Minecraft Dungeons Review
A competent but unambitious spinoff
Minecraft has been a cultural phenomenon for the modern gaming generation. It has been ported to almost every game platform around, and the developers recently announced that it has sold 200 million copies, with over 126 million monthly active players to this day. Anytime you have a success such as this, you can try to spread it out as much as possible, or keep the brand carefully contained. In its own realm, there have been very few Minecraft spinoffs, just the underwhelming Minecraft: Story Mode in 2015. But recently, the franchise has seemingly wanted to branch out, with the ongoing development of Minecraft Earth, and now Minecraft Dungeons, an action RPG. While Dungeons has a fairly limited scope and a few issues, its low $20 asking price should win over fans looking for anything and everything blocky.
There's not much story to the game's campaign. An Illager discovers a powerful artifact, and becomes the Arch-Illager, unleashing various ghouls and monstrosities across the land. It's up to you to travel across a few different levels and fight your way to the end. The levels sometimes feature objectives, such as freeing all trapped villagers in an area or activating certain pedestals, but there's no real narrative behind it. A narrator lady tells you that you've accomplished great deeds, but it really never feels that way, nor is anything you do mechanically complex. You're just fighting your way through the level, occasionally clicking on something to activate it. And once it's all over, you do it again anyway, so it's good that the story is kept light to avoid repetition.
Many would argue that a story isn't really important in an action RPG such as this anyway, as it's geared towards replay value. After beating the campaign for the first time, which takes about 5-6 hours, you then unlock the second of three difficulties, and can do it again a third time, and again after that. In addition to the three main campaign runs, each mission also offers a choice of how hard you want the combat to be. The difficulty slider shows how close or far you are from the recommended "power level" value, based on your currently equipped gear. Each level also shows what gear it drops, so you know where to go if you want to farm a particular item.
Minecraft Dungeons isn't trying to be a complex RPG, so there's not a lot of gear or stats to deal with. You first create a character based on a few presets, and sadly that's about all the customization you're able to do. After that, you play through the levels and earn experience, which levels you up. The leveling isn't too important, as all it does is give you an Enchantment point. More important is the gear that you find, which can be equipped into three slots – armor, melee weapon, and ranged weapon. You also find and equip items into three ability slots, which are like spells that you can use. And that's about it; the game doesn't bother with any classes, character progression, or potions. You can equip better gear as soon as you find it, without any level restrictions. Perhaps this is why sharing gear isn't possible, as you could instantly boost your friends to the highest power level.
The one complexity to consider are the abovementioned Enchantment points. They are only assigned with each level-up, and can be spent on your armor and two weapons, to give them special attributes. The attributes are randomized by the game, so you can get two of the same crossbows but with different enchantment options. These passive abilities can include extra damage, special damage such as lightning, automatically burning / stunning / freezing enemies, chance of a double-strike, and so on. The armor enchantments can include many of the same functions, and there are a few different types of armor that have predefined characteristics, such as reducing damage or giving you a pet bat.
Last but not least, the three ability slots are just as important. These grant you spells to use, which range from flame arrows, to a healing totem, a stun bomb, speed boots and amulets. The abilities all have a lengthy cooldown, so using them wisely is key. These items have a power rating as well, so you'll need to swap them out as you go to one that's at a higher tier. There's no enchanting or modifying the abilities, so it's fairly straightforward.
Minecraft Dungeons isn't overly heavy on loot – while levels often feature a number of chests and secrets to find, you won't be drowning in stuff each time you return to camp. There's no set reward system for defeating groups of enemies or clearing a room; items are dropped randomly, and often at or below your current power level. All the items you don't want can be salvaged at any time in exchange for emeralds; you also get your Enchantment points back for any gear that had it. This allows you to safely re-spec your character with each new gear piece, and there's even an undo option for the item you just salvaged. You can spend emeralds at two vendors at the Camp, a small and featureless hub area where you hang out between missions. The vendors only have a single option: purchase a random piece of armor or a random ability. This is a fairly basic design, indeed.
Much as the RPG elements of the title are fairly basic, or accessible as some would prefer to call it, so is the gameplay. From the traditional isometric perspective and a fixed camera angle, players guide their character around the series of somewhat randomly generated levels. The environment variety is decent – you get the usual suspects of creepy woods, the swamp, a desert, a village, the ominous castle, and so on. Each area swaps the colors around and has a few specific level layout characteristics. Fighting your way through the level, the movement is done with a mouse click (or hold), melee attack on left mouse button, ranged on right, and the dodge on the spacebar. Your equipped abilities are on the number keys, and there's an unlimited use health potion, but on a lengthy cooldown.
Things start off easy enough. While the first few levels will prove easy and net good gear, you'll want to bump the difficulty to match your power level. Clicking around and attacking groups of enemies, rolling to dodge ranged and area attacks, and retreating as needed is all sufficiently fun. You'll be facing off against the classic foes such as skeleton archers, zombies, spiders, creepers, and so on. Their basic attacks are the same here as in the main Minecraft. If you're keeping up with the power gear, most enemies should die in one or two hits. Each level also features a boss battle that locks you into an arena with a big enemy that has lots of health and a few unique abilities.
But don't be deceived by the simplicity. As you grow in level and start getting into the hard setting – despite the game saying you're ready for it – you may find that the difficulty balance is a bit off. The game is very prone to spike damage, killing you nearly instantly if you happen to get hit by multiple archers at the same time. You can't quite strafe around because movement and attack are both bound to left click, thus making you stationary to attack enemies, which leaves you exposed to a synchronized volley of arrows you weren't prepared for. It also becomes especially obvious when you cruise through a level, only to be absolutely demolished by the boss. Thanks to the long cooldown on the health potion and other healing methods being very limited (a couple of abilities and a few enchantments) you find yourself running away and standing around often. There's no health regeneration at all, even outside of combat. Oh, and for whatever reason you can't pause the game, including during offline solo.
Enemies are randomly generated each time you play, but they are always varied throughout the level. The game also features a few particularly vicious moments where you might come up against a few casters that can spawn zombies or other enemies, making it very difficult to get to them without getting spike-damage killed by a single attack from the surrounding zombie army. Your mobility is pretty limited, and area of effect options are always needed.
Essentially you can go for a normal build, or one that focuses on souls – there are a number of weapons, armors, and abilities that focus on acquiring souls from fallen enemies, and using them. Collecting souls keeps a meter filled, akin to mana for a magic class. Going this route is best done when playing with others, which is how Dungeons markets itself anyway.
Although it's meant to be a co-operative experience first, the game feels a bit limited. For one, there's no cross platform multiplayer between PC and Xbox, which is surprising. It's said to be coming at a later date. You can play local co-op, but that locks you out of adding online players; and apparently to keep the community nice, there's no matchmaking, only playing with existing friends. When you do join up with up to 3 others, the game becomes more flexible and fun. Spike damage is still a real threat, but at least you have a teammate to revive you. Each level, regardless of difficulty, gives you four lives, but in co-op you only lose a life if the entire party perishes.
As with many aRPGs, Minecraft Dungeons hopes it can provide players with a highly replayable experience, but it runs out of a steam in this regard. For one thing, the campaign is designed in such a way that missions have increasingly higher power requirements. That means even after beating the game, and starting another run, you have to play the missions in the same order, as the final mission is now very high difficulty for your current gear. The levels are said to be procedurally generated, but just like Gears Tactics, the environment seems to run out of ideas quickly. You will see a ton of familiar rooms, paths, and design pieces. The game seems to be working with large chunks of pre-made areas, which leaves it feeling very familiar after just a few runs. It also leaves the game with occasional dead ends with no reward or even enemies to fight.
There are also a few more general shortcomings. You can pull up a distracting overlay map, or keep swapping into the map menu to see where you are; a minimap would have been welcome. Due to the fixed camera, enemies are often out of view, but they do have red highlights. When they perish however, they remain red for a few moments, which leads to wrong impression in battle and can alter the decisions you make. The navigation lacks logic – clicking on an area above, your character will simply run into the wall rather than pathfind his way up. Enemies often get stuck on scenery, or fall through the world. None of these issues are gamebreaking, but they are noticeable.
Minecraft Dungeons looks unmistakably like the large game that inspired it. The visuals, audio effects, and animations are all very much the same. However, that's about it – it lacks any defining mechanics to make it come together. With Microsoft recently putting out Gears Tactics – a spinoff that so successfully merges the main franchise mechanics into a new setting – Dungeons just feels like a basic action RPG with a Minecraft skin by comparison. There's no environment creation, destruction, or customization. But, for all its faults, it looks good, is simple and fun to play, and very aggressively priced. This will serve as a great entry point for younger players and fans of Minecraft, but there's not much here for regular RPG fans to grab on to.