Twin Mirror (XOne) - ReviewLee Mehr , posted on 05 January 2021 / 3,368 Views
An Appalachian town, a grisly murder-mystery, and a reclusive journalist with an extraordinary means of gathering evidence are the spotlight in DONTNOD's second new IP of 2020 – a remarkable feat all of its own. Although still in keeping with its design ethos, there's something more by-the-numbers here compared to the emotional explorations the team has cultivated since entering the 8th gen. Putting more emphasis on simply playing civilian Colombo can have its own rewards too. But despite this relative simplicity, Twin Mirror may be the most unfocused and uneven work these creatives have made yet.
Basswood, West Virginia. It's a humble mining town whose main source of income was ruined by our protagonist, Sam Higgs. After practically being run out on a rail by townsfolk for his infamous article in the local newspaper, he returns two years later to mourn the untimely death of his best friend. But people in this town have short tempers and long memories. As Sam navigates past relationships – both genial and vicious – during the wake, he eventually settles in for heavy drinking. The resulting hangover is cut short upon a bloody discovery that spurns him to investigate further.
I'll admit: a part of me feels like that's a... belabored opening for understanding this story. That's merely a taste though compared to Twin Mirror. The opening hour (or so) has some of the most disjointed pacing I've recently experienced. One may be quick to point out the necessity of exposition for any beginning; further, it's a tough balancing act for a previously-defined playable character. Considering how deftly DONTNOD's writers have handled this in the past? It's incredible to see how procedural the exposition is and how plainly it's stated. There’s too little connective tissue or synergy in how successive scenes or Sam’s monologues present background information.
This is all the more frustrating because it gets incrementally more interesting past the first hour. Two of the reasons why stem from Sam's unique traits: his imaginary friend and his 'Mind Palace.' The former follows the simple template of his unconscious mind challenging perspectives and creating the dual-choice dilemmas; the latter is a crystalline world populated with Sam's memories and occasionally used as a representation of his investigative thinking. The way Sam's mind can assist or roadblock his progress helps to improve pacing and exposition-dumping.
When I said "more interesting" before it's crucial to consider that in the context of what's still a rushed and thematically uneven narrative. Which sucks because this setting could be riper for exploring than Arcadia Bay's collection of entitled high-schoolers with the right approach. If you're at all familiar with stories out of "White Appalachia" then you've likely heard stories about lost jobs, abject poverty, and rampant opioid abuse. It's rough subject matter that's heightened by Sam's influence. There's a valid moral dilemma to dwell upon: should he have written his factual discoveries about the local mining company IF that meant a lot of people would lose work? Sadly, any tough questions or examinations on this are pushed aside too quickly.
Twin Mirror hits the harmonious middle between feeling protracted in its small scenes and hurried along in the grand scheme. When removing Sam's mind from the equation, conversations with most characters feel one-dimensional. There are certainly some gems, including Sam's precocious goddaughter Joan, who go beyond just having a personality quirk. That engagement is harmed by underwhelming presentation though. Whether it's the flat cinematography or inconsistent editing, you're only occasionally immersed by the story's few strengths.
My 'enjoyment meter' was akin to the most obnoxious roller coaster; where you can't go more than 10 feet without another overbanked turn, corkscrew, or loop. The story structure is like a ship without any moorings. I want to clutch the neat ideas, but I couldn't avoid feeling as distant as Sam is to these surroundings.
If you've played the developer's most recent works you know what's in store: a TellTale-esque 3D adventure game emphasizing dialogue options with a light smattering of puzzles. Of the few gameplay fumbles, the biggest is binary choices. This staple has a nice nuance with Sam's nameless alter-ego: time freezes in place as the two think out loud about the best course of action. It was a refreshing take when I was forced to second-guess my first decisions; that said, some later ones are completely bananas and artificial. I never recall seeing the "x% of users chose A over B" after the first decision either, giving the impression even DONTNOD recognized the ersatz emotion behind several dilemmas.
The other big portion of gameplay centers on Sam's cognitive abilities and hurdles. He faces his inner demons within abstract one-off segments, such as an endless runner down a metaphysical hallway. These are mechanically simple, but establish his chaotic internal struggle in surprising ways. Playing detective in Sam's Mind Palace is rudimentary while being rewarding. You'll walk around a confined space to accrue pertinent objects and then replay the options until reaching the correct outcome (similar to Remember Me's memory remixes). Sure, pure deduction by the player gives greater rewards than trial-and-error foundations; that said, these mechanics are complimentary in revealing Sam's incredible mind. Watching him map out the truth in real time congeals with how the story builds him up as a fastidious planner.
Ironically, the best gameplay portion here is a game within the game. Pac-Man is playable upon revisiting the local bar. That may be a tough knock against the game proper, but I'm also a sucker for these types of surprises. It still speaks to a larger issue with Twin Mirror's identity: how did scouring for white pieces in an arcade cabinet feel more consistently enjoyable than unearthing a crime scene?
Pac-Man aside, Twin Mirror's biggest saving grace is its visuals. In regards to landscapes, DONTNOD's visual artists succeed in capturing the small town aesthetic. The little things like the old-timey pharmacy, the modernized coffee shop, and more are surrounded by forestry on all sides. Sam's Mind Palace is littered with floating quartz platforms of various shapes and sizes. I never got bored of visiting it, or the times crystalline versions of people and objects bled into the real world when he’s solving a puzzle. When you look past the landscapes and towards people, however? I thought their rigid pantomimes and lifeless stares took a step back from Life Is Strange's characters. Even by the middle-market standards it's going for ($30), there are plenty of better examples on the market.
Sound is more of a mixed bag in large part due to the voice performances. The sound design and OST reach the level of satisfactory. Composer David Wingo utilizes a host of instruments and genre tent poles in some creative ways. There weren't any technical issues that I recall either. It's quite humorous to discover this was Wingo's first game soundtrack too; in some ways, it sounded more restrained than DONTNOD's previous titles – which I think was a respectable approach. Voice acting has a panoply of annoyances I couldn't shake: mismatched tones for dramatic scenes suggest actors were given different final scripts, a couple of performers took two roles that had disparate levels of quality, and Sam sounds like a listless Troy Baker knock-off. It's hard to know how to parse out blame between voice actors and director(s) for these errors.
For this French developer's ever-expanding gameography this adventure may be its worst yet. It's not bereft of fascinating ideas; it simply never puts them into a cohesive whole. I was engaging with an assortment of things to do instead of an actual narrative. Whether in respect of gameplay or storytelling, the longer Twin Mirror peers at the glass the easier it is to see a pale reflection of DONTNOD’s previous work.
Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.
This review is based on a digital copy of Twin Mirror for the XOne
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