Few franchises have provided more consistent joy over the past decade than Minecraft. It turned out to be a world of limitless possibilities, where the imagination can lead to just about anything, even something outside of its original world-building sandbox genre. So I admit to being excited about the idea of Minecraft branching out and diving into hack-and-slash dungeon-crawling when Mojang first announced Minecraft Dungeons.
Minecraft Dungeons offers a level of ease and accessibility and turns out to be a fun adventure in small doses. However, there are a few sticking points that keep it from standing out as something special. In the end, I couldn’t help but think it was too simplistic and somewhat restrictive. And it hurts coming from something with the name “Minecraft” on it.
The story of Minecraft Dungeons is extremely simple. Once upon a time there was an Illager who stumbled across the ultimate power. Remembering those who shunned him, the new Arch-Illager uses this power for revenge and world domination. It’s an easy-to-follow story that feels like a general Saturday morning cartoon for crowds of all ages.
The current gameplay of Dungeons matches well with its contemporaries in the genre. Players are given a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, and three artifact slots that can be used for enhanced weapon attacks, magic attacks (powered by “Souls”), or additional healing. Speaking of healing, players are given a potion that has an infinite supply, but is only held back by a cooldown. There isn’t really an inventory to speak of, as everything is as simple as possible.
For the sake of simplicity, one area that immediately stands out is the complete removal of “basic stats”. Characters can level up, but the traditional RPG concept of leveling up to improve their stats is thrown out the window. Instead, players are only as strong as the gear they have equipped. It’s Dungeons’ coolest idea, but it also leads to one of its biggest setbacks, which I’ll get to in a second.
The actual gear system is pretty neat. Every melee weapon, ranged weapon, and armor has a secondary function that can be upgraded using enchantment points. Enchantment points are earned by upgrading characters. If a player later finds a better piece of higher level gear, the enchantment points are not lost. Recovering old equipment will recover all attached enchantment points. It’s a new system, which allows for a degree of experimentation by picking up different weapons and trying out their different perks.
Into the unknown
With no complex systems to worry about, the focus is entirely on exploration and gameplay, which proves to be something of a mixed bag. The fight against different monsters feels engaging, with some requiring a simple rampage of a sword or a barrage of arrows to bring down and others requiring different strategies. For example, pesky magicians can power up nearby mobs and keep their distance, which requires either precise arrow shot or clever use of an artifact. Once the mobs mix up a bit more towards the end of the game, that’s when dungeons encourage more tactical variety.
Levels in Minecraft Dungeons feature procedurally generated layouts, which can be useful when it comes to repeating early levels later down the line. It helps reduce that sense of repetition that can set in too quickly with a game like this. There’s not too much to worry about when it comes to getting lost, as there’s a helpful waypoint marker that can point players in the right direction.
Most of the paths are straightforward, although sometimes players will find the correct path to be closed. This requires finding a key, and that leads to one of Dungeons best innovations: keys. The keys in this game are living creatures themselves, so grabbing one becomes a sort of escort mission. If a player takes a hit while carrying the key, the key will jump and attempt to run away. Sometimes enemy mobs will just try to steal the key themselves. The key on the back of a player literally kicking and screaming had me grinning from ear to ear and the whole dynamic of Dungeons with the keys is a nice addition to this type of game.
A minor problem arises when it comes to thinking outside the box to search for secrets. Sometimes the game generates a path that looks like it leads to something cool, but rather leads to a dead end. It doesn’t feel good going through a bunch of enemy mobs just to literally hit a wall.
A bigger problem comes from the Minecraft visual style itself, as with the isometric camera perspective, the landscape will more often than not block the view of enemy mobs. When there are dozens of crowds on screen at once, that’s a big deal. In the late game, you won’t want to see any more obstacles, because the monsters will get a lot tougher.
I had a great time with Dungeons for the first 2/3 of the story. Oh, before I go any further, I should stop here and mention that this game is short. The main story is maybe a few hours long, though it can be stretched depending on when your party finds secret stages to unlock or hits a wall at the end. There are more levels that are closed beyond the map that will tie into paid DLC, which wasn’t very nice to see, especially with the main adventure as abbreviated as it is.
Anyway, I had a great time with Dungeons, but the endgame ramps up significantly in difficulty. The bosses (the last one, in particular) get noticeably harder, and I saw more than a few “Game Over” screens that sent me straight back to camp, forcing me to start the level over from scratch.
This is where I got the wrong realization about one of Dungeons key features. It’s true, you’re only as strong as your gear. But if your gear isn’t strong enough, you can’t really progress any further. While Mojang found a solution to one problem, they created a completely different one. As mentioned earlier, leveling up only rewards enchantment points and by the end of the game players have probably already maxed out their enchantments. Upgrading does not increase your stats, it only upgrades gear you can find later, so any personal stat boosts are entirely RNG related. You are not grinding to improve your stats. Instead, you strive to find better gear. And when you find that better gear, maybe it doesn’t have the extra perk you want, which then leads to more grinding.
This is where I had another bad realization. The solution to the above problem would be to simply try to craft better gear. Except there there is no crafting system! And for Minecraft, a franchise that relies so much on building and craft things, it looks like a major oversight. And while Dungeons pays so much respect to the franchise it’s based on through its environments, mobs, and story, it seems unthinkable that players are at the mercy of random drops. Even at the Camp, there is no store to buy equipment. There are only vendors that offer random drops. Most often they are common. Fancy a Rare or unique? I hope you feel lucky.
I can understand Mojang wanting to be subversive and drop some typical genre conventions. Dungeons reminded me that sometimes conventions are conventions for a reason.
Extended rant aside, Minecraft Dungeons has the basis for something great here. I love how easy it is to pick up and play. Players of any skill level should be able to get started with no problem. Outside of the opening-level storytelling, it’s not story-heavy, making it great for jumping in and out of games. It’s much better suited to co-op than its contemporaries, though at the time of this writing I’ve only engaged in local play. I haven’t tried the online component yet, which is supposed to get cross-play in the coming weeks.
That said, this game has a few issues, the biggest of which involves a lot of that aforementioned RNG. It could make a mountain of a molehill, but the more I investigated this issue and the inability to craft, the more I felt like this particular issue was just antithetical to Minecraft as a whole. That said, there aren’t many complaints with the equipment itself. There’s a lot to discover there and with the various artifacts in the world, there are some cool character builds to put together without diving into anything too complicated.
But, while the core Minecraft experience can be enjoyed on its own, Minecraft Dungeons feels much more suited for a night out with friends. So be sure to team up with a few partners, because it’s dangerous to go it alone.
This review is based on an Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Minecraft Dungeons will be available Tuesday, May 26 on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch for $19.99. The game is rated E10+.