Twin Sector is an interesting game that feels just a bit tardy in is arrival. It’s a mysterious, dark puzzle game, which (when perused in a cursory fashion) promises a mix of Portal and Penumbra. This comparison is a bit of a mean-spirited one: the three entries in the Penumbra series remain to this day some of the most unsettling, intelligent horror games that I’ve ever played. They succeed because they are horror games only as much as they have to be: they aren’t obsessed with making you jump and blanch at shadows, but rather, with creating an intensely unsettling, frightening world.
Portal, likewise, is a game that creates an impeccable world, and then throws ingenious, amusing puzzles and situations at the player. To compare Twin Sector, a small, low-budget game, with these winners is almost instantly detrimental to the newer game. I have to admit, though, that even without those better, older games in my mind, Twin Sector is largely a failure. The game does its best to immerse the player in a tense, dangerous, puzzle-filled world, and it mostly fails at every turn.
In Twin Sector, you play a woman, a test subject, who has a dark and troubled (if nominally heroic) past. Awakened from cryosleep by a helpful, if slightly untrustworthy AI, you must save the entire research facility or watch all of your fellow test subjects, and the plot darkly intones, the future of humanity, die miles beneath the surface of the earth. While all of this has been culled rather transparently from the previously mentioned first person puzzle games (among other sources), I could forgive the game its clumsy narrative theft if its gameplay worked.
Sadly, Twin Sector is less interesting to play than it is to summarize. Your character (who looks like a reject from a 90s all CG puzzle game) wears two devices, one on each hand. One pulls objects toward you (and you toward them) while the other one pushes objects (and your body) away. Instantly a wide array of puzzles and solutions are created. You can “jump” great distances by pulling yourself toward distant walls, yank barrels into your hands from a room away, and generally make a mess of things.
It’s a versatile system, or it would be if the controls weren’t utter garbage. Every mouse click takes years to be translated into onscreen action. Luckily, this is not an action game. You’ll encounter a few enemies over the course of the game, but none of them require lightning fast reflexes and twitchy shooter skills. Sadly, they’re still difficult to defeat, thanks to the game’s complete inability to turn environmental manipulation into a viable method of self-defense.
Simple movements are hampered by a floating, ineffectual avatar and a world that does its best to slow you or trip you up at every turn. Many first person puzzle games makes these mistakes, but these games (the Penumbra series, most notably) at least boast a strong atmosphere and fiction to bolster their flagging interface.
To add insult to injury, the puzzles are often difficult by way of bad gameplay sign posting. Often I stood in a room, the only way being forward (through a locked door) and examined a seemingly inescapable room. Instead of devious, solvable problems, puzzles devolved into annoying, forgettable distractions. The reason I was stuck in that room, of course, is because I was supposed to pick up two faintly glowing things, not one. Perhaps, I was supposed to carry an explosive canister (slowly, so slowly) through five rooms to throw it into an electric barrier. The “ah ha!” moments in Twin Sector come not from interesting, tricky puzzles but from the game’s own bad design. When I solve a problem thanks to accidental fiddling about with switches, I’ve left behind the world of modern games and am transported back to the wretched days of key swapping and pixel-hunting. I don’t miss those days and neither should you.
While Twin Sector is definitely a failure in terms of gameplay and readability (I’ve never played a game that was so unclear about how to proceed, even old, bad puzzle games), its complete lack of cohesion is what ruins it. Nothing in this gels or works as it should. The story is badly told and explained via cutscenes and brief expository dialogs that make no sense. The game’s “mysterious” and “scary” mood (and potential antagonists) are wasted, made laughable by their dialogue and transparent intentions and subterfuge.
There’s no tension here, no skulking, creeping danger in these subterranean halls. The player character is some kind of slow motion, klutzy science experiment, and the rest of the cast is even less convincing and interesting. A game whose gameplay hardly exists beyond one puzzle solving mechanic absolutely must deliver a promising, compelling story and gameplay/narrative mélange. This game does neither of these things. I wish I could recommend this game. I like the idea behind the gameplay, and I could be convinced to like the story. In this form, Twin Sector is something I want to forget quickly.