The biggest weakness of the mostly fantastic first episode of Telltale Games' Fables prequel game, The Wolf Among Us, was one that tends to come up in prequels. It built a handful of major plot points around putting characters that show up safe and sound in Fables in seemingly mortal peril.

The second episode, titled "Smoke and Mirrors," largely avoids that pitfall by quickly dealing with the cliffhanger from the previous episode to unveil new secrets that arise more organically from the world of the game. New characters and seedy settings keep things fresh while maintaining a wonderfully noirish atmosphere. And while the gameplay is slightly different, it's still eminently compelling.


Fables The Wolf Among Us SM 1
Telltale Games

Where the first episode, "Faith," put Bigby Wolf in several very physical situations -- chases, fights, hiding spots -- this episode is more focused on dialogue and investigating crime scenes. In fact, there's only one quicktime event of any substance (there's another right at the beginning if you make a few specific choices).

That might make this episode sound less exciting than its predecessor, but it actually plays to the game's strengths. Technical issues made the quicktime events in "Faith" easily the most frustrating things about it, so scaling them back was a smart move. The dialogue, on the other hand, continues to be the foundation of the game, along with the still-dazzling art direction. The writing, as before, is really sharp, and the game invites multiple playthroughs just so players can see how different choices lead to different reactions from the beautifully well-developed cast of characters, old and new.


Fables The Wolf Among Us SM 2
Telltale Games


(I should note that not all the characters that appear for the first time in this episode are new creations. Jack makes a cameo in which he quickly becomes unwelcome, as Jack does.)

I've played through the episode twice so far, and I noticed the second time through that the character animations are as well-observed as the dialogue. There's one scene where Bigby goes to forcefully question the owner of a strip club, for example. Throughout the scene, a dancer practices in the background, making some rather unusual motions with her legs. After a few moments it becomes exceedingly clear why that was her natural movement. It's a subtle moment that a lot of players may not even notice (partially because they may be a little shocked by the nudity in the scene, considering that the comic generally has shied away from Vertigo's HBO-style penchant for toplessness); it integrates the world of Fables in with a noir milieu in a way that seems almost effortless.

This episode also has quite a bit more straightfoward investigating than the previous one did. A scene near the end plays much like the crime-scene investigations in L.A. Noire, a good, but irreparably flawed game that aimed to accomplish a lot of what this game more confidently pulls off. Bigby is tasked not just with finding clues, but figuring out how they connect to the heinous act that happened in the room. Unlike L.A. Noire's occasional frustrating obliqueness, the connections here are quite literally laid directly out for the player to piece together. Still, the lack of difficulty is kind of welcome for players desperate to keep the narrative moving.



As last time, this episode does suffer from a few technical hang-ups. The load times on the Xbox Live version are still way longer than it would seem they should be, making the "previously on" recap and "next time on" teaser more annoying than titillating. And though there's only one big quicktime event, it still has some troubling lag.

And then there was the issue of actually downloading the game. Telltale was kind enough to provide ComicsAlliance with a season pass for the remaining episodes of the game, but an ongoing Xbox Live issue actually made it impossible for season-pass subscribers to get the game without paying again when it was released last Wednesday. In the end, Microsoft had to send me a second code just so I could play.


Fables The Wolf Among Us SM 3
Telltale Games


Of course, that was an unfortunate problem that Telltale had nothing to do with. And perhaps it says something about the game that I and players like me got so agitated with the hold-up. We had to know what happened. Knowing that the game was out and we couldn't play it was awful. Waiting was a matter of unbearable suspense. If a game can have that kind of an effect on someone, it must be doing its job pretty well, right?

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