Time loops aren’t a new thing in the entertainment medium. Whether it’s stuck living the same boring life over and over (the brilliant Groundhog Day) or the same, world ending war over and over (the equally brilliant Edge of Tomorrow), the ‘hero relives the same day and has to break the cycle’ story has been around for a long time, and has found itself back in the limelight thanks to the success of The Outer Wilds, Minit and Returnal. 12 Minutes, however, isn’t as fantastical or otherworldly in its stuck in time concept by comparison, instead providing a more grounded thriller style short story that, unfortunately, does have some issues along the way.
12 Minutes present the top-down point of view of a young, unnamed man who returns to his apartment to meet his wife before sitting down to a surprise meal, and an even bigger surprise intervention from a police officer. This very first cycle sets up a simple enough premise that has soon enough has you searching for clues as to why you’re suddenly reliving this same event, what your wife is hiding from you and what the police officer really wants, without hand holding you through the process. There’s no true HUD, no clear identifiers or progress bars, meaning everything you do will come down to a lot of experimentation and a little luck in order to progress.
These first few moments are definitely the highlight of the experience, this idea that you’re thrown into a crazy situation and have no real understanding of the how or why, ultimately trying and failing to convince your wife that you’re reliving the same few minutes over and over. It’s 12 Minutes at its best, and more often than not the best kind of time loop stories are those that start strong with their premise. It’s a shame, however, that the further you get into this particular story, the weaker it can become, thanks to some strange design decisions and a lack of polish where needed.
Developer Luís António bases his story around the classic point and click adventure, having you click around the small, enclosed space of the apartment to guide the husband around the scene and dragging items from your inventory to other items in order to interact with them. In theory this is perfectly fine, but in practise playing this game with anything other than a mouse on a PC is aggravating and awkward at best. Personally, I reviewed this via Xbox Game Pass on my Xbox Series X, and as much as I slugged it out with my controller, it always felt awkward and slow. Thankfully the puzzles themselves, and the hidden details around the apartment, went some way to make up for it, though I can’t stress enough to play this on PC instead of on console.
The story also feels a similarly awkward, despite the best efforts of a high calibre cast (Daisy Ridley, James McAvoy and William Dafoe). Much of the narrative loops feel too similar to each other to be as engaging as they should, and that’s in part because of the husband. McAvoy should have been a allowed a little more room to express his frustration within each loop, his character falling further into confusion or anger the more he must convince his wife of his predicament. Otherwise, most interactions with the cast feel too scripted, constrained by the concept of being a video game instead of a more natural short film or TV episode. Ridley and Dafoe are admirable in their portrayals, reacting accordingly and providing plenty of emotion where needed, but too often the same lines of dialogue repeat in tone or don’t mesh up well together depending on what you previously may have said or done.
Break the cycle...
✔️Intriguing time loop tale.
✔️Short, in a good way.
✔️Leaves you thinking long past the credits.
❌Story lacks polish and falters towards the end.
❌Awkward dialogue and controls pull you out of the moment.
The twists and turns of the story, specifically towards the end, are also a point of contention. Given the lack of hand holding, you may find your frustration boiling over until an eventual ‘ah ha’ moment claims you, but the pay off towards the end will largely be impacted by how hard or easy you found it.
Personally, I did enjoy the plot and the revelations held within, even though I may have seen them coming. No joke, half way through the game I commented to my own wife what I thought would happen, and low and behold it played out almost exactly as I thought.
Still, that didn’t take away from how I got there, putting together the various items hidden away within the tiny rooms of the apartment and the branching dialogue options I unlocked with each successive loop, but every player will find their own journey a different way and not everyone will appreciate it.
It’s the endings themselves, the final twists, that will ultimately divide the player base. Some may find them off-putting or disappointing, others will leave confused as to what they had just played. I found myself with positives and negatives (more on that in a future article), liking the general concept but finding the eventual payoff in only one of the endings to be worthwhile, but perhaps that’s exactly the point. It’s not a game you’re supposed to love, per se, it’s a game you’re supposed to question and converse about long after the credits roll. You’re expected to feel all these different kinds of emotions, from sadness to disgust, and 12 Minutes most definitely achieves that goal above all else.
It’s a real shame, though, that the meanings and ideas behind 12 Minutes are let down by some awkward design choices. With a more natural control style and a little more thought put into the primary character’s portrayal, the final loops may have had an even bigger impact. Instead, the issues that plague the tale hamper it just enough to become a problem, depending on where you want to play. What’s here is admirable, an intriguing achievement in video game storytelling, but it really could and should have been stronger. I’m not disappointed, I just wanted and expected a little more.
Twelve Minutes is a real-time strategy adventure game developed by Luís António and published by Annapurna Interactive, released on August 19, 2021 for Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.