If there was one developer I grew to love this generation, it would be Dontnod. The Paris-based studio has crafted some of my favorite titles, specifically, the Life is Strange series and this year’s Tell Me Why. They’re a team that doesn’t shy away from being off-kilter, and every project of theirs immediately gets my attention. So when Twin Mirror was unveiled back in 2018, I was instantly intrigued. However, the title’s drawn-out release came to be a concern. Was this just a case of the studio taking their time to get it right? Or a sign of a rocky development?
The opening moments of Twin Mirror will feel familiar to those who have played the first Life is Strange. A scenic view of a small town bathed in the rays of the sun. It’s hard not to think of Arcadia Bay when you get your first glimpse at the town of Basswood. However, while both conjure up similar feelings, their stories are quite different. For Sam Higgs, the town is nothing but a place of bad memories and broken dreams. If it wasn’t for the fact that his estranged best friend just passed away, he would have never returned.
Unfortunately, Nick has passed, and it’s only right that Sam returns to pay his respects. All he needs to do is get in and out of the local tavern, deal with the residents who blame him for the loss of their jobs, and make amends with the numerous people he hurt when he skipped town. Simple enough. What he wasn’t planning on getting into, though, was an investigation into the seemingly shady way Nick died. Is this just a case of Sam’s overactive mind reading into things? In order to make things right, both to Nick’s friends and family and his own conscience, he is going to need to poke around Basswood to make sure.
Having already dipped their toes into the world of small-town murder mysteries, I expected Dontnod to deliver on this end. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t come together, and the mystery fails to engage. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the characters you spend the most time with are not enjoyable to be around. Sam is a morose, depressed man, but not one you feel sympathy for. You are given some backstory for why he became the way he is, but that comes so late in the game, it’s basically pointless exposition. The developers have been able to craft sympathetic heroes in the past, but this erstwhile detective is arguably their weakest lead to date.
Even the side characters struggle to leave an impression, and the only one that stands out in a good way is former lover/co-worker Anna. She’s hurting badly from Nick’s passing, and the story is wise to play off those emotions. From being incredulous at the idea of murder, to coming to Sam’s side after some plot beats, she’s the only one with a solid arc. The rest of the Basswood locals range from annoying to basically invisible. Worst of all is Joan “Bug” Waldron, Nick’s daughter and Sam’s goddaughter. Her dialogue bears that quality I hate in child writing, which is that they speak in a way no kid ever would. It’s an unbearable trait, and I was practically rolling my eyes throughout every one of her appearances. The rest of the cast, such as Sam’s old boss Walter and chief of police Bess, don’t show up enough to impact the plot in any meaningful way.
Obviously, I’m not privy to the development cycle of Twin Mirror, but the way characters and plot beats are introduced only to be cast aside makes it seem like the move away from an episodic release left a lot of content on the cutting room floor — which, for the record, is a bummer, because I’ve always liked how Dontnod builds their worlds around its main characters. Both mainline Life is Strange games have strong supporting casts, and Vampyr‘s bloody and brooding world is really the main reason to play that game. Without that care and development, though, Twin Mirror is just a boring, slog of a mystery that struggles to keep your attention.
As an investigative journalist, Sam is used to snooping around for clues, and the majority of Twin Mirror‘s gameplay is built around searching for clues to help bring the mystery to a close. Some of the objects Sam finds will remind him of simpler times, while others may be of no use at all. These are very simplistic, interactive segments that will feel familiar to anyone who has played the studio’s prior efforts. Once he has fully investigated a location, though, he can enter his Mind Palace to fully piece the puzzle together.
The Mind Palace is, as you’ve probably guessed, the main gameplay hook. It’s where Sam puts all of his memories, and most importantly, where he can recreate the scene of a crime. Using the hints you’ve previously uncovered, you can slot them together to create a vignette that shows what could have played out. For example, the first one you come across requires you to piece together a bar fight Sam was involved in the night before. You begin with determining who he was fighting, then you move to where the fight could have spilled out to, and finally where it ended. It’s an interesting gimmick, but there’s little deduction actually involved. There’s only one correct answer, and you basically just have to cycle through each option until you stumble upon the right one.
There’s also the unfortunate fact that The Mind Palace houses Sam’s imaginary friend. Never referred to by name, this mysterious being influences how Sam reacts to situations. Sometimes he offers up good advice, while other times it’s best to ignore him. At all times, though, he proves to be incredibly annoying. A smug man who often takes credit for actions you decided to take, you’ll wish he would fade away for good. The presence of this second personality also feels like Dontnod’s hamfisted take on mental illness, but, like many of the plot beats here, it’s never fleshed out in a way that makes you care. It’s like the studio wanted to give their hero some characterization but only did the barest minimum of work.
Despite falling short of their past works in most ways, Twin Mirror is easily one of the more visually impressive games in Dontnod’s catalog. The characters look great and are animated well, particularly in their faces. It’s the closest the studio has come to nailing the actual movement of human beings. I’m also a big fan of where they chose to set the story. A small town in West Virginia is typically not one’s first choice for an ideal setting, but they make it work by accurately depicting the local life. Towns like Basswood have been ravaged by stagnant wages and drug issues, and the studio made sure to reflect that.
Twin Mirror represents the first real whiff from Dontnod that I can think of. The mystery that is supposed to be driving the game never gets going and fails to provide any sort of intrigue, and while the studio has used reliable supporting characters and heartfelt dialogue to prop up their efforts, both of those are lacking here. You can see hints of a more interesting title pop up throughout the campaign — Sam coming home to not only help out the community he left behind but also come to terms with his own issues would have made for quite the tale. Whether it was due to the staggered development cycle or not, though, these threads aren’t unspooled enough.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Dontnod Entertainment.
There's some small-town charm to be found in Twin Mirror, but an undercooked mystery and lack of interesting characters make the trip to Basswood a rather boring one.