It is undisputed that Minecraft is one of the greatest gaming achievements of the 21st century. The game started as a goofy passion project coded mostly over a weekend and released for free on an indie developer forum in 2009. Five years later it was a global phenomenon and sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. dollars. This humble digging and building title has captivated gamers on seemingly every platform for the past decade.
Mojang continues to update and expand the base game, and will likely do so for many years to come. But he also started to diversify and find ways to exploit intellectual property. We’ve already seen a spin-off courtesy of Telltale Games with Minecraft: Story Mode, as well as the poorly received AR game Minecraft Earths. It’s quite different – a Minecraft without mining or crafting. Welcome to Minecraft Dungeons.
Here’s the elevator pitch: a great evil threatens the land with swarms of familiar Minecraft mobs, and a lone hero must fight it. But instead of the often clunky first-person perspective of the base game, this time you hack and cut in isometric third-person.
If you’ve played games like Diablo, you know what awaits you here. The player ventures through self-contained levels slaying monsters and grabbing treasure to equip their block hero to challenge more difficult levels, repeating as needed. Baddies drop gear that can make you a more efficient damage dealer or a tougher tank.
The randomly generated levels span nine unique biomes, and once you’ve completed the main campaign, estimated to take between seven and nine hours, two additional difficulty levels open up. You can also change the difficulty per individual area to increase the chances of rare loot drops.
Dungeons capitalizes on one of Minecraft’s most successful, if accidental, elements, its lore. While they don’t have a canon explanation for how or why you ended up in this world made to be mined and remade, the vines, endermen, and other denizens of Mojang’s world have become iconic to gamers. ‘a certain age. You only have to look at the success of tie-in toys and other merchandise to see how much people care about them.
The biggest issue with Dungeons, however, is depth. Or rather its absence. The original Minecraft is a game you can play almost forever, experimenting with a huge sandbox of objects and materials that interact in fascinating ways. You can challenge yourself in survival mode, relax in creative mode, build and explore with friends or on your own – the core experience adapts to a variety of interests.
Dungeons removes all of that. Sure, there’s co-op, but it’s not much different from the single-player experience. There’s only one thing to do here, which is smash monsters and grab armor, weapons, and other crudites. Despite some fun effects and a nice environment design, it gets old pretty quickly. It’s fun to play around with the artifacts that give you special abilities, like leaving a trail of fire when you run or summoning an assistant in combat, but the thrill doesn’t last. The charm of Minecraft lore is not enough to overcome the limited game loop.
Worse still, the deterministic nature of Minecraft digging and crafting is replaced by what can feel like maddening randomness. Loot drops come with a trio of selectable perks, but often they don’t match the build of the character you’re working on, and this becomes more and more noticeable as you progress towards the end game. give you the feeling of freedom and creativity, it frustrates.
Mojang promises updates and patches with new stuff in the future. This might alleviate some of those concerns, but ultimately it’s hard to see dungeons having a lifespan anywhere near Minecraft itself. It’s a perfectly good game, done with incredible polish, but I can’t help but think it would be better off without the franchise name.
For better or worse, we enter Minecraft expecting a certain type of experience. While Dungeons has all the visual and thematic attributes of Mojang’s generational hit, it lacks the spirit of the thing. It looks like a perfectly fine Diablo clone in Minecraft pajamas.
How could we save Minecraft Dungeons? Look at what made the franchise such a winner in the first place and let the players build. While giving your heroes a pickaxe and the ability to warp terrain massively unbalances combat-focused levels, it just doesn’t feel like Minecraft without it.
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The solution is simple: let players also be the Illager, the evil entity that serves as the final boss of Minecraft Dungeons, by creating their own levels for other players to fight against. Adding that element of creativity could make it feel like a legit Minecraft game instead of a reskin, and it would also extend the life of the game far beyond the limited content that developers can create themselves.
There are clear precedents for this formula – Nintendo did it with Super Mario Maker, which drew inspiration from the iconic plumber’s myriad 2D outings to allow players to create levels for others to jump and run. The relatively simple design of Minecraft Dungeons seems simple enough to create a level editor. Mojang could even link item and enemy unlocks to progress through the main campaign to create an addictive loop of discovering new creative items and testing them out in the editor.
Think of the insanely clever contraptions people created in vanilla Minecraft simply by combining discrete objects with known properties in new ways. Now apply that to the bounce mats, lasers, and other cool stuff you battle with in Dungeons. Automatically, you have a game that creates its own replayability, which is one of the core principles of the brand.
Minecraft Dungeons is a perfectly fine game, especially at the $20 price tag. However, it looks like a missed opportunity right now. More cynically, it feels like an attempt to capitalize on the massive goodwill the franchise has accumulated without adding to the world in any meaningful way. We’ll see if Mojang can turn it into something really special.
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