‘Twelve Minutes’ review: a rich, evolving puzzle where frustration is part of the fun

Let’s do the time loop again.

Twelve Minutes seems designed to get under the skin. Its time loop structure taunts with fussy demands and merciless repetition, and rushes you into silly mistakes. Even when you pause the action, it’s replaced by the needling tick of a clock, refusing to let your brain settle. This is a game that wants to frustrate its players. And you know what – I’m absolutely fine with that. Isn’t frustration at the heart of any good time loop story?

So it’s Groundhog Day again, then. But as the title suggests, in extremely compressed form. With its tiny time window, Twelve Minutes feels more akin to Outer Wilds, bringing a constant sense of pressure into the loop, poking you to squeeze efficient activity into each moment. Yet here there’s even less room to breathe, not only temporally but spatially, because you’re stuck in a small apartment – three rooms and a closet – and that makes it all the more intense.

Each cycle begins as the protagonist, a nameless man (voiced by James McAvoy), arrives home after working late. His wife (Daisy Ridley) has prepared dessert and a nice surprise. But after five minutes of cosy domesticity, a cop (Willem Dafoe) knocks at the door. As soon as he enters the flat – whether you invite him in or not – he zip-ties you both and strangles you to death. The cycle restarts. From there, any time you die or get knocked out, it restarts. Walk out the front door, it restarts. Survive till the end of the loop? It restarts. Unless you can figure out how to stop it for good.

Twelve Minutes. Credit: Annapurna Interactive

With that, life turns into something like a good old-fashioned point ‘n’ click adventure. Viewing the flat directly from above, using a tidy click, drag, drop interface, you deploy utensils, appliances and fixtures to try and change the course of events – most urgently, avoiding death – or unearth information that triggers new dialogue options. A complete ‘adventure’ is thus condensed into a single toolbox, where multiple potential scenes await discovery at once, and almost every labelled item has unseen value. Yes, it is very clever.

Unlike Outer Wilds, you aren’t building towards some ultimate perfect cycle here, you’re testing the boundaries of a situation, accruing fragments of knowledge to alter relationship dynamics. Twelve Minutes isn’t about exploring space, but behaviour, and part of the pleasure I found came from staring at the screen, dreaming up ‘what if’ scenarios. What if I could convince her of this? Or make him go over there? Or simply, what would they do if I did that? (I’m being deliberately vague here, and I advise steering hard away from possible spoilers.) Schemes formed, energised by minor power trips as I learned how to manipulate routines. And when that led to a breakthrough, there was the other part of the pleasure. Twelve Minutes can be very satisfying indeed.

With such an ambitious open structure, however, and so many variables in play, the pieces don’t always slot together convincingly. The story that unfolds is tidily paced to drip feed revelations but feels a little contorted to fit this tiny box, and a couple of plot twists certainly caused me to raise an incredulous eyebrow. Equally, the married couple’s relationship often fails to convince, as they awkwardly shuffle around each other in the cramped space, and find themselves forced into truncated conversations to match the time restrictions. Loving platitudes seem insincere when major mood changes are only one misjudged response away.

Twelve Minutes. Credit: Annapurna Interactive

More contentious as you make headway is that while Twelve Minutes makes a good fist of producing appropriate scripted outcomes to the things you might do, right down to jamming a kitchen knife into some dodgy wiring (not advisable), it doesn’t cover everything, leading to points of confusion and dropped logic. Sometimes these are silly things, like the woman making no comment about her husband standing in the closet for the duration of a conversation, but other times they’re more obstructive. A few times I thought my character had learned a crucial fact, but there was no option to use it. Or I carefully manufactured a sequence change, only for a seemingly innocent dialogue option to force me back to the start. At one stage, I got stuck for a while because I’d tried the right solution just a moment too late in the cycle and it hadn’t registered, so I wasted time looking for alternatives.

It doesn’t happen too often – plenty of things did work as I expected – but there’s a little too much guesswork required into solutions that don’t show their working, and I stumbled into a number of ‘errors’ that forced me to re-tread a series of steps before making a minor correction. And in the rush to get back, it’s always easy to forget a minor detail like closing a door or turning off a light, ruining it all again. Let’s just say most of those joyous breakthroughs came after several slaps in the face, sometimes literally, and I didn’t deserve them all.

It can be hard to take because the rules and goals are hidden, and while a few hints are woven into conversations, mostly you’re on your own. But also because of the sense of cabin fever that comes with the small scale. There’s nowhere to go, no time to properly explain, and if you don’t act fast you’ll be bound and helpless again, then back at the start perhaps none the wiser as to how you’ll break the cycle. This is a game about reliving painful moments, and even though you can at least spool through dialogue you’ve already heard, it refuses to spare you a lot of repetition.

But that’s also why it works. Just like Groundhog Day, you’re supposed to want to scream each time it dumps you back at the apartment’s front door. It’s a point underlined by McAvoy’s performance (although it’s debatable overall whether the game really benefits from its ‘name’ actors), when he conveys exasperation with a mini tantrum at the start of a fresh cycle. To appreciate Twelve Minutes is to form a masochistic appreciation for these moments, to take your many failures as an essential part of the story.

All of which, appropriately, brings us back to the start. Twelve Minutes is a game that wants to irritate its players. And as you know, I’m absolutely fine with that.

PC version tested. 12 Minutes releases on PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S on 19th August.

The Verdict

Twelve Minutes is a smart take on the time loop concept, reducing both the time and space players operate in to create a pressurised experience. Its puzzles are varied and ingenious, and with all the pieces in front of you from the start, it encourages creative experimentation. There is rough that comes with the smooth, such as some confusing trial and error and tiresome repetition, but even that seems appropriate in the infuriating situation of reliving the same moments again and again.

Pros

  • An intense interpretation of the time loop concept
  • Some clever puzzles and solutions
  • Rewards observation and creativity

Cons

  • Solutions don’t always seem completely logical
  • Clumsy interactions between characters
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