I adore DONTNOD. They’re one of my favourite studios, and one that I feel is oft underappreciated when it comes to storytelling in games. I adored Remember Me. I loved how simple but effective Life Is Strange was. I was enamoured by how different and ambitious Vampyr was. I struggled to connect as quickly with Life Is Strange 2 on the same level as their other games but found Tell Me Why to be a refreshing and enlightening experience. My point is that all their games up until this point have been fantastic in one way or another. It pains me to say, then, that Twin Mirror fails to deliver on its intriguing premise.
Twin Mirror follows the story of investigative journalist Sam Higgs, returning to the fictional town of Basswood, West Virginia, following the death of one of his close friends. However, as both Sam and his friend’s daughter suspect foul play, not all is as it seems. Adding to the investigation’s challenge, Sam isn’t very well-liked in Basswood, having written a controversial expose piece that not only closed the booming mine that the town built upon economically but also left many people unemployed.
At first appearance, Twin Mirror’s premise sounds like a sure-fire hit. A small-town mystery, a central protagonist with tumultuous history with literally everybody in the town, and a dark and seedy underbelly disguised by a typical middle America. It sounds great! But unfortunately, Twin Mirror fails to capitalise on its tantalising ambition, instead plodding along as Sam sleepwalks through the plot. None of the characters ever experience meaningful development, and there’s barely any twists or turns that you either didn’t see coming or were revelatory enough to shock. It’s just there, and that’s unfortunate given DONTNOD’s otherwise stellar pedigree.
Twin Mirror attempts to shakeup the now ubiquitous DONTNOD formula to introduce two elements of Sam’s personality. The “Mind Palace” mainly represents his more analytical side. It’s a place that Sam can escape mentally to piece together his investigations and come to accurate conclusions. The other is “Him” or “The Double”, a cooler suaver version of Sam that appears to Sam to help him overcome social situations while still overly analytical. Both sides of Sam’s psyche are at odds with each other – and most players will eventually find themselves gravitating towards one more than the other.
Given the way Sam acts and behaves, it seems that DONTNOD is dancing around the fact that Sam is meant to be somebody on the autistic spectrum, but the representation here is spotty at best. It’s incredibly disappointing given how closely the team worked with GLAAD for Tell Me Why and is just another thing about Twin Mirror that feels half-baked.
The Mind Palace is where the crux of the “game” aspect of Twin Mirror happens. In it, Sam can adjust certain aspects of a crime scene to play out a hypothetical situation. In doing so, the Mind Palace will help Sam to highlight why his hypothesis might or might not be correct. Anyone who played DONTNOD’s 2013 debut, Remember Me, will be familiar with this setup. You essentially backtrack along with a scene, changing key details until they line up with what happened. These moments are reasonably engaging, though they feel ultimately lacking in their consequence. There are rarely any adverse outcomes for coming up with the wrong conclusion, which once again falls short of what we know DONTNOD are capable of as storytellers.
The Mind Palace is also where you’ll go to view memories, each providing some key backstory to Sam’s history with the town and some of its residents. But once again, they rarely offer any penetrating insight, and most of the surprises are ones you would’ve naturally assumed anyway. Perhaps these aspects of the plot were to be explored when the game was presumably a more extended, episodic experience. But Twin Mirror feels, quite frankly, only barely finished.
Anyone who is still morbidly curious to see how Twin Mirror is both equal parts compelling and meandering will discover quickly what I mean by this as the credits roll on their five-hour run. The story feels like it’s building up to something much more remarkable, the characters feel like they’re all bound to developed a little bit more; but the game wraps everything up in an oddly paced final chapter. It feels like the penultimate episode of a miniseries that’s had its budget pulled at the last second. All of it’s extraneous plot points are either excised or quickly tucked in to allow only the main plot finish at a breakneck pace.
There’s even five endings, but a single choice determines these in the penultimate chapter and a few in the final one. It feels a little bit shallow in that regard.
There’s twenty-one characters in Twin Mirror when all is said and done. But I could only tell you about less than five of them in detail – and that’s only because I’ve recently finished it. The game doesn’t have the strength or depth of writing to have you remember characters like Chloe, Max, Tyler, or even the Diaz brothers did.
But one thing I can praise Twin Mirror for is that it’s easily DONTNOD’s best game on a technical level. While a little bit generic on the artistic side, the game looks and performs superbly well. Lip syncing still leaves a lot to be desired. But the game has some great character models, superbly moody lighting, and performs rather well. I should qualify this by saying that I’m playing on an Xbox Series X, which for the most parts provide a crisper image quality as well as a buttery sixty frames per second. Regardless, this is easily DONTNOD’s best-looking game, even if it’s a little bit less distinct than Life Is Strange.
What’s a little bit less of an apparent success is the voice work, which feels flatter than ever. Throughout the game’s story, there are ample opportunities for the cast to hammer home some of the more emotional scenes in the plot, but it all comes across as flat and stilted. Sam and his alter ego “Him” could’ve played off of each other here, but, once again, it just never amounts to anything.
Which is the way I feel about Twin Mirror as a whole. It’s a great, tried-and-true concept that brings nothing new to the table, despite having so much potential. Made even more potent by the fact that we know what DONTNOD as a team is capable of.
THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED ON AN XBOX SERIES X FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Twin Mirror has an intriguing premise but ultimately fails to do anything remarkable with it. While it's DONTNOD's most impressive game technically, Twin Mirror is a by-the-book thriller that only just manages to scrape through to solve its core mystery that's unfortunately lacking thrills.