From solo developer Luis Antonio, we have Twelve Minutes, a high concept murder mystery with its inspired time-loop gameplay mechanics, a clean and solid aesthetic and an impressive A-list cast featuring James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley and Willem Defoe.
This long-awaited title, first showcased back in 2015, shows great promise with its mechanics and technical presentation. It offers a challenging time-loop mystery that is certainly rather dynamic and definitely entertaining. Whilst it also looks and sounds fantastic, it fails to build on and follow through with its narrative potential – particularly in regard to its characters – in any way that’s cathartic or organic.
STORY – LIVE, DIE, REPEAT
Twelve Minutes tells the story of your average guy finding himself caught in a time loop one night after returning from work. What begins as a calm and romantic evening with your wife is interrupted by a menacing detective, who after knocking your door down, proceeds to accuse your wife of a heinous crime before strangling you to death.
But (surprise!) you don’t die. In fact, you find yourself right back in the doorway of your three-room apartment up to exactly twelve minutes earlier, having just arrived home from work with your wife oblivious and your hyoid wholly intact. So, it’s up to you to unravel the mystery behind the motivations of the detective and your wife’s shadowy past.
I have to say, things looked pretty engaging from the beginning. Things were too good to be true. There’s a subtle sense of foreboding that really keeps you centered. I just knew there was some dark and intriguing stuff waiting for me around the corner and I had a real urge to push forward and bring it all into the light. It nails this atmosphere. Unfortunately, the game ages rather poorly in almost all other aspects.
Time-loops are a really organic way in which a character’s internal struggles can fly totally parallel with their external struggles. Fundamentally, they are stuck physically and psychologically – it’s all about the protagonist. As they gradually grind through the relentless and maddening monotony, do the characters realise the emancipation must come from within themselves.
Unfortunately, the narrative isn’t nearly as preoccupied with its characters as it should be. There’s simply no time to get to know them, so their motivations and personalities come off as forgettable and somewhat static. Think of Groundhog Day. If Bill Murray’s character didn’t change, what would be the point? There’d be no lesson. No conflict or resolution or – most importantly – any kind of payoff. So, naturally, the game must turn to other temptations.
To compensate, the game relies almost entirely on spiraling layers of intense plot twists. It opts to double down on ham-fisted shock value rather than any real attempt to bank on any narrative potential through the development of its characters. It’s too much. By the time the final twist and convoluted ending(s) come about, it all feels contrived and gratuitous to a point where it’s almost comical.
GAMEPLAY – ALL’S WELL THAT LOOPS WELL
Twelve Minutes features a clean drag-and-drop gameplay system with some dialogue mechanics thrown in, too – all from a very well-implemented top-down perspective. It’s accessible, intuitive and wonderfully presented. You can speak to characters and interact with the objects and aspects of your environment. That’s your arsenal.
In a mechanical sense, a time-loop narrative is superbly fitting for any kind of game that features this kind of multifaceted murder mystery. There’s no writhing suspension of disbelief or decline of stakes, or a slow-burning sense of immersion because of the repetitive, trial and error strategies you have to endure sit comfortably within the confines of the narrative concept. On the whole, it’s implemented really rather well. In theory, anyway.
So, right after you come to terms with your predicament, you must dedicate yourself – by whatever means necessary – to learn as much as you can so you may better strategize and hopefully advance further in future loops. Learn and experiment and learn some more. Just twelve minutes at a time. That’s the ‘loop’. Eventually, you’ll come to know every nook and cranny of your apartment, from the faulty light switches to the sleeping pills to the sharpest cutlery.
As you’d expect, time is of the absolute essence. You have a very narrow window to get things done. Of course, everything must be done in a very particular order with the utmost concern for timing. However, the protagonist’s slow, awkward shuffle of a walk combined with his sluggishness in interacting with people and objects frustrates the whole exercise. I remember thinking I’d present a certain item to the Detective in order to maybe appease or beguile him, before being hurried into a panic by the Protagonist’s sluggishness, misclicking and accidentally stabbing my incapacitated Wife instead.
Funnily enough, there’s also the problem of repetition. Thankfully, the developer had the good grace to allow you to skip through your own conversations; although, they strangely omit any similar mechanic for the conversations of other characters. I didn’t mind repeating sequences over and over again, so long as I feel I’m progressing and learning. This isn’t always the case. Generally, I found myself sowing far more than I was reaping.
Twelve Minutes, in many respects, is a dynamic and occasionally idiosyncratic playground that is as entertaining as it is rewarding. You can get quite creative and interacting with your environments, planning your moves and navigating your way to the truth can be quite a bit of fun. But, with its pacing issues and disappointing narrative direction, all the grinding repetition feels as though it was for nothing.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO – SECOND TO NOON
From a technical perspective, Twelve Minutes is a delight. Its visual design and animation, though simple, are elegant and undoubtedly stylish. Of course, its original soundtrack, sound design and voice acting are also stellar. It’s an indie game that doesn’t look or sound like a typical indie game – particularly in regards to its critically acclaimed line-up.
The visuals and sound design provide a modest, subtle but especially immersive backdrop to your mystery-solving escapades. The top-down perspective adds a particularly foreboding element to the experience. It’s like you’re playing God in a particularly bastardised form of Cluedo. It’s great stuff.
On top of that, we have the original soundtrack. It ranges from melodramatic to ominous to melancholic. It sounds like you’re playing a film. It’s definitely a cinematic experience and it’s a good fit. There’s also a lot of that rapid, subtly distressing, high range violin technique that a lot of horror films use to hold tension and hold the tension it certainly does.
There’s also the cast themselves – that’s James McAvoy as the Protagonist, Daisy Ridley as the Wife and Willem Defoe as the Detective. I can’t recall any other title – particularly an indie one – that features such an ensemble of performers with such international prominence.
Defoe thrives with his signature gravelly voice and seemingly innate ability to shift between completely and utterly menacing and genuinely warm and gentle. McAvoy and Ridley offer a more generic American accent. If I hadn’t already known it, I wouldn’t have realised it was them. Obviously, I suppose this is a testament to their acting abilities– but I have to say I was rather hoping for them to use their own native accents to spice up the colour of the dialogue a little. Regardless, it’s an impeccable performance by all three.
Twelve Minutes was reviewed on PC via Steam.