Is there anything better than sitting down to a good ol’ fashioned mystery? The cozy feeling you get from a blurb on the back of a novel you’ve snatched up, or a killer tagline that results in goosebumps and shivers up the spine. We know the formula, we’ve seen the tropes. But despite our familiarity, we can’t help but agonize over another red-herring, cliff hanger or plot twist. Twin Mirror, the latest from Life is Strange developer Dontnod Entertainment, promises this feeling, a comfortable fluffy blanket of a classically styled mystery. But as you wrap yourself up, you find its nothing more than a tattered rag that leaves you cold, and yearning for the real deal.
We are treated to a promising start, as our protagonist Sam, an investigative journalist looks on with melancholy eyes from the scenic highs of a worn-down nature trail, as his mid-Western hometown quietly exists below. Basswood feels like a proverbial can of worms from this distance, as Sam’s hesitance is quickly justified. He left the town on bad terms two years prior, only returning for his best friend’s funeral, which he happens to be late for. All of this isn’t helped by the pessimistic text from those expecting him below. Oh, and there is also the casual introduction of a spectacled gentleman, a figment of Sam’s imagination.
With these narrative seeds planted, Twin Mirror will quickly convince its players that they are in for a twisting and turning mystery. It has a more realistic visual style than some other Dontnod titles, utilizing a mix of great looking cinematography, solidifying the classic mystery vibe. However, as you make your way down from the Basswood trails to the rain-slicked streets, you will wish you kept this small town at a distance.
You are steadily introduced to the locals, you contextualize old relationships, and start to sniff out the smell of foul play. Sadly, the narrative rarely moves out of first gear. As it tried to usher in its own plot twists, I craved the true kind of narrative progressions that would urge me to stay up till four in the morning. Instead, Twin Mirror partners up its bland cast of characters and a setting that never manages to establish itself. There’s a serious lack of mysterious narrative hooks, which become all the more apparent as you amble your way through its story.
As you bounce from an unexplainable blood-stained shirt to a fresh corpse on a newsroom floor, Twin Mirror never leaves you desperate for answers. You are simply waiting for them. Before the big reveal towards the end of the game, I had no suspicions or theories, because it never tries to steer that suspicion towards any party. When all secrets are out in the open, you are left with a series of characters that feel almost entirely pointless and peripheral to its central plot.
Like Life is Strange before, Twin Mirror features a choice system that lets you alter your own narrative. Across my seven hours, I encountered around three or four choices, none of which made any immediately apparent difference to my playthrough. There are likely deviations, and clearly multiple endings, but I never felt compelled or intrigued enough to care beyond my own playthrough.
And the blame for that lack of intrigue fell to its central characters. Sam is reintroduced to old bosses, flames and enemies, and Twin Mirror clearly wants these characters to be the thing that will keep you coming back. In the game’s opening hours, I scoured every dialogue option and combed through each character profile. Yet with its unflinching facial animations, dead-behind-the-eyes stare, and wooden performance from near every character, discussions became a slog and as the story came to a close. I hadn’t glanced at the character profiles in hours and often skipped by these additional conversations.
To work in a powerful one-two-punch, Dontnod’s uninspiring gameplay mechanics added to any disconnect with its trippy psychological and eye-roll-inducing Mind Palace. Which is a mental safe space for Sam where you combine and mix up the clues you have collected to predict the most likely outcome. Within the platform of video games this had potential, as I often enjoy the mind-bending aspects of games like The Evil Within or Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice. But once again, Dontnod delivers a half-baked idea that is more Sherlock Holmes for Dummies rather than an example of a brilliant mind at work.
These puzzles begged for complexity, as in the latter half of the game I became entirely removed as I flicked through options until I was told that was the correct choice. Yet the levels themselves weren’t great in the first place. They are held hostage by an incredibly restrictive level design akin to older generations. I was constantly reminded to keep on the task at hand as I unwittingly stumbled across the outer limits of an area, often wandering aimlessly, hoping for the prompt to reveal an unapparent clue so I could progress.
Twin Mirror is Dontnods first collaboration with Bandai Namco and was developed by a separate team of senior developers. It may seem unreasonable to cast blame on this diversion from its previous team, but Twin Mirror stands as a far cry from other Dontnod titles, failing in almost every degree by its unwillingness to fully commit to anything.
It wants to be a classic mystery but never offers up any questions that truly need answering. Twin Mirror wants you to care about its characters but never gives you any reason to even like them. It wants so much to be about its setting but fails to even conjure up a fraction of the sense of place that Arcadia Bay achieved. Ultimately, Twin Mirror is an amalgamation of lots of half-baked ideas that become bruised and battered as they fall from the promising heights of Basswood’s nature trail. Maybe from up there, I can spot a better mystery to play through.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.]