Developers: Mojang Studios, Double Eleven | Publisher: Microsoft | Genre: Dungeon Crawler | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC | Reviewed on: Xbox One
The immense success and impact of Minecraft can’t be understated. From its original alpha in 2009 to its skyrocketing popularity and subsequent acquisition by Microsoft in 2014, Minecraft is both the best-selling video game of all time and one of the most played games today. That’s why it’s so surprising that Minecraft Dungeons feels rather shallow as a spin-off of such a juggernaut. It encapsulates most of what players of the original title love, but at a much smaller scale and with a couple of serious flaws that keep it from being the genre staple it could’ve been.
A dungeon crawler doesn’t require much premise, but Mojang does its best to provide some nonetheless. Minecraft Dungeons takes place following the rise to power of the “Illager,” a community outcast who found a mysterious orb deep in the mountains that corrupted him and gave him the power to command a legion of evil forces. For as clearly inspired by Lord of the Rings as the plot is, it’s still enough to make embarking on an adventure to take back the kingdom feel worthwhile and exciting. Aside from the opening cinematic, short cutscenes before each run also do a decent job of giving some context as to how every dungeon and its objectives fit into the story.
To its credit, Minecraft Dungeons does a brilliant job of capturing the look, feel, and charm of the original game. The classic blocky look is here in full force, but as the recent Minecraft ray tracing demo has shown, there’s still beauty to be found in this simplistic style. Across the 10 or so dungeons included there’s a steady amount of visual variety and atmosphere that brings the world of Minecraft to life. Meticulously designed buildings, dungeons illuminated by the soft glow of lanterns, and nature in all its blocky splendor abound. There’s something to be said for how much work went into making each environment feel unique and distinct from the last, and how well it’s all pulled together by the top-notch score and audio design.
However, this is where one of the title’s major disappointments comes to light: for as pretty as the set pieces are, they’re nothing more than window dressing. Players will make their way through downtrodden towns and abandoned campsites, but homes can’t be entered and campsite remnants can’t be raided. The cutscenes before each run hint at a bustling world overrun by evil, but the only time another NPC is seen during a run is when there are specific objectives to rescue them–and even then they disappear as soon as they’re freed.
This is especially noticeable at levels like Pumpkin Pastures where the whole purpose of the run is to rush to a town that hasn’t been taken by the Illager’s forces yet and warn them of the impending danger. Once there, however, there are no townspeople to be seen going about their day or even running about in a panic; just more monsters to slay. It’s a shame considering how predicated Minecraft has always been on interaction in general; save for a few switches and treasure chests, that couldn’t be further from the truth in Dungeons.
After the first level, a humble campground hub appears that gradually grows and transforms the more progress is made. It’s designed as a fun hangout space for friends to gather before embarking on missions; vendors eventually open up, there’s a nifty guild hall recreation, and the music is some of the most enchanting in the entire game. However, it feels as though not much thought was put into actually making the campground a useful destination à la Monster Hunter; once again, there isn’t much to really do at there beyond either buying random weapons or running around aimlessly waiting for everyone to link up.
Needless to say, it’s the dungeons themselves that were the primary focus, and for the most part Mojang has tapped into what makes dungeon crawling so addicting. After the introductory run players can choose the order in which to tackle their next dungeon from several on a lush world map that offers everything from which gear can be found in each level to a handy difficulty slider that’s adjustable per run. Each dungeon is largely linear and peppered with a steady stream of enemies ranging from standard foes like zombies and skeletons to mini-bosses like hulking fiery golems. The more foes you defeat and the more treasure chests you find, the better gear you can equip and enhance on the fly.
A straightforward run will usually take a good 20 minutes, but the real fun in any dungeon crawler is going off the beaten path and seeing what secrets can be uncovered. Minecraft Dungeons generally delivers in this regard; going down one of several branching paths will almost always yield an extra treasure chest or special enemies to fight for more EXP. On the other hand, those chests often only offer extra gems that can be spent at the campsite to buy randomized gear. As a result, this makes some detours feel unnecessarily long and tedious for minimal payoff.
This leads into the most confusing aspect of the entire game: the progression system. Players level up normally based on the number and strength of the enemies they defeat, but leveling up doesn’t grant more strength, speed, or magic. All of that is relegated to gear. The higher the level you are, the more likely you’ll be to find similarly-leveled weapons and equipment with that much more attack damage or HP. There are dozens of gear types to mix and match, each with additional effects to take into account (e.g. weapons that create poisonous clouds or armor that has a 30% chance to negate damage). Then there are artifacts, which essentially act as spells and allow players to use healing magic, unleash huge barrages of energy, and summon trusty animal companions to accompany them on their journey.
The problem is with collectible augments called enchantments. Every time you level up, you gain one enchantment to apply to any weapon or piece of armor you choose. These can range from minor augments like “Increases Damage Dealt by 10%” to game-changing ones like “Deals 100% Damage Back to Dealer.” Because these are tied to progression, however, it means that they become less common the further one gets into the game. Thus, if players want to spend time customizing their favorite pieces of gear early on, they’ll find themselves hardly able to do so by the last few levels. Furthermore, since new gear is coming in all the time, it’s always questionable if you should invest right away or save your enchantments for more powerful, late-game gear. All of this amounts to fun gear customization that becomes muddled by a incohesive progression system.
As a whole, Minecraft Dungeons should still be enticing to fans of Minecraft–especially if they have a couple friends to play with. The hack-and-slash action is accessible and fun, and the constant influx of gear means that players can customize their characters to their heart’s content. On the flipside, the journey is surprisingly brief, and there isn’t much in the way of additional content outside of a new game plus mode and paid DLC down the line. For as high as the production value is and as genuinely challenging as the game can get at times, Dungeons will likely end up being more of a fun weekend distraction than a multiplayer staple for months and years to come.