Twin Mirror Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One and PC
There’s something enticing about small-town detective stories. They usually revolve around a perfect community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else, but scratch the surface, and everyone has secrets, dark pasts, or questionable motives. Throw in a murder or two, and start chipping away at the facade of perfection and the list of suspects pile up as the swirling undercurrent of lies, deceit, and violence, threaten to pull the detective under. Needless to say, when Dontnod announced that one of their next games would be a psychological thriller set in a small West Virginian town, I was excited. Had I known nothing about it going in, perhaps I would have been less disappointed.
Twin Mirror follows the story of Sam Higgs, an investigative journalist who returns to his hometown of Basswood to attend the funeral of his best friend who he hasn’t spoken to for two years. Naturally, things aren’t what they seem, and he’s quickly pulled back into the town as he investigates the real cause of his friend’s death. It’s primarily a narrative game, but it does have some interesting mechanics as well - Sam frequently enters his ‘mind palace’, a place where he retreats when he needs to think, reminisce, or piece things together. He also talks to a version of himself known as ‘Him’ or ‘The Double’ who gives him advice about how to best handle situations. On paper, this all sounds great to me, but unfortunately, the game isn’t long enough to give proper time to any of its elements, and so the result is a rushed and muddled experience that feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be.
The opening scene sets up the story well as Sam drives along the tree-lined roads listening to the radio. We see a newspaper with the news about his friend and a bottle of pills, classic motifs to let us know where Sam’s head is at. Then we reach the first interactive scene where we’re free to explore and get the first taste of the mechanic that makes this game more unique beyond a simple narrative - Sam’s mind palace where we begin to learn the reasons Sam decided to leave Basswood in the first place.
It’s peaceful in Sam’s mind palace, he looks healthier there, and it gives him a chance to examine the facts of what’s going logically. Throughout Twin Mirror it’s used to revisit Sam’s memories from before he left Basswood, and also to piece together evidence to figure out what happened or what the best course of action will be. Due to the nature of what the mind palace is - Sam stepping away from real life to look at it as an outsider, it’s natural that it removes you from the story somewhat. However, sometimes it diminishes the stakes of the story altogether. There’s a scene near the end where Sam’s constant switching between real life and his head took any tension away from what should have been the tensest part of the game, as well as removing any meaningful choice when a choice is presented.
The other problem with these parts of the game is that when collecting evidence for the mind palace sequences (or simply interacting with anything in general), it takes too long. Firstly, when looking for evidence, you often have to make Sam walk around the environment multiple times because clues need to be found in a certain order, despite the fact some objects are clearly clues but are locked to start with. Secondly, once you can actually interact with something, you have to be standing in a very specific location with the camera at just the right angle for the interaction options to pop up. It makes these scenes extremely arduous, and had they been streamlined Twin Mirror would have had the extra time for the story and characters that it desperately needed.
However, when it comes to the story and characters, things aren’t great either; the story is predictable, rushes over important character moments, and leaves you feeling a bit flat. When first announced, Twin Mirror was supposed to be an episodic game like Life is Strange 1 and 2 and Tell Me Why, but somewhere in the production process it was condensed to one self-contained story, and I think it’s worse for it. What this game needs more than anything is time to breathe. None of the characters feel fully fleshed out, even protagonist Sam is hard to get on board with, and many of the secondary characters feel more like plot devices than people.
Even Sam’s character development is mostly crammed into one scene, and considering a huge theme of Twin Mirror is mental health, it still seems like the game shies away from really talking about it. Whilst there are some great moments that depict how much Sam is falling apart inside, it doesn’t feel like it was resolved fully which is a large part of why I think the ending falls flat. Whilst the game can’t expect us to believe he’s completely fine by the end, it doesn’t leave us with many hints as to how Sam is doing.
There are other things about the story that feels out of place as well; conversations that maybe played a bigger role when the story was longer now feel unnecessary. The crime elements of the game are predictable, it doesn’t feel like we get the closure to some of his past relationships that we need, and it doesn’t feel like Sam is at the end of his story either. In fact, if someone told me this was a prequel to an upcoming game it would make a lot more sense.
To be completely fair, there are a couple of ways Twin Mirror shines; visually it is beautiful, whether you’re looking down at the town during sunset, going through Sam’s memories, or exploring the town, the level of detail is wonderful. There are also some great characters like Sam’s ex-girlfriend Anna, or Joan, who is the daughter of the friend who died. Sam has interesting relationships with both and is at his best during conversations with them. Lastly, Twin Mirror is only about 8 hours long. If you’re looking for a quick narrative game with some interesting mechanics then I imagine you’d come away feeling fine about the experience.
When I think of stories of small towns, murders, and confrontation of the past, I think you need to go big or go home. Go dark, go weird, fill the story with twists and turns, secrets, and lies. Twin Mirror feels a bit like the developers didn’t have the time to do anything they wanted properly and, as a result, the game falls flat. I know Dontnod are capable of better storytelling than this, so I hope, in the future, they can return to the standard of their previous work.