After the success of Life is Strange and especially Life is Strange 2, Dontnod Entertainment has become the sort of developer where the studio name alone can be enough to get people’s attention. So Dontnod announced Twin Mirror, a psychological thriller surrounding a small-town murder, it caught folks eyes, mine included. The question marks the trailer raised only made the game more enticing.
Unfortunately, Twin Mirror struggles to live up to those expectations. It’s a game with plenty of creative ideas and the foundation of something great, but fails to deliver on that potential, instead delivering a mildly entertaining but mostly forgettable by-the-book murder mystery.
Twin Mirror sees former journalist Sam Higgs returning to the little town of Basswood, West Virginia, two years after suddenly deciding to leave and losing connection with everyone he knew. With the sudden death of his best friend, Nick, forces Sam to return to Basswood and start confronting his past and the reasons he left in the first place. But when the facts of what’s ruled as a simple car crash don’t line up, Sam’s investigative instincts kick in, sending him down a path to find the true cause of Nick’s death, in a little town where people take kindly to outsiders asking too many questions.
One of Sam’s unique abilities is his deeply analytical mind, which manifests in what he calls his “Mind Palace” (yes, like in Sherlock). Here, Sam can basically shut out the real world and explore his memories, piece together facts, and run through simulations of different scenarios in order to make sense of the information he’s gathered and get to the truth of any matter.
It’s that last part that’s the most noteworthy. Where many of Twin Mirror‘s Mind Palace scenes are simple flashbacks that help piece together Sam’s history—nothing wrong with that—the simulations are where you get to take the different pieces of evidence you’ve gathered and test different theories on how they fit together, find what evidence is relevant and what’s a red herring, and, through a process of elimination, narrow down the possibilities until there’s only one plausible explanation.
Plenty of games have approached the whole crime scene investigation thing from different angles, but Twin Mirror is one of the more fresh and interesting approaches I’ve seen. It’s not just about gathering evidence until you find the smoking gun; it’s about figuring out how different pieces of evidence that are not especially conclusive on their own can fit together to point to the truth.
The problem is that, interesting as this concept is, Twin Mirror never gets close to finding the full potential. There are only three such investigations, and they’re rote to a fault—the first is pretty much a tutorial for the system, but with a crime scene so obvious that the Mind Palace hardly feels necessary at all; the second has a few more seemingly plausible possibilities to whittle down, but for an particularly uninspired crime scene; and the third isn’t really a crime scene at all (no spoilers) and basically amounts trial-and-error with different configurations of details until you get lucky and land on the right one.
The other thing that makes Sam stand out is an ever-present hallucination of an alternate vision of himself: one who’s better at judging people’s feelings and can give the real Sam advice, but whose advice isn’t always reliable or wanted. This internal psychological push and pull between the real, closed-off, analytical Sam and his more emotionally capable outgoing hallucination is something that, again, has a lot of potential that Twin Mirror just can’t live up to. It amounts to a series of artificial-feeling binary choices, and a couple of dream-like sequences that, despite their surreal presentation, bring little to the table.
The plot running through all this starts strong. The small-town murder is a timeless premise that lends itself to interesting characters and unique situations, and Twin Mirror is no exception. It’s vision of a once-thriving mining town that’s all but dried up since its mine’s closure feels like it has a million stories to tell, and putting a couple of journalists at the centre of it should be a way to let those stories unfold.
But, again, Twin Mirror is unable to do anything with this potential. A suspicious death in a town with a lot of secrets and a lot of grudges should be a recipe for a riveting thriller, but the main plot goes through a few predictable twists and turns before coming to the most obvious and least impactful conclusion it possible could. The few times the game dares to go down other paths and explore what makes the supporting cast tick, those threads just fizzle out before going anywhere.
What should be the main emotional driving force of the game—Sam reconnecting with his ex, Anna, and inevitably partnering up with her for the investigation—struggles to get any sort of momentum because of how hollow both Sam and Anna end up being. Sam finds it difficult to connect emotionally and ends up being a dick, Anna is career-driven and non-committal, and now they’re suddenly thrown back into each other’s lives and forced to confront what went wrong. That could be an interesting starting point for a some character drama that builds from there, but it never does—that’s the full extent of this thread.
Another subplot around Nick’s socially-awkward teenage daughter and Sam’s god-daughter, similarly goes nowhere memorable: she trusted him, he left town, and now he has to earn that trust back. Again, as the starting point for a storyline that grows or goes in more depth, this would be fine, but this thread never goes anywhere, either.
That’s the recurring theme throughout Twin Mirror: interesting ideas and potential that never go anywhere, leaving the whole game feeling like there’s a piece missing. It starts strong and brings some neat ideas to the table, but the plot, the characters, and the game systems that bring everything together feel underdeveloped in the finish—almost like this was meant to be the first episode of a series, then suddenly got cut short and had to be reworked into a standalone thing late in the piece. That’s a real shame, because Twin Mirror has the pieces of something great, but it never ends up getting realised.
Twin Mirror is developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.