Even if we've accessed a new generation of consoles with PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S | X (and, consequently, also next-gen games) just a few weeks ago, it's still extremely important to maintain some cornerstones that keep us anchored to the past. Products like graphic adventure games, which have existed since video games have seen the light for the very first time, have endured for decades, reinventing themselves and offering new ways to tell compelling stories. In recent years, Dontnod Entertainment has distinguished itself within this specific scenario, giving life to several games in that genre.
From Remember Me to Life is Strange games up to, last but not least, Tell me why and Twin Mirror (of which we speak today), the French studio has shown that it has great narrative skills, mixing everything with a simple, but effective gameplay. Twin Mirror represents an exception within the path taken by Dontnod: while keeping intact some common characters with the games that preceded it, this game proves to be a watershed, a new direction for the studio. But is it still capable of winning over players just like its predecessors?
Set in Basswood, a former mining town in West Virginia. Sam is a former investigative journalist who moved away from his hometown following an investigation into the local mine, which led to its closure, and a series of painful personal vicissitudes. He's forced to come back to town to attend Nick's wake, his best friend and colleague, who died in a car accident. The circumstances surrounding the incident are mysterious and this is how Sam - persuaded by Joan, his goddaughter and Nick's daughter - decides to investigate, to shed light on its causes and understand if it was just a tragedy or a murder. Meanwhile, returning to Basswood, Sam is forced to deal with his past: former miners who don't like his presence, old friends who don't seem so keen to see him again, and Anna, a woman who has been very important in his life. The return to the city reopens some old wounds and Sam, accompanied by his Double (a mysterious and inner figure who only Sam can see), tries to shed light not only on Nick's alleged murder, but also on his "inner self", with whom he has always been in deep conflict.
There are two aspects that the various Dontnod games have in common: one is the exploratory/investigative component and the other, which usually acts as a mechanic or as a consequence of the latter, is the presence of a supernatural power that distinguishes the protagonist. In the first Life is Strange Max had the ability to rewind time, for example, here Sam has a superpower called "Mind Palace". Thanks to his impressive ability to remember details and his extraordinary analytical mind, Sam is able to rework crucial information to solve some puzzles, accessing a sort of mental database containing all his memories and the people he met to make deductive evaluations.
In order to be able to elaborate possible hypotheses, Sam carries out an inspection in search of clues and possible connections; once all the possible proofs have been found, he can begin to formulate theories to give a possible reconstruction of the facts. While this mechanic seems fun at first, it doesn't take long before it starts to bore: the fact that Sam is forced to track down all possible clues in a crime scene to be able to formulate his hypothesis and give his interpretation of what happened (although, most of the time, the solution of the enigma is quite evident), makes the experience slow and cumbersome in some way.
To contribute to Twin Mirror's slowness in terms of mechanics, there are also the dialogues with the various characters in Basswood. Exactly as it happened in other previous works by Dontnod, the relationship you establish with the various supporting characters affects your path and your ability to access some information, sometimes even in advance - the advice is to take a look at the menu often, in which all the various information is collected about the characters you met and talked to.
Knowing how to choose the right answers - sometimes also suggested by the Double, which Sam can choose to listen to or not - soon becomes an alternative way to access new useful details for the purpose of the investigation or to be able to get a clearer picture of the situation. Also in this case, the feeling is to progress within the investigation and the narrative very slowly, deriving from the fact that it's difficult to create a bond with the different secondary characters with which you come across. Most of these are flat, poorly characterised, lacking substance. I really struggled to be involved with them, precisely because they lack that depth that usually characterises all the characters in Dontnod's games.
And the same problem, unfortunately, is also reflected with Sam and his Double. Unlike many other protagonists seen in previous games, the feeling is that Sam is essentially an immobile character, unable to evolve. What is missing is that inner path and growth that one would expect from a protagonist within a story and of which Dontnod are usually masters. I've even come to feel a certain annoyance for Sam, although many explanations about his character are given later in the story, but they aren't enough to make him interesting. The same goes for his Double which, in the long run, turns out to be just an annoying presence, and in the end, you deliberately decide to ignore him. Even the mechanics relating to moral choices, which have always been a characterising element in Dontnod's games, doesn't seem to have any decisive effect here; whatever choice you decide to make never seems to carry the weight you would expect in a game like this.
If it's true that from a purely narrative point of view Twin Mirror is not convincing, praise must however, be made to the technical and visual sides. Thanks to the use of the Unreal Engine, from a graphic point of view Dontnod's new narrative experience is amazing, with a careful use of lighting and details. Of course, we are far from the photorealism we are used to in other works of a similar genre, but in the end it was never a goal pursued by the studio. Overall, from a technical point of view we have never encountered any issues, the game flows smoothly and also represents a decisive step forward compared to the past from a visual point of view.
Twin Mirror had all the cards to be an intriguing story. An investigation into an alleged murder, a small provincial town that hides many secrets, a dark protagonist with a troubled past. Yet, Dontnod's new game struggles to take off and never creates a close and solid bond with the player. From a technical and graphic point of view it's still very convincing, in its heart - the plot and the characters, who have always represented a trademark in the works of the French studio - it turns out to be a somewhat arid game, unable to fully involve the player. It's not a bad game, of course, but it lacks that something that has always characterised the studio's production, revealing itself to be a not completely successful operation. We don't know if this was due to excessive slowness (despite the game not being long), a lack of effective mechanics or a charismatic protagonist, yet we are convinced that Twin Mirror could have been a different game and probably more exciting than its final result. What a pity.
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