For the last five years I've eagerly anticipated each new game from French studio DONTNOD Entertainment, creators of my favorite game of 2015, Life is Strange. But each subsequent title has left me slightly disappointed. Before the Storm, Vampyr, Life is Strange 2 and Tell Me Why all had the heartfelt, personal narrative I was looking for but were missing some magical chord DONTNOD struck with Life is Strange.
It's difficult not to feel that each game over the last five years has been an attempt to follow in the success of their runaway hit, and that each one has been just a bit off the mark. However, based on the 3 hour preview of Twin Mirror I played, I think DONTNOD has finally found that chord again. Twin Mirror feels like returning to Blackwell Academy in a way that is earned, not forced, and I'm excited to see what's next.
A Cozy Setting for a Small-Scale Story
I feel that DONTNOD's strengths in writing have always come by way of their dedication to personal stories. Rather than fighting gods or stopping world-ending events, the Life is Strange series focused tightly on personal relationships in small towns to drive the narrative. Twin Mirror continues this trend to great success, bringing us to the small mining town of Basswood, West Virginia - and it couldn't possibly be more cozy.
Journalist Sam Higgs returns to his hometown after two years for the funeral of his best friend, Nick. Though dead from the moment the game starts, what remains of Nick in both his family and his work drives the plot of Twin Mirror, helping the player feel a personal connection to a character they never meet. Nick's pre-teen daughter, Joan, bears through her grief by latching onto a theory that her father was murdered in relation to his journalism, that the car accident that took his life was no accident. In Joan's desperate attempts to find a reason for her father's passing, Sam finds the motivation to care about something again. At least at the beginning, Twin Mirror is a story about a man trying to honor his best friend's memory by finishing his work. What could be more personal than that?
These characters feel like people I know with problems I understand. I know their internal pangs of guilt and cries for help; I have felt them myself.
The Mind Palace Made Me Feel Like a Detective
Right now, you may be asking "what is the heat?" Much like Max's time-traveling powers in Life is Strange, Sam's Mind Palace is the key mechanic that separates Twin Mirror from walking simulators. When collecting clues, Sam will assemble in his Mind Palace a dynamic image of the scene. Accompanied by his inner-self (let's call him Sam 2), Sam will need to piece together the course of events using deductive reasoning and elimination.
The investigation becomes a set of building blocks; the player will need to arrange them in the right way and then play out the scenario to hone in on what really happened. I felt much smarter than I had any right to while working through the car crash Mind Palace, adjusting and tweaking individual elements of the scenario to fit something that made sense. I'd tweak element A and run the scenario only to realize that my last tweak of element D had been incorrect after all. Using this method of elimination through deductive reasoning I'd stumble into the truth, and it felt earned. I had the epiphanies and realizations that I might have had if I was a good detective in real life, and that rush of feeling intelligent is something everyone loves feeling.
Just as in previous titles, you'll be making decisions that affect the course of the story. Some will be minor and have little bearing on conversation, but in the first chapter I happened upon several major decisions. Twin Mirror made it clear that my actions would have consequences, though I'll have to wait until I can play the full game to find out what those consequences are.
Intriguing and Believable Characters
Even if Sam isn't as relatable as Max was in Life is Strange, he sure is just as developed and real. Sam Higgs is an intriguing but somewhat unlikable character. I think it's in that mix that he becomes believable. Sam has his good and bad points to him, as does every other character introduced in the first chapter. His need for the truth consistently outweighs his need to be kind. Joan's innocence and unyielding belief in Sam, despite what everyone else thinks about him, made me as the player feel more motivated to continue my hunt for the truth. Anna's lingering feelings for an idealized version of Sam tear at her as she attempts to move on from something that never really existed. These characters feel like people I know with problems I understand. I know their internal pangs of guilt and cries for help; I have felt them myself.
Even though these characters are all believable and three-dimensional, the real kicker was getting to know Nick after his death. Twin Mirror has so far done an excellent job of introducing this deceased character by what marks he left on the world, what memories he left with people. Learning about who he was in such an intimate way made me feel connected to him, connected to Basswood.
Overall I greatly enjoyed my time with the first chapter of Twin Mirror, certainly more so than with Life is Strange 2 or Tell Me Why. The new Mind Palace mechanic and the focus on personal relationships and small-town America to drive narrative makes me feel that DONTNOD may hit big again with Twin Mirror. Twice during the preview, Sam dipped into a clunky mini-game to sort out his panic attack that I didn't find particularly enjoyable, but these mini-games lasted only five minutes apiece. Aside from that, I was thoroughly pleased with what I got to see. I look forward to playing to rest of Twin Mirror and seeing if DONTNOD can deliver on this intriguing opening.
TechRaptor previewed Twin Mirror on PC with a free code provided by the publisher. Twin Mirror will be available December 4th on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC via the Epic Games Store.