There are many a good game I really love to play but can only do so in small bursts. Chalk it up to age or the allure of more passive means to get a dopamine hit but it has seen me leave certain games on the table just because they look exhausting to play. I’m not quite sure 20 Minutes Till Dawn (TMTD) did to make me think it wouldn’t be an intense bulletstorm twin stick shooter but it was enough to get past my usual filter for these kinds of games. Am I ever glad it did too as whilst the initial learning curve is a little steep once you know the game’s core loop it becomes a delightful experiment in creating all sorts of broken builds.
No story to speak of, just the character and gun of your choosing against endless hordes of creatures that stalk the night. The objective is simple: kill as many of them as you can in 20 minutes all the whilst upgrading yourself and your weapon with an arsenal of epic proportions. Whilst you can give any character any gun there is synergies to be exploited, especially when it comes to the upgrades that the bosses drop which are unique to each character. Otherwise the upgrades you get each level are the same for all of them. You’ll also get the choice of 1 of 3 major upgrades when you hit level 20, something that is often game changing in the most chaotically delightful ways.
TMTD’s pixel art styling uses a muted colour palette, being mostly greys, greens and blues with a splash of red here and there. The character and level designs are great, adhering to the ethos of putting in the right level of detail rather than just doing higher resolution work and then attempting to scale it down. The drab colour palette does add to the game’s visual confusion quite substantially, something which I’m sure is intentional but can get extremely overwhelming when things are getting wildly out of control on screen. Performance remains rock solid though, even when I managed to stumble onto really broken builds that’d be killing everything off screen.
The combat loop starts off straightforward: shoot at enemy, kill enemy, get enemies’ XP drop, reload, repeat. Depending on your character and gun choices these first few levels can be a bit of a challenge as you’ll often lack the damage to one shot things and will be somewhat starved of XP since you will be dragging along a horde of enemies only a couple steps behind you. However it doesn’t take many levels to get yourself a few key skills which start to ramp things up significantly, allowing you to lay waste to massive globs of enemies without too much effort. From there it’s usually either ensuring your damage keeps scaling up or stacking utility skills to keep you alive when your damage rotation is down.
The challenge then usually becomes actually getting all the XP you’re generating as you’ll often get to a point where you’re killing things off screen. Trouble is, even if you go and pick all that stuff up, you’re likely still killing stuff off screen in the opposite direction, necessitating a kind of endless spiral that you have to keep tracking around on in order to gather all the XP. There are a couple builds which get around this, like my few glare focus builds with extended pickup or the sword which (at first) ensures that all enemies die within your pickup range.
There are bosses of course, and different levels with different types of enemies (as well as more limited range of movement) but they’re all usually following the same tropes as the other ones. The bosses can present an unique challenge depending on your build although most of the time they can either be cheesed from a distance as they don’t appear to use their abilities if you’re out of range or if you spec into frost you’ll do 1% of their life every time they freeze. The latter certainly feels like cheating a bit, especially with some builds that will basically freeze everything permanently. I will admit that it is pretty fun though.
You can also buy runes which are effectively a talent tree of buffs that you can give your character. Most of these are utility or quality of life improvements, with the latter ones being the kinds of skills you want to give you that buffer to mitigate your own stupidity or aggression. Initially all the talents look super expensive but it won’t take you long to get all the characters and guns you want. In my last couple runs I was easily generating 15,000 currency after every 20 minute run on the forest level at darkness level 8. I’m sure the other levels and higher darkness tiers will generate considerably more.
The game runs quite well considering the absolutely bonkers numbers of particles that can end up on screen. The only issues I came across were usually interactions that didn’t function in the way I expected them to, or simply not at all. Some of these are likely to prevent infinite damage or particle generation combos, whilst others are probably combos that weren’t expected to interact with each other for whatever reason. Not grame breaking and didn’t happen that often, but there were some seemingly viable builds I gave up on because they just didn’t function like I thought they should.
The 20 minute time limit felt too long originally, but once you know the game’s core loop well enough that game time just flies by. If you’re like me though once you’ve discovered the broken build you kind of want to ratchet up the difficulty fast to see how far you can push it but unfortunately the game does not allow you to do this. Instead you have to defeat each darkness level one by one, meaning you’ll be putting in minimum 6 hours to get to the max darkness level, likely quite a bit more as it takes a few rounds to figure everything out. Not a massive issue but given I’d already done all the challenges I could before reaching max darkness I kind of ran out of puff as there wasn’t anything new to try.
20 Minutes Till Dawn isn’t the type of game I’d expect to enjoy but I sure as hell did. Mastering the basics can be a challenge, but once you know which abilities work well with each other it transforms into a build crafting adventure that’s very satisfying. I tried all sorts of nonsense builds and quite often I’d stumble across some new broken combo that I had no intention of finding. I also enjoyed getting the more weird and wonderful achievements too as they force you to play in ways that don’t feel viable at first but, of course, there’s ways to do so. I’m not sure how this stacks up against similar games in this genre but for this old timer, who didn’t think he’d like it at al, I was thoroughly impressed.
20 Minutes Till Dawn is available on PC, Android and iOS right now for $7.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8.8 hours playtime and 18% of the achievements unlocked.