Do you want to see my weapon? It has a long handle, a huge purple head, and I like to call it the Gravity Hammer.
In fact, that’s the name Mojang Studios gave it – I simply found it hovering a few feet above the ground, spinning slowly in a way that suggested immense, unseen power. Ever since then, I’ve loved hitting bad villagers over the head with, like plastic moles in an old arcade.
Over time, I realized that the strength of the hammer does not come from its enormous weight, but from the crystal embedded in its center: a gem that exerts its own gravitational attraction. When I swing the hammer, nearby enemies are sucked into its path, their soft skulls falling perfectly under the arc of the blow.
Minecraft is a bit like that – not long or purple, but a phenomenon with its own powerful pull. Despite their best efforts, the people and projects around it have struggled to escape its orbit. In its early days, Mojang used its wealth to fund Scrolls, a digital card game that was just a bit ahead of its time. And before becoming persona non grata, Notch began work on a sandbox space simulation that would feature a fully functional virtual computer.
These games seemed to pull on some of the same themes as Minecraft: pushing back the dark with light and the power of programming. They hinted at a studio identity beyond that first game. But none worked. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Mojang simply became the Minecraft people.
Dungeons is the compromise – a new game that looks and sounds like Minecraft, but belongs to a different genre: RPG. Its first area is called the Squid Coast, in apparent reference to the Sword Coast from Dungeons & Dragons. But if Mojang is inspired by a Baldur’s Gate game, it’s Dark Alliance. It’s a dungeon crawler, a Diablo-like game, rather than a BioWare game of choice and consequence.
It’s also a bold move, as hacking has never been Minecraft’s forte. But here it works a treat, the floating weightlessness of first-person swordplay replaced by a big isometric smash. Shooting is even better: hold down the right trigger and you can spin your character on his heels to face a threat, then let the arrow fly; the longer you hold, the harder the hit. It might seem strange to choose auto-aim for praise, but Dungeons has mastered this particular dark art. His helping hand pushes gently on your shoulder, respecting your intention and leaving room for deft shots.
As with its parent game, there’s a purposeful simplicity to Dungeons that makes it instantly likable. Pick up a consumable and it’s automatically used, while your standard health potion is tied to a cooldown, freeing you from tedious inventory management or rows of hotkeys. Even when an objective instructs you to find the exit, your next step is clearly marked. Much like the foot soldiers of the Archillager’s zombie army, you can leave your brains at the door.
Genre fans will know the commentary isn’t criticism: action RPGs have long streamlined the intricacies of RPGs in search of a zen state of flow, the kind of game that’s perfectly accompanied by a podcast or chatter from a distant friend. Still, the depth found in Minecraft Dungeons’ weapon upgrades is welcome.
The points you accumulate by leveling up are channeled into enchantments, which imbue your gear with magical qualities. For a while, I wore a set of leathers that gave me a speed boost every time I dodged, making forward rolls more exciting than they’ve been since lately. ‘primary school. Once those points are spent, however, they can’t be peeled off and applied to another item, leading to some tasty trade-offs. Do you ditch your ax for a higher damage equivalent, or do you stick with the one that knocks money from enemies instead? It’s to Mojang’s credit that looting is an opportunity for serious tactical thinking.
That said, it’s an ideal action-RPG for younger players, not least because it faithfully recreates the aesthetics of Minecraft, right down to the sounds C418 composed a decade ago. The icky slurp of a nearby spider always sends chills, and there’s something friendly and familiar about the hollow click of the wooden lever that activates a redstone door. Every part of Mojang’s levels looks buildable with Minecraft’s tools, and draws new beauty from its biomes – especially the blocky palette of Pumpkin Pastures which, with a remote camera, takes on the quality of an autumnal mosaic. In a genre that traditionally struggles in the visual department, this is a real achievement.
But the achievements stop there. Minecraft Dungeons is happy to enter the action-RPG space at ground level, rather than digging to its bedrock and changing the fundamentals. It would be one thing if the genre stopped growing with Diablo 3, but it hasn’t: Borderlands and Destiny have since fused those old ideas with shooter and open-world conventions, changing expectations. Next to this revolution, Minecraft Dungeons looks quaint and backward looking.
Strapped to my back next to the gravity hammer is a scattergun. Built to fire three projectiles at once, it produces the satisfying sound of a broken harp. Through a strange enchantment, the arrows grow larger as they fly through the air – becoming large harpoons the moment they hit the walls of the Arch-illager’s banquet halls. It was great fun, but after the 300th move, I’m fed up.
There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, but even by the time I’d faced the Arch-illager in his tower – no more than a handful of hours into it – I already had some. enough of the Redstone Golem mini-bosses, and dungeons seemed to have exhausted his borrowing ideas. Like Diablo, this is a game designed for multiple playthroughs on increasing difficulty, but few players will feel pressured to return to a seam that has dried up after a single day of exploration.
Version tested: PC with controller. A review copy was provided by Microsoft.