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The creative forces at Dontnod Entertainment have had a fairly busy last half of 2020, launching 2 new games over multiple platforms within just a few short months of one another. In August, Tell Me Why was released exclusively to both the Xbox Game Pass service and PC, receiving high praise and positive feedback from the majority of those who played it. The development team has become quite renown over the past 4 or 5 years for delivering their unique format of slower paced narrative experiences that focus on existing, emotional, and at times sensitive themes, all while blending a bit of imaginative and non-realistic touches along the way. There has always been a deep, and in some ways, relatable story with each of their projects. Twin Mirror, their latest release, recently made its way to Xbox, PlayStation, and PC in early December. Presenting a seemingly darker tone than their previous project, the team stayed on-track with their traditional style of offering a story of mystery and self-conflict. The premise definitely drew me in initially, however my expectations were dramatically lowered after just a short amount of time into this attempted psychological thriller.
The setting is Basswood, a small, quiet mining community tucked away in the back-country of West Virginia. Following a series of events two years prior, protagonist Sam Higgs made an abrupt departure from town with full intentions of moving on with his life and not looking back. Unfortunately, a tragic accident claimed the life of his best friend/ex colleague, Nick, leaving Sam no choice but to make a return to say his final goodbye. A warm welcome with open arms for Higgs is lacking upon arrival, however. The majority of the community has shunned him due to the events that took place in the past. Sam worked as a journalist during his time in Basswood, and released a story that resulted in an immediate closure of the local mine, forcing the majority of the community out of work. Collapsing relationships, as well as a failed marriage proposal are thrown into the mix, giving Higgs that final push to depart from Basswood as quickly as possible. Shortly after what should’ve been a brief return for a funeral, it becomes apparent that Nick’s death may not have been an accident after all. Sam then begins to seek out answers, piecing together a much larger conspiracy at hand.
Twin Mirror’s gameplay is cookie cut directly from the majority of their other games such as Life Is Strange and Tell Me Why. At this point, it’s almost become a staple with the genre, much like what TellTale has done with their titles. As a narrative experience the game is quite heavy on cut-scenes, and direct interaction with characters that Sam encounters as he attempts to play detective. Dialogue wheels are once again present, and the choices made between certain characters have the potential to alter specific outcomes later on in the playthrough. Numerous objects are thoughtfully placed around as well, and while players aren’t forced to interact with the majority of them, they do assist in detailing some of Basswood’s history. The control mapping is fairly straight forward. However I did find it to be clunky at times, especially when trying to select a highlighted object or item of interest. The “detective work” is quite generic, consisting of Higgs gathering a very small amount of details and trying to piece the puzzle of a story together.
Now, it wouldn’t be a Dontnod project without some means of “reality bending” or other unexplainable occurrence being present either. This time around, players are introduced to the Mind Palace; an otherworldly location where Sam retreats to whenever recollecting memories from the past, or to utilize his freelance detective work. The visits into Sam’s fragile mind are thinly spread throughout the duration of the story, and really don’t last much longer than a few minutes at a time. Piecing together the proper evidence resulted in a playback of what actually happened at that very moment in time, allowing Sam to further his investigation. Anxiety attacks incite as well from time to time, sending players into a weird mini-game state of running through maze-like corridors as he tries to calm himself down. As brief and minimal as these moments were, they felt out of place and unnecessary. Little to no challenge was present while connecting the dots during the crime investigating scenarios either, though I’m not entirely sure they were intended to provide any to begin with. Nonetheless, it’s a clever concept, and easily the most appealing aspect of the game visually. Flashbacks of conversations with Nick attempt to aid in structuring the relationship between him and Sam. But once again, Sam’s stale personality really made it tough to visualize the bond between the two.
Another fresh aspect to the game was “The Twin”, a voice in Sam’s head that’s manifested into a physical form, appearing almost identical to himself. The Twin serves as his conscious more or less, and chimes in randomly during conversations while also attempting to offer advice during some of the decision making situations in the game. For the most part, this imaginary doppelganger is the voice of reason, trying to talk sense into Sam prior to the choices he’s about to make. It’s an ambitious mechanic added into the mix, and though I’ve only experienced one playthrough of the game myself, I’ve been made aware that altering some of the decisions do change up the story a little bit.
Players are introduced to the majority of Basswood’s residents within the opening hour of Twin Mirror, and the diversity is exactly what you would expect when visiting any small community. Sam may have spent the majority of his life in town and built prior relationships with these individuals, but that doesn’t mean everyone is happy to see his return either. Tension builds quickly between him and a select few who make it more than obvious that they weren’t on board with his assistance in foreclosing the local mine. In ways, I was able to relate and understand where their frustration towards Sam was coming from. But little details throughout the game also bring to light that the mine was also responsible for numerous accidents and fatalities, deeming it unsafe and dangerous. Other characters are more empathetic towards Sam and his actions, assuring him it was the right thing to do.
Strong character development is an absolute necessity with any narrative experience, especially with the protagonist. Unfortunately, Sam Higgs falls short in fulfilling that position. Sure, he’s a broken individual and struggling to cope with his past, as well as the recent events that led him back to Basswood. But I just found his character unlikeable. Monotonous dialogue and an empty, lifeless personality made it nearly impossible to build that connection, even when taking into consideration how broken of a individual he really is. The interactions between him and the Twin did seem to breathe some life back into Sam, and were about the only times he showed any emotion whatsoever. The interactions between Sam and Anna were an awkward mix as well. Anna was the girl who declined his marriage proposal in the past, and it comes to light that she entered a relationship with Nick once Sam had left town. It adds to the uneasiness that Higgs should be feeling or expressing, but it never really shows either. Nick’s daughter on the other hand, Joan (or Bug), was easily a favorite of mine in the game, and well quite well written. Bug is a young, eccentric but grief stricken little girl, struggling with the current loss of her father, as well as a crumbled relationship with her own mother. It’s never said directly, but the interactions between her and Sam make it apparent that she looks up to him as a father figure. I felt her role in the story was sidelined, and unfortunately her appearances during the game are quite limited. When a background character delivers a stronger performance than the protagonist themselves, it’s almost a shame we weren’t able to experience more of her presence throughout. But that’s mostly a personal stance of mine.
While the opening act of Twin Mirror sets up a rather strong and intriguing front, it falls short quickly with its underwhelming protagonist, lack of emotion between some of the main characters, and an anti-climatic conclusion. The addition of both the Mind Palace and The Twin are both very creative and interesting takes on depicting mental health and coping with personal agendas, but were about the only real highlight of the game for me. The story itself was oddly paced, and seemed to end as quickly as it began. I’ve always enjoyed Dontnod’s projects thoroughly, but I had a very hard time connecting with the characters this time around, which to me, is an absolute must when experiencing a story driven title such as this. It’s disappointing, as I think both the premise and individuals had so much more potential then what was delivered this time around. Beautiful visuals and the detailed linear locations throughout Basswood were merely the distraction I needed to keep me pushing through to the end of the story. But I can honestly say I don’t anticipate another visit in the future.