Given the massive popularity of Minecraft, we’re surprised developer Mojang and corporate overlord Microsoft aren’t exploiting it more ruthlessly. Sure, there are plenty of Minecraft products out there, but the base-building sandbox is pretty much everything when it comes to gaming. The only exceptions are one-off experiments, such as the augmented reality game Minecraft Earth and the narrative Minecraft: Story Mode by Telltale. However, Minecraft is getting arguably its most ambitious spin-off yet with Minecraft Dungeons, an action-RPG that trades building fun with loot-collecting fun. After playing this PC game, we can say that the transition was quite smooth.
Diablo, with blocks
Minecraft Dungeons makes the bold prediction that kids will enjoy collecting Diablo loot, exploring dungeons, and other action-RPG antics. They just need a game without all the violence and satanism of Blizzard’s classic franchise. Instead, the game is set in the Minecraft universe as players roam the land battling monsters, rescuing villagers, and taking on the evil Arch-Illager. The game sets a nice cheeky fantasy tone. However, aside from the narrator, don’t expect the powerful voice work of Minecraft: Story Mode. Don’t expect an actual story either.
From the tutorial to the early levels, I was surprised at how much the fundamentals of Minecraft moved into this new setting. Minecraft already has a whole menagerie of monsters to draw from. The Creeper Woods is full of familiar zombies and explosive jerks. Shooting them from afar before they explode in my face is second nature. Although they have coherent goals, exploring the randomly generated dungeons feels like watching an all-knowing creative child rebuilding their own Minecraft world over and over again. Even loot is an organic extension of Minecraft’s survival and resource management mechanics.
Shape your destiny
However, Minecraft Dungeons isn’t about building things. It’s about smashing stuff, especially monsters. To do this, you’ll need to create a hero to complement your playstyle. Instead of picking a class (or buying from auction houses with real money), character abilities are determined solely by equipment collected in-game. This equipment includes a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, a piece of armor, and three additional artifacts, each with their own effects governed by cooldowns. Artifacts include secondary weapons like explosive bottle rockets, spells like a charm that makes monsters like you, or temporary buffs like a mushroom that increases your speed.
Loot management is a simple system, with the potential for great depth once you start digging into it. As you level up, you earn points that increase powers unique to specific equipment or techniques. I’ve unlocked the ability to shock nearby enemies with lightning whenever I evade roll. These powers can either enhance strengths or mitigate weaknesses. For example, I ditched my fast sickles and bow for a powerful but slow greatsword and a stronger bow with lower ammo capacity. However, I unlocked a skill for my sword that allowed me to perform two quick hits in a row and a skill for my arrow that randomly rewarded me with extra arrows. You can break down old gear for money and skill points, so you’re encouraged to keep experimenting, even on the battlefield. Just be aware that opening the menu does not pause the action.
The creative possibilities of Minecraft Dungeon’s loot system, which pile on top of each other, made me more appealing than, say, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’s shallow, kid-friendly approach to an RPG of action to success. The clear and accessible system also makes it extremely obvious what each piece of equipment does and why it is better or worse than other equipment. Diablo could honestly use some of that readability.
Yet these games ultimately boil down to spamming precise mouse clicks or auto-aim controller attacks against increasingly ridiculous mobs of enemies. I was sometimes bored fighting mini-bosses like the towering Red Stone Golem or Enderman and his minions alone. Unsurprisingly, it’s much more tolerable with three other friends, online, or through local co-op. With teammates, you can actually take on roles, like being a healer who converts the souls of slain enemies into health potions.
Maybe the experience will last longer for younger players unfamiliar with the genre, but I was able to get through Minecraft Dungeons’ dozen levels in a weekend. The only level that gave me trouble was the relatively long last dungeon. After a few failed attempts, I went back and replayed previous levels on higher difficulties to score new stronger loot. I also used in-game currency to purchase useful gear that matched my power level. Being able to summon a powerful llama ally is really handy. Having to go back and grind after a short but well-paced five-hour campaign bored me somewhat. However, increasing my strength was satisfying and perfecting my grinding strategy made me more intrigued to find out the harder difficulties to unlock and the extra levels to come.
Fun for all ages (and specs)
Minecraft Dungeons retains the franchise’s blocky visual style that allows it to run smoothly on a variety of hardware, from the most powerful platform to the educational Raspberry Pi. After all, little kids love this game and they don’t have the deepest pockets. The developers come up with new graphical effects powered by Unreal Engine 4 designed to spice up the look of Minecraft. Fall pastures look really nice. The glowing molten forges of enemy fortresses create a legitimately threatening atmosphere. Particle effects in particular add to the chaos as you mow down enemy hordes with your plethora of powers. Simple doesn’t have to look simple.
Luckily, these new cheats don’t prevent the game from running well on low-end machines. I pulled out my five-year-old HP Envy, with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M graphics card, to test it out and it had no issues running the game at a consistent frame rate. Microsoft itself doesn’t list any system requirements beyond Windows 10 and x64 architecture, which should tell you that the game is technically quite flexible.
While other recent Microsoft PC games, such as Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, have made their way to Steam, Minecraft Dungeons is only available through its own Windows launcher, just like the Minecraft original. However, the game is also available on consoles, again, just like the original Minecraft. You can play Minecraft Dungeons on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Unfortunately, PC saves do not carry over to console versions. Cross-platform play is apparently still in the works. Minecraft Dunegons is not a Play Anywhere title, but it is part of Xbox Game Pass for PC.
Minecraft does not lack attention. Almost anything with such a strong brand will at least arouse some curiosity. However, Minecraft Dungeons is not a cash grab. It’s a serious entry into the action-RPG genre with an engaging and accessible loot system. What’s available now is a little thin, but it’s a base with a lot of potential if it receives the same level of post-launch support as other games in this space. Mojang and Microsoft can make it something we could really dig into.