I’m not sure I could’ve solved the intricate mystery of Twelve Minutes on my own. The interactive thriller — which boasts a star-studded cast including James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley, and Willem Dafoe — forces players to relive the same short span of time repeatedly. Over that time you’ll die repeatedly at the hands of Dafoe, but during each loop you’ll also pick up some tiny new breadcrumb of information to help explain what’s happening. It can be frustrating, with fiddly controls and an ending that goes completely off the rails. But as a group experience, it’s a lot of fun; even though it’s technically a single-player game, I found myself sharing ideas and theories with my partner, and it was helpful having an extra pair of eyes to spot clues I might’ve missed. Twelve Minutes can be tedious and repetitive — but like most games, it’s much better with a friend.
The game starts out simple enough. Twelve Minutes opens with an unnamed man, played by McAvoy, arriving at his apartment in the early evening. He’s greeted by his wife, voiced by Ridley, who has a special night planned. She’s made his favorite dessert and is going to break some big news while they eat. The romantic evening is quickly interrupted by a man claiming to be a cop (Dafoe) breaking in and arresting the woman for murdering her father. He then demands to see a pocket watch, and when the wife refuses, the cop starts to choke her husband to death. Upon dying, McAvoy’s character returns to his front door, 12 minutes earlier, as if nothing happened at all.
As the title implies, that brief loop is the core of Twelve Minutes. The entirety of the game takes place during that window of time and inside of the couple’s small apartment. If you try to leave through the front door, it resets. If the cop kills you — which he will, repeatedly, with his bare hands and with weapons — it restarts. You can’t change that, but you can use that time to search for information. And you do this by experimenting, using the limited options at your disposal to find ways to live those 12 minutes differently. At times, Twelve Minutes can almost feel like a really ominous toy, where you’re constantly changing the variables to see what happens, often with grisly results.
You view the world from an overhead perspective, and the game plays out a bit like an old-school point-and-click adventure. You have the ability to talk to people, pick up certain objects, and interact with a few parts of the apartment. The world is small — there’s just a living room, bathroom, bedroom, and a tiny closet — and you’re relatively limited in terms of what you can do. You can’t, for instance, search through every object in a dresser drawer or dig through the fridge. But those things you can interact with are usually important and can be combined in different, usually intuitive ways. If you pick up a mug, for instance, you can drag it over to the sink to fill it up.
As you play and learn more, your options start to open up. Initially, I had no idea what to do. I tried explaining to the wife that I was in a time loop, but of course she didn’t understand. The small space and limited options felt restrictive. But then I started to experiment. I decided to see what would happen if she got mad, or if she fell asleep, or if I used that big knife as a weapon. Usually I just died, but sometimes I would find something interesting — a hidden item or a phone number — that I knew could be used during the next loop.
The problem is this structure means a lot of repetition. It’s not so bad early on, when everything still feels new, but the further you progress the more the repetition sets in. You’ll hear the same lines of dialogue many times, and often play through near-identical scenarios. Toward the end, as the complexity ratcheted up, I found myself writing a to-do list of everything that needed to happen in the next loop, lest I forget something. It’s really annoying to end up with Willem Dafoe’s hands around your neck because you forgot to lock the door. On consoles these issues are exacerbated by the controls. I played the game on the Xbox Series X, but the interface is clearly designed for a mouse, as you have to drag a cursor around the screen to do just about everything. With a gamepad it’s slow, which is extra frustrating in a game where time is constantly working against you.
Twelve Minutes can be fiddly at times, but it does nail that incredible feeling of slowly unraveling a mystery. Each new breadcrumb is a victory. The game rarely gives you overt clues or hints, so that sense of accomplishment is only more pronounced. This is also what makes it a good game to have someone watch along with you; missing even the tiniest detail can mean getting stuck. And since the game is essentially about experimenting with each loop, it’s a lot of fun to toss around wild ideas with someone else, in hopes of finding a new route. Unfortunately, while the world and story initially feel very grounded — aside from all the time travel — things get a bit too outlandish toward the end. I’ve been thinking about it for two days, and the game’s ending still doesn’t make much sense to me.
Twelve Minutes tries to do something very specific, and in many ways it succeeds. There are few games where solving a mystery feels so playful and organic, and the game does a great job at creating tension. My heart always started racing when I heard the elevator open in the hallway, knowing the cop was about to barge in. But those good parts are muddied by the often tedious structure and an ending that is more unbelievable than shocking. Your enjoyment will depend mostly on your tolerance for repetition — and if you have any mystery-loving friends to follow along.
Twelve Minutes launches August 19th on Xbox and PC.