I remember saying for Twelve Minutes for the first time back in 2015 when Giant Bomb released an early demo video with the game creator Luis Antonio; I, like most people, was super intrigued and wanted to see more. Fast forward four years and the game has resurfaced with Annapurna Interactive set to publish; skip forward two years and the game released day one on Game Pass and with heaps of discussion and controversy. I won’t be going over any of that on this article as I will put together a spoiler-filled discussion over the story alongside this spoiler-free review; however, what I will say is that the controversy and polarizing reception the game has gotten is not unfounded on either extreme. I can see why people love it; I can see why people hate it. I’m in the middle of those reactions, wanting to love a game that is ambitious and unique in many ways, but cannot get over its many issues.
The game stars James McAvoy as a husband getting home to his small apartment where his wife (voiced by Daisey Ridley) is waiting for him with his favorite dessert and some surprise news; a wonderful evening is cut short when a man claiming to be a cop (voiced by Willem Dafoe) knocks on their door and arrests the wife under the suspicion of being the murderer of her father 8 years ago. One way or another, this scene ends with you back at the entrance of your apartment and with your wife oblivious to the time-loop you’ve seem to be stuck in; finding a way to break the loop and uncovering the story are your main objectives. At its heart, 12 Minutes is a point & click adventure game where the player will complete the same loop over and over again, until they figure out the next step to breaking the loop and uncover the mystery at its core; players have an apartment with interactable objects and can learn information, which can then allow them to enquire and investigate further on different subjects or even use knowledge to your advantage. For example, you know when a lighting will strike and that catches your wife off-guard, so perhaps that would be enough to convince her you are stuck in a time-loop or figuring out the multiple uses of objects like the knife and spoons can have. Puzzling out solutions to questions raised organically or understanding what needs to be done to progress the story, figuring out how to do it and then doing it only to get another piece of the puzzle is when the game is at its best; it makes you feel smart, but it also places you in the shoes of a person reliving a dreadful night over and over again where nothing you do seems to make things better. In fact, 12 Minutes is a violent and disturbing experience, at times; there are many ways that you can make the loop reset and some of them are very painful and traumatic experiences to go through. It is through those loops though where the game’s best moments come from; for me, a particular standout was figuring out the story purpose of an item that seemed like a filler/red-herring through a planned loop where I presented the wife with evidence and knowledge, so she had to believe/trust me and give me an exciting hidden piece of the puzzle. However, the game’s biggest strength is not really that unique or exciting (compared to similar experiences) and it is also its biggest drawback; when the husband meets an untimely end for the first time, it hits hard as you feel that you could have avoided it. When it happens again and again, when the game is basically demanding it, and when it’s the quickest way to reset because of an error or just frustration that you didn’t find the solution you were looking for, then the impact of sudden violence is minimized and then trivialized as a thing you often do.
The most frustrating of these “failures” was when the controls were stopping me from doing what I wanted, when I needed to do it; I played on Xbox Series X with a controller and it was obvious that not a lot of thought was put into translating the mouse setup to a controller, which is something that point & click adventure games have figured out years ago. However, if that was the major issue, I would simply suggest to play this on PC, but the most affecting issue of the game are the puzzles; I’ve seen people complain about being stuck on obtuse puzzles and liking them to infamous puzzles from gaming history; I’ve seen people not having an issue following the pre-determined path. For me, it was something that I had happened to me on Her Story (very late in my investigation which didn’t affect my experience and love for that game); I call it “gamer breakthrough”. It’s when the player just mocks about or discovers something they are not meant to see yet or solving a thread of mystery by pure luck; I suspect that most people disliking the puzzles in this game eventually had a “gamer’s breakthrough” by pixel hunting or trying out every object on every interactable thing until something gave. Unlike Her Story though, where that is a very real possibility, in 12 Minutes it almost feels mandatory due to the constrained path needed to trigger events or due to a serious case of “dev logic”.
In most games, “dev logic” refers to obscure puzzle solutions that were meant to be logical, but only made sense to the devs that designed them, but for 12 Minutes, “dev logic” refers to solutions that only make sense to the devs and the rest were simply not accounted for. For example, learning what the cop wants and where I can find it, I decided to “remove” my wife from the room and leave the object on plain sight so that when the cop enters the apartment, he sees it, takes it, and leaves, but instead he fails to even acknowledge its existence. That’s not to say there aren’t any OTHER ways to have the cop take that item and leave you alone, but my solution was not anticipated or prevented which makes the game feel like…a game; lines of code and hidden triggers, no magic, no decisions. Even when you do figure out the other ways to do what needs to be done, it will only work in a specific and linear way, through odd decisions and inconsistent rules; for example, I banged my head on the wall trying to figure out how to make the protagonist use the phone to call the cops, but just couldn’t figure it out, until I tried dragging the phone out of my inventory but slipped and let go of the button before it was out. Then, he opens the phone and can use it to call or read messages; that is the way the protagonist uses stuff, despite some times needing to drag them on himself and all other interactions needing to be dragged from inventory to the person/object intended for; it is shown in the tutorial, but that happens once in the beginning and isn’t really required until mid-game or at least that was the case for me and I simply forgot about it. Moreover, the characters behave in weird ways that fail to make sense and also are often used to show to the player they are not on the right path; for example, trying to be sensible with another character will often be shut down to show that the specific character needs other actions to be convinced, but when presenting evidence to them they sometimes need to be pointed to them or handed to them directly – if they need to be pointed but you hand it to them, it feels and seems like the game is shutting your solution down as the wrong thing to do, when in fact it is the right thing to do just not in that specific way (sorry for the ambiguousness, but this specifically cost me like an hour of guesswork before realizing the limitations of the game).
Before concluding this article, I want to touch on the many features that I haven’t mentioned yet, because there are so many things I want to talk about still. Firstly, the presentation of the game is really good and would have stood out more if the core game was not as interesting to talk about; 12 Minutes has a top-down perspective with a minimalist approach to the art-style. Although I enjoy this decision, I have to admit that once the loops start repeating and you start noticing some details it becomes less impressive; what is undeniably impressive is the sound design. All that sudden violence is made by the sound design being one of my favorites of the year; the shots suddenly breaking the silence, the sound of knives piercing the flesh – it’s all impressive and effective. I also liked the music, despite not really registering its existence for the most part; it’s one of those soundtracks that does its job for gameplay purposes and shows up when its required, but also smartly lies in the background for the most part. Having said all of that, there is one package of the audio experience I severely disliked and it was the one I was least expecting to: Voice acting. I really like all 3 actors, and while my favorite by far is Dafoe who is the only one I like without any caveats, I do have to say that they are not to blame for their performances sounding so disjointed; the game has weird takes for some dialogue and for other lines, it does not account for different context or the fact that it allows you to use weird timing of questions. For example, I can say to my wife that I’m living a time-loop in a delivery that sounds appropriate (questioning his own sanity alongside shame of even uttering those words), but then cheerfully ask her to dance or timidly back out of the conversation; this is being purposefully goofy, but there are moments where I stir up trouble to see if my options updated, only to then timidly back out of a conversation that left my wife in tears and her life irrevocably changed. To add to this, I just found McAvoy and Ridley to not be on the same level as Dafoe, whose character is immediately menacing and humane when needed; there is some chemistry between them and, at times, I feel like they are on the same page and I can feel the emotions their characters are going through, but a lot of the time their performances felt less engaging due to their longer presence in the game and the sometimes odd takes on lines. Lastly, story and progression are items to be further scrutinized on a separate, spoiler-filled article, but my spoiler-less thoughts are that they could have used a lot more polish and more time/set-up to give them the necessary tools to work with. Specifically, individual lines just feel a bit off at times where specific wording just feels unnatural (to me at least), while progression of the story is somewhat tame and very detail-oriented until it’s not, but that reveal doesn’t have the substance I wish it had. Overall, the story needed more time to be given the context and the teeth to have its bite felt by the audience; as it is, it’s a bark that startles but ultimately is weightless.
To summarize, I think 12 Minutes deserves to be seen a bit differently when deciding if this game is for you. Usually, I would say if the positives outweigh or outnumber the negatives, then it’s a good game and it deserves your attention, but 12 Minutes neither outweighs nor outnumbers its flaws; however, the positives really are that good that I still think you should experience it, despite its many and serious flaws. However, I would be lying if I said I was satisfied or not disappointed by it; I wanted to play this game for 5 years and now that I finally have, after so much effort and talent going in to it, I’m left wanting more and not be excited by what’s there. I do hope Luis Antonio comes back to this idea with iterations and experience; I do hope others look at this concept and these ideas, and think that they can make a great experience; I am now certain that 12 Minutes does execute on some of its intentions and does deliver an interesting experience filled with goodness that only games can deliver on. But the problems are just as plentiful and weighty, and I can’t fault people giving up on it or simply hating it for what it turned out to be.