Minecraft: Story Mode - The Complete Adventure Review
A surprisingly lackluster adaptation of the hugely popular game franchise
Telltale Games have firmly established themselves and their adventure game design in recent years. Following their big breakthrough with The Walking Dead Season 1, the company has continued to adapt bigger and more grand worlds to their brand of gameplay. From Borderlands to Game of Thrones and the ongoing season of Batman, there's no arguing that the studio has a very strong position in the licensed adventure game genre. But with Minecraft: Story Mode, this was perhaps the studio's biggest opportunity ever to introduce more existing gamers to their titles. With their other franchises, the audience of a popular TV show or another game universe was relatively modest compared to the huge numbers of Minecraft fans. Unfortunately, and for a few reasons, Minecraft: Story Mode is unable to take advantage of this grand opportunity.
In Story Mode, players assume the role of Jesse - a character that you can choose to be a guy or a girl along with a few avatar options. Jesse is a modest character with a lot of heart and hope for the future, with a few close friends. There's Axel, a larger guy who is very loyal but can also be confrontational at times; Petra, an equally dedicated but more rational girl; and Reuben, Jesse's pet pig. The trio and the pet pig arrive in a town to participate in an annual EnderCon festival, where they soon cross paths with Olivia, a sort of adventurer-for-hire, and Lukas, who is originally a member of a team you're competing against in a building competition, but later becomes a friend. Petra tells Jesse of a deal she's looking to complete while at the festival, trading a wither skull that she got from the Nether to a mysterious man in exchange for a diamond. When the deal goes bad, the heroes chase down the man and eventually find him in a library beneath the festival. There, the man reveals himself to be Ivor, a former member of the Order of the Stone.
The Order of the Stone was a legendary group of heroes who long ago defeated a great evil Ender Dragon, and have since split up. Ivor, however, has somehow been erased from the tales of their heroic achievements. In an attempt to get revenge and recognition, he has devised a plan. Gabriel the Warrior, a powerful warrior and a member of The Order, was scheduled to appear at EnderCon as a guest. The plan was to release a great beast known as The Wither, so that he can show the world that Gabriel is perhaps not who he says he is, but then Ivor would destroy the beast before it harms anyone. Unfortunately, Jesse and his crew inadvertently prevent Ivor's backup plan from working, and The Wither suddenly grows stronger and unleashes chaos upon the festival and the world. Making a hasty escape, Jesse and the group travel through the Nether and eventually find themselves in the Temple of the Order. There, they find a map and using The Order's amulet they are able to locate other members of the Order across the lands. The group's goal is to reunite the members and stop the Wither Storm before it is too late.
The story of Jesse, and company that follows, is a fairly straightforward adventure to prevent the proverbial end of the Minecraft world. It's not a particularly engaging or exciting adventure, though, partly perhaps due to the fact that it is aimed at a younger audience. This is the first game from Telltale in a while that doesn't carry a Mature rating, so perhaps some of the company's expertise of crating tense situations for heroes is lost. Jesse and his friends are a decently likable bunch of characters, but they lack any real depth or background, and the others you meet are usually even more one-note. The dialog feels very basic, which isn't too bad in itself, but the bigger issue is that so many scenes feel rushed. There are moments when the characters meet others and yet everyone is already fully aware of the situation with no introductions or explanation; it feels that there are dialog bits missing that would have helped with the flow of the narrative. Further, while the story is simple, some of the exchanges feel like they was written for an older audience with the complexity and harshness of some of the words used.
If you've played any recent Telltale games, you already know what you're in for in Story Mode. Players will spend a lot of their time in cutscenes, occasionally making dialog and story choices. These choices promise to alter the story and its outcomes, but in reality not much really changes. Carrying on the recent trend of scaling back the possibilities in Telltale narratives, your choices in Story Mode feel rather empty. Dialog choices may alter the responses that you get during conversations, but most interactions still end the same way even if you pick entirely different approaches. Story choices swap one character for another to accompany you, but in the end these characters do largely the same thing regardless of who you bring along. The focus on player decisions is meant to provide replay value, but there seems to be little of it in Story Mode.
After releasing a number of "seasons" for their other franchises which typically contain five episodes, Telltale is seemingly trying new approaches to their formula. Recently, The Walking Dead: Michonne offered a three-episode arc. With Minecraft: Story Mode, the developers went in the opposite direction. After announcing that the game will be a standard five-episode season, they actually released three more episodes as DLC, bringing the total up to 8. The Wither Storm adventure that's described above actually spans only four episodes, while the rest are more like standalone adventures that see our heroes travel through a series of portals. While this is fine in theory, the way that the game's release was handled probably caused a few annoyances.
Originally, the five-episode retail and digital version of Story Mode was released for the typical $30 price tag, but once the DLC episodes were announced, there was also going to be a new retail and digital pack called The Complete Adventure, which is what we're reviewing here, also costing $30. So undoubtedly, there will be some fans who are justifiably upset for purchasing the original Season Pass and realizing they need to pay more to get the entire experience. But it's not so bad - as mentioned, episodes 4 - 8 are treated as largely standalone, and episode 8 does not deliver an exciting climax as episode 4 did. In the end, this feels like a bad move - Telltale surely alienated some fans who jumped into the Story Mode at launch, offering them a shorter story than usual plus an extra 5th episode that ended in an open-ended manner as an interconnect to the DLC episodes.
As is tradition, the gameplay offers a stock of standard Telltale interactivity moments, combined with a few mechanics unique to Minecraft. The unique moments come in the form of crafting, where players use a crafting bench from Minecraft and combine it with raw materials, laying them out according to a recipe in order to create an item. It's a nice touch that incorporates the basic version of the Minecraft mechanic into Story Mode. There is simplistic combat, where you can move forward and attack an enemy. There are also moments where Jesse and team must build something from blocks, but all you do is mash the action button while watching the team construct something quickly.
The rest of the game follows familiar mechanics - you'll use directional button prompts to dodge danger or jump over obstacles, or mash the action button. There are moments where you can freely move around a tiny environment, with a few items that can be interacted with or characters to talk to. Further, on some occasions, you can do nothing but walk for a few seconds until another cutscene triggers, making them feel like a waste of time. Story Mode continues to offer the very basics of Telltale gameplay, but at least in a game aimed at a younger audience, the shallowness of the mechanics tends to fit. And yet, there are aspects that certainly don't seem to be very accessible for this audience. For example, you get some quick time events sections result in instant player death if they miss just one prompt. In dialog, the timer to make a choice (before characters even finish speaking) is going to be extra tough for younger players to handle. It just feels like no effort was made to make the game more accessible, or even to iron out some of the grating issues that are starting to become synonymous with Telltale adventures. Last but perhaps not least, there are QTE moments that are actually impossibly quick, and players are meant to fail them, a design decision that seems completely dumbfounded for Story Mode and its target audience.
Telltale have largely been using the same engine and visual style for a majority of their game franchises, but with Story Mode they have put in an effort to fully recreate and look and feel of Minecraft. Players will explore a world that's extremely similar to what the main game looks and sounds like, though of course with various bits of polish and new animations. You will get to visit a variety of locations familiar to fans of the main game, such as the Nether, Farlands, and even the End; where you can encounter enemies like zombies, spiders, and of course creepers, plus rare enemies like Endermen and ghasts. While faithful to the main game, it has also allowed Telltale to be rather sloppy with presentation - looking at Story Mode's blocky world gets a bit tiring after while, as constant camera changes and lackluster animations begin to standout. Facial animations are extremely basic and oftentimes continue playing even though the audio dialog has ended. The background music is simple and repetitive. Voice acting is straightforward, with Catherine Taber / Patton Oswalt doing a good job as Jesse. The rest of the voice cast includes other TV/film personalities and even YouTube creators in DLC episodes. On PC the game manages to run without any stuttering or technical issues.
Adapting a franchise as huge and free-form as Minecraft may seem a monumental task, but Telltale certainly have the pedigree to take it on. So it's disappointing that the end result is so underwhelming. The story of Jesse and friends has its exciting moments and action set pieces, but shallow characters and seemingly fast-tracked dialog prevent the story from having much impact. And when you don't have a highly engaging story in an adventure game, the rest of Telltale's arsenal fails to pick up the slack - the gameplay remains rather basic, and no real adjustments have been made to make it a more friendly experience for a younger audience. Further, the game's botched release of the season and the later announcement of DLC episodes make the entire thing feel oddly stringed along. Story Mode looks and sounds like Minecraft, with many nods and references to the main game, but in the end it fails to produce a compelling reason for fans of the free-form creation game to experience this tale. Telltale had the opportunity to craft something worthwhile out of a brand name, as the LEGO games do, but was unable to do so.