What makes Telltale's games such a perfect match for comics isn't just the art style or plot, it's the studio's ability to push the boundaries of storytelling in a way that's reminiscent of modern comics. The latest episode of the studio's "Fables" game, "The Wolf Among Us," has that in spades. Continuing the story set before "Fables" #1, the player once again takes control of Bigby Wolf for an episode that's lower on choice, but higher on story development.
It's difficult to discuss the strengths of the episode, "Smoke and Mirrors," without divulging plot details. That said, the episode's strength relies mainly in the performances of its voice cast and the strength of the script. Adam Harrington once again gives an incredible performance -- both as Bigby and the Woodsman -- but equally of note are Erin Yvette (Snow White), Janet Lipsey (Holly) and the incomparable Melissa Hutchinson (Beauty), who also provides the voice of Clementine in "The Walking Dead" game. The voice actors bring a level of gravitas to the episode that really brings Fabletown to life -- especially once the story takes Bigby to some of the seedier locations.
Perhaps that's what makes this episode so intriguing: it presents a darker side of the "Fables" world, giving even better looks at districts of Fabletown that readers would never see in the title proper. It looks in on the disenfranchised and the forgotten in a world of powerful magic that still contains all human shortcomings, frailties and weaknesses. In short, it's not a "nice" story, but it is damn compelling. Beyond the locales, "Smoke and Mirrors" introduces a few Fables that have never been seen in the Vertigo comic book series, and the world is richer as a result. It's rare that a tie-in product can introduce characters that fans wish would show up more in the source material, and "Smoke and Mirrors" manages to accomplish it with aplomb.
That said, the level of choice in this particular episode doesn't seem to be nearly as important. It's easy to play through without any major choices getting made, and the beginning and ending of the episode seems to be the same regardless of what you do. Unlike the previous episode, where two major choices heavily impacted the next episode, it seems unlikely that most of the choices players make in "Smoke and Mirrors" will end up having a heavy impact on episode three. It's certainly possible that time, distance and even more subsequent playthroughs of both episodes one and two will prove otherwise.
Although the game has many wonderful qualities -- many of which are a carry-over from the first episode, including the fantastic art direction and opening credits -- it's tough not to feel like something's slightly off with the change of director and writing team. "Smoke and Mirrors" was directed by Jason Latino with a script by Dave Grossman, Adam Hines and Nicole Martinez. While the story still lived up to the standards that the first set, some fans will definitely notice the change. It's not necessarily bad, but it is one of the disadvantages of the episodic format: occasionally, changes in the game's team from episode to episode will make the game seem slightly off.
Indeed, the episodic format is perhaps where Telltale's games suffer the most -- comic fans have to wait a month between installments of "Fables," but it's been four months since the first episode of "The Wolf Among Us" hit. That's a long time to be away from the game, and not everyone will have time to play through the first episode to re-acclimate to the world. Playing the first episode over before jumping in to the second is not only encouraged, it's nearly necessary to fully enjoy the story and consequences of your choices from episode one.
That said, "Smoke and Mirrors" on its own is an excellent addition to the "Fables" canon. With a script full of heart, mystery and intrigue with an impressive amount of character development for old friends and new, "Fables" fans would be crazy to pass this up. Even if the first episode wasn't your cup of tea, the development of the story and characters makes it well worth your time to continue through "Smoke and Mirrors."
"The Wolf Among Us Episode Two: Smoke and Mirrors" is available now on the XBox Live marketplace, Playstation Network, PC and Mac.