Following the massive success of the Life is Strange games, and the positive critical reception to Tell Me Why, Dontnod have established themselves as a developer with a rich pedigree in narrative adventures. Combining beautiful visuals with a low-fi indie mentality, mature storytelling, and well curated soundtracks, their games have also taken over the episodic mantle from Telltale.
Twin Mirrors breaks the mould in two major ways: it is the first self-published Dontnod game (in partnership with Bandai Namco) and it abandons the episodic approach in favour of an all-in-one format. It also introduces a generic American dude as the protagonist, although he does have inner turmoil and angst.
You play as Sam Riggs, an investigative journalist who is returning to his home town of Basswood following the tragic death of his former best friend, Nick. Although the official account is that Nick died in a car accident, it soon becomes apparent that all is not what it seems in Basswood. The opening scenes of Twin Mirror revolve around Sam’s reception and the early suspicions about Nick’s death. These do a great job in establishing the various characters and their history with Sam, but after the game’s opening, I was surprised to discover that almost no other substantial characters were introduced later. That being said, the relatively small cast does help to cement the claustrophobic feel of a small town in which everybody knows everybody else’s business.
The town of Basswood is well realised and everything has a convincing run-down look, while the environments you can wander around are detailed and do a good job of making it easy to spot interactive objects even before the button prompts are revealed.
The characters are also impressively detailed – Dontnod are clearly on an upward trend here – and the voice acting it consistently strong throughout a very dialogue heavy game, though it does slip into the uncanny valley with some of the lip syncing. There’s even a 13 year old girl who doesn’t come across as a stereotypical brat.
My only issue here is that many of the characters don’t really grow or have noticeable arcs, they just occupy standard NPC territory. Conversations also feel almost automatic, with there often being no real change in the reaction, regardless of which option you choose. As a result, the only real reason for making different choices seems to be personal roleplaying.
The overall style of the game can best be described as cinematic. Stripped down to its bare essentials, there is little more to do here than move between conversations with occasional rudimentary search puzzles in the various locations. Yes, you have Sam’s imaginary version of himself offering advice – his alter-ego is far more clean cut and socially comfortable – but what this leads to often feels like binary alternatives rather than branching choices. This basic description isn’t entirely fair, as the narrative focus ensures that you don’t really notice the mechanics whilst playing. To its credit this is not an epic tale of world ending peril, but instead a far more personal and intimate story of a troubled man trying to do the right thing in the face of painful memories and a hostile environment. It is this story setting that I found the most interesting part.
You soon find out that Sam was forced to leave his home town due to the fallout from a hard-hitting exposé on malpractice at the local mine. This may not sound like the most exciting of backstories, but the representation of a small town facing extinction in the face of the closure of its main source of employment feels like a vital and topical setting. Whilst you are clearly meant to sympathise with Sam throughout, the game doesn’t present the grudge-bearing locals as simple baddies, but more as victims of the wider economic situation. As for the baddies, the game skilfully offers up a number of red herrings and misdirections that will keep you guessing until the very end. This is a real plus in terms of the narrative, but I was left with the feeling that my actions had very little impact on the story that was being told.
The main new gameplay mechanic to Dontnod’s formula is the introduction of Sam’s Mind Palace. Sam is able to reconstruct moments and replay them, or even predict them in later puzzles, to ascertain the truth of what happened. Whilst this isn’t a new idea, and will be familiar to any fans of the Frogwares Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu titles, this is by far the most polished iteration I’ve seen. This polish is welcome, but doesn’t really hide the fact that you are mainly looking for the various interactive points in the environment and then putting them in the correct order in a fancy setting. There is one later section that takes place in the mind palace that felt far more innovative and interesting, and it’s a shame Dontnod don’t make more use of this.
While there are alternative endings and paths to take, these boil down to just slightly different conversation lines or heavily signposted binary choices. To be honest, I felt that the path I took gave me the result that was most appropriate to my view of the characters and I don’t really have much incentive, aside from achievements, to go back through and choose a different option. In that regard, perhaps it perfectly achieved its goal.