The mid-season break can be agony for cable TV viewers. A hiatus for a popular show usually begins with a teasing cliffhanger, making the wait for its return even harder to bear. Perhaps videogame players are also going to have to acclimatise to such a phenomenon, but at least the next instalment of Telltale’s adaptation of the Fables comic book series has arrived slightly sooner than anticipated. After just a single episode of its debut season, we’ve had over four months to digest the 11th-hour shock before getting to find out how, or if, it’s resolved. And while Smoke & Mirrors shares most of the gripping opener’s strengths, it’s a slight return for your investment in the narrative: within two hours of the ‘previously on’ recap – a more necessary evil than usual after videogame production gaps – you’ll be sitting back in your chair and watching the credits roll.
After a brief introduction, the pre-credits sequence begins with an interrogation that can proceed relatively peacefully or rather more violently, depending on your choices, and which is quite clearly affected by your actions in the first chapter. Permeated by a sweaty tension, it’s a solidly crafted prologue, yet one that riffs on scenes we’ve become all too familiar with in recent years. It does close, however, on a surprise that reminds you, as the episode title suggests, that nothing here is quite as it seems.
Glamours, the spells that allow folklore characters to adopt human form, play a crucial role, though they could hardly be less aptly named. There’s nothing glamorous about this squalid world. The foyer of a rundown motel is barely illuminated by a sickly sodium light, while a seedy strip club contrasts lurid neon with impenetrable shadow. Outside, the darkness seems to spread even further, its inky tendrils soaking into every frame. The atmosphere conjured by these evocative settings is, however, compromised by technical woes: stutters, temporary freezes and framerate drops demonstrate once again that Telltale’s engine is long overdue for a tune-up.
Plot-wise, you’ll soon realise that Smoke & Mirrors is the early season lull, the part of every half-decent crime procedural where the protagonists begin their investigations proper. This is where we see them questioning sleazy suspects and nervous witnesses, visiting crime scenes and locations where persons of interest were last seen, but all without much success. You’re taken down blind alleys and cul-de-sacs, picking up just enough clues to progress the narrative without having much impact upon it.
Telltale’s interactive dramas have been posited as contemporary heirs to the point-and-click, their dialogue sequences offering a new kind of puzzle to solve, yet Smoke & Mirrors keeps you on a tight leash. The longterm consequences of your behaviour may be more wide-ranging, but the results aren’t wildly different whether you’re playing Bigby Wolf as a calmer or more aggressive brand of detective. Indeed, if you adopt the more genteel approach, Bigby’s sudden bursts of rage begin to feel out of character, highlighting the limits of your agency. And when you’re belatedly invited to connect together pieces of evidence, the process is insultingly simple – Hotel Dusk’s multiple-choice quizzes were a more challenging test of our deductive powers.
Smoke & Mirrors’ greatest triumph is its characterisation. Though only a handful of cast members get more than a few minutes of screentime, there’s a memorable debut for Georgie Porgie, here reimagined as a tattooed Northerner and owner of a strip club named Pudding And Pie. You needn’t be familiar with the nursery rhyme to know how he treats his dancers, but he’s an enjoyably nasty piece of work, employing profanity as punctuation in a sequence that finally gives Bigby – and the player – a chance to let loose. Yet even with another cliffhanger to keep you on tenterhooks until Episode Three, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see audience interest starting to wane, particularly if Telltale continues to treat us more as viewers than as players.