season pass.