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PLATFORMS: Xbox One, Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X, PC
RELEASE DATE: August 19, 2021
DEVELOPER: Luis Antonio
PUBLISHER: Annapurna Interactive
ESRB: M for Mature
Disclaimer - This product was reviewed on the Xbox Series S.
Time loops are entertaining movie experiences when we can sit back, munch on popcorn, and laugh at the comedy before us. It's another thing to live it ourselves. The indie game by Luis Antonio, Twelve Minutes, captures the sheer infuriation of reliving the same experience over and over again. It’s not Andy Samberg’s escapades from Palm Springs, but a constant ride through hell.
As players take control of the brown-haired, white antagonist, they quickly enter his impatient and maddening mind. This man, who remains unnamed, gets decked by an angry police officer more times than we can count. Every time he reenters his apartment, he must relive the tragic experience and, in turn, the players must constantly replay the same loop. To Antonio’s credit, Twelve Minutes does a great job of encapsulating the frustration of a time loop, but that alone doesn’t particularly make a good game. It’s difficult to recommend this slothful, needle-treaded mystery to anyone, even with its Xbox Game Pass inclusion.
Let's Lock the Door…For the Hundredth Time (Story)
The story starts when a man exits the elevator and slowly walks to his apartment. Once inside the one-bath, one-bed household, his wife gleefully exits the bathroom and kisses him on the lips. The two characters sit down for a fancy Hell’s Kitchen style dessert, a good indication of where this is going - hell. The luxurious dessert is a celebration of her surprise pregnancy. Their celebratory kiss is broken by the ring of the doorbell. A storm is coming faster than the one blaring outside the window.
The gravelly voice of William Dafoe announces his presence as a cop. The black-bearded man enters the apartment, breaking up the celebration and accusing the wife of killing her father. He quickly throws the couple to the ground and in an apparent act of police brutality, murders, or at least knocks the husband out cold. Our protagonist, played by James McAvoy, suddenly finds himself entering the apartment again and seeing his lovely wife, Daisy Ridley, exiting the bathroom with a smile on her face. This opening incident is the crux of the story: who is the police officer and why is he accusing your wife of murder?
The story unfolds at a snail’s pace as a result of the egregious gameplay loop, detailed later. After uncovering the key to each loop, the story will piece together as small revelations come the player’s way. Some of the resulting twists are surprising and it’s moderately exciting to uncover clues through each loop. The problem is that these revelations come after locking the damn door several times, eating the same dessert, and listening to the same conversations over and over again. As long as the actions and dialogue choices are not precisely coordinated, the story will fail to progress, resulting in further repetition of tasks.
The story ends in a rather unclear, unsatisfying, and questionable manner, which makes the end not worth the trouble. The star-studded cast’s acting chops shine through the project, especially Dafoe’s performance of the cop. Of course, every good nugget of Twelve Minutes is shattered by the gameplay design. Thanks to the alternating lines of dialogue some emotions don’t match up, creating an immersion-breaking set of performances.
To better explain, one instance has the husband digging through the wife's drawer. When she finds out, which ruins her pregnancy surprise, she stomps into the bedroom enraged. In a matter of seconds, the husband can offer her some water, which she gladly accepts without sobbing or any indication of anger. Suffice it to say, the gameplay loop damages the story progression and presentation. On top of that, it all wraps up in a muddled ending like some sick joke.
A Constant Tick Tock (Audio and Visuals)
There is not much to be said about the visuals of Twelve Minutes. It’s shot from top-down and encompasses one setting, barring a few surprise locations along the way. Players will likely dream about the small apartment after studying every detail for six or more hours. Its solidifying nature has nothing to do with some visual prowess or uniqueness, but rather the fact that players will stare at it for so long. It’s fair to say that the visuals are not anything special while being serviceable for its purposes.
In contrast, the minimalistic audio is quite good at establishing a mood. There is no music, besides a creepy string segment after completing a particular objective, forcing the player to focus on the everyday sounds of apartment living. The quiet juxtaposed with the occasional thunder slap creates an ominous, anticipatory mood. The most haunting noise is the slight ding of the elevator, signifying the cop’s approach. The innocent sound suddenly corresponds with the vanishment of time.
Along with these elevated albeit mundane sounds, there is a distant tick-tock of a clock. The constant reminder that gameplay is trapped in a time loop isn't irritating, but noticeable. It’s always fascinating to see how details, other than visuals, can paint a specific tone. In Twelve Minutes, case, audio cues create a somber sense of franticness before impending doom. It’s impressive how these audio tricks can create urgency in the player, which is usually accomplished by other, less mundane means.
A Lack of Experimentation(Gameplay)
We’ve discussed the gameplay loop before, but for a bit of clarity Twelve Minutes is best described as a point and click mystery game. Players must click on different items in the apartment and choose dialogue options to break the time loop. There is a catch, however: each run only allows players 12 minutes to progress the story as far as possible. A run might include resetting a table for dessert, asking the wife about her father’s death, and breaking out of the officer's restraining zip ties with a knife. In the next run, the player could simply hide in the closet and watch how things play out without your presence.
Having described the frustration of repeating scenes and hearing dialogue without progress, it is not surprising that the experiment has been a failure. This mostly comes down to the lack of experimentation or freedom from the player. Progress requires a specific order of events and dialogue choices, a precise combination that dwindles creativity. There is only one path to success, severely undermining the perceived sense of choice. As an example, there is only one way to take out the cop, which requires an exact order of events. Any attempts that are contrary to the intended design end with immediate failure. It’s almost impossible to uncover the right path without replaying the same loop time and time again, a tedious experience to say the least.
To make matters worse, there is no clear objective. One would assume the goal is to take out the cop but in actuality, players must first gather information from the wife. Since there is no indication of this, players are left to fail repeatedly, until, hopefully, something clicks. If it does click then it is not due to a clever clue system, but an infuriating trial and error process.
When Twelve Minutes was first announced along with incredible star power, several gamers took interest. Besides, we often gravitate toward new ideas in a world full of rehashes. It is too bad that creativity doesn't ooze into the gameplay. This results in a head-banging experience that hardly ever feels satisfying. In a way, Twelve Minutes accomplished its intended design - gamifying the atrocious feeling of a time loop. Unfortunately, it’s much better to watch a time-loop than to live it.