It’s surprising and even arguably a touch disappointing that despite being a Minecraft spin-off, Minecraft Dungeons does not contain a single instance of building or digging. It does, however, look and sound exactly like Minecraft in every possible way, from whatever the hell that noise is when you eat something to the Creepers. And yet when you watch a couple of Creepers explode into a billion little Creeper pieces without altering the terrain it feels fundamentally wrong. In this sense the whole thing is like a very basic reskin of a standard ARPG. The actual Minecraft part of Minecraft Dungeons is missing. Despite this, there’s still a fun and accessible Diablo style isometric dungeon-crawler here.
Also surprising given the fact that dungeons are quite literally in the name is that there aren’t actually a whole lot of dungeons in Minecraft Dungeons. There are nine levels in the game with some extra ones you can unlock, and these span a nice variety of locations, from the fiery red hues of the forge to more lush, green countryside that is inevitably filled with mobs who want to murder you in the face.
From your viewpoint above the action you’re going to control your nameless Minecraft character and use them to slaughter hundreds upon hundreds of recognizable Minecraft enemies, all in the name of gathering up new weapons and armour. There’s a basic story shoring the action up: a horrible Illager has set out to ravage the land, and it’s up to you to stop him. There. That’s your lot. Minecraft has never been big on story, so it’s hardly a shock that Minecraft Dungeons is the same.
Playing on the Xbox the A button controls your melee weapon while the right trigger is used for your bow/crossbow. Meanwhile, the right shoulder bumper is a dodge which is only occasionally useful since it doesn’t let you roll through foes and slows down your movement speed for a second or two after use. These are your most basic tools for dealing with the foes who trundle across the randomized environments. They’re nice and responsive, as they should be.
The other three face buttons get assigned to the various artefacts that you can find and equip, like the fireworks which let you unleash an explosive arrow or a healing totem for you and your friends to huddle around, or even summon up a wolf or Llama to help out. There’s no solid class system at play, so it’s these artefacts that have the most impact on how your character performs with your armour and weapons supporting that. For example, you might favour building your character around gathering up the souls of dead mobs and using them to power artefacts and abilities, or maybe you’ll favour armour that boosts your long-ranged capabilities along with an artefact that sets your arrows on fire.
Finally, there’s an infinite health potion that recharges, so if you find yourself in a bind you can stand around for a while until it refills. And if you do happen to die then don’t panic because you’ve got three lives to use up before it’s officially game over and you have to restart the whole level.
The enemies that flood in the screen are obviously quite familiar to anyone who has ever even looked in Minecraft’s direction, and that’s good news for the younger gamers because they’ll instantly know the drill: Creepers will explode if they get close and zombies will shuffle toward you like elderly grandparents with a brain fetish. Enchanters should be taken down first because they buff their friends, the Enderman will teleport from spot to spot and spiders will pin you in place with webs. Things are at their most fun when the game mixes these mobs together into a…er, mob. And its at its most annoying when it decides to spot nothing but archers who will rain death upon you from afar. God, I hate that.
Dealing with these various beasties requires a tiny bit of tactical thinking, but make no mistake, this is a button masher through and through. Sure, sometimes you need to target a specific baddie first, but most of the time you’re going to be hammering away at the buttons while enjoying the light show occurring on the screen. On the one hand, there’s absolutely zero depth to the combat. On the other hand, it’s mindless good fun and easily accessible.
This is a genre typically defined by loot raining down from the sky at a constant rate. But Minecraft Dungeons eeks out its rewards more slowly. It’s not unusual to go through a level with only a couple of items appearing. At first my loot-driven brain thought this was terrible compared to the constant rush of gear found in Diablo or Torchlight, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. Minecraft Dungeons is predominantly aimed at the smaller variation of humans (children?) and thus its probably a good idea not to drown them in a tidal wave of loot and numbers.
Minecraft Dungeons also defies another convention of the genre, though, and this one I’m less pleased about. Having an inventory stacked with gear is pretty normal, but due to the Enchantment system at play that was a rare occurrence in Dungeons. Basically every weapon and bit of armour you have has up to three slots for special enchantments that provide extra powers, like fire damage or a burst that pulls enemies in. Each slot can get up to three randomized enchantments that you pick from, and each enchantment has three tiers of effectiveness. Got that? Awesome. To get Enchantments you need enchantment points and those are earned by levelling up. Each time you level up, you get a single point. The only way to get these back is by scrapping your items, and that means later in the game when you pick up a new piece of gear you want to use the game nudges you to destroy your old item so you can buff the new one. Maybe its just me, but this led to me rarely keeping other gear around because the enchantment points were needed to make the new stuff worthwhile.
This problem is worse when you’re reaching the very end of the game. As far as I can tell there’s a level cap of 100, meaning at most you can 100 enchantment eoints to spend. Now considering the later gear needs nearly 30 enchantment points that means you can only ever have one melee weapon, piece of armour and ranged weapon properly maxed out.
Whenever you finish up a level you get whisked back to camp, a tiny area where you can…do nothing, to be honest. You quickly unlock a blacksmith and a wandering trader where you can trade in you gems for random gear and artefacts. There’s a house which gets decorated with items as you move through the story. And there are a couple of little secrets to find. Ultimately, though, the camp feels kind of useless. I assume it’s probably going to get fleshed out in future DLC.
Without any question where Minecraft Dungeons thrives is in its co-op where up to three other players can jump in locally or via the magic of the Internet. This is the perfect game for a parent and child to sit down and enjoy together. Cross-play is going to be added soon, too, so you’ll be able to jump into a game with friends across PC, PS4 and Xbox. There’s not much in the way of co-op specific mechanics outside a few gear abilities, but it’s still heaps of fun to hack through mobs together. I honestly can’t wait for lockdown to end so I can get my two nieces together to play it.
I’m especially happy that loot in co-op is allocated to each player, so there’s no fighting over who gets which item and absolutely no threat of someone hoovering everything up like that one friend who always steals the last slice of pizza.
There is one strange design choice in co-op, though – instead of the game altering damage taken and received for each player, the difficulty is determined by whoever set up the game. What this means is you can end up with huge differences in terms of how effective a player is, with one ploughing through everything while another player is getting pummelled into the ground. This could potentially limit who you can play with if one of your mates has sunk loads of time into the game or another has barely touched it.
I do wonder if this strange method of balancing co-op was decided upon for a good reason, though. Maybe the idea is for families so that the adults can level up and then use their overpowered characters to help out the younglings by softening up bosses or thinning out the bigger crowds.
The fact that there’s already two chunks of DLC announced and that they are heavily advertised within the game (they already exist as inaccessible locations on your map) does not sit well considering the lack of raw content in Minecraft Dungeons. There’re nine levels and you’ll blast through those in a few hours. The rest of the game involves replaying them again and again with only a few variations.
Like most games of this type the longevity of Minecraft Dungeons stems from playing it again and again on harder settings. On each level you’ve got a slider with recommended power levels and you can choose to move it up so that enemies hit harder and take more punishment. And then when you beat the last level you unlock Adventurer mode which adds a few new enemy types and bits of gear to find. Beat the game one more time and you unlock the final difficulty level which does the same thing. There’s no infinite scaling though, so if you beat the final difficulty and max out the slider that’s the game done, essentially, unless you want to grind for unique items. There’s no real endgame, which is jarring if you’ve jumped over from countless other ARPGS.
I suppose you could argue that describing Minecraft Dungeons as a Diablo-lite is unfair, but honestly I think it’s just truthful and accurate. For the young fans of Minecraft this is a solid-spinoff that takes the licence and applies it quite well to a whole different genre. I just wish it had incorporated some core gameplay tenets of Minecraft like digging, building and crafting. Without those things this could be any generic action-RPG.
I’m probably sounding quite harsh but in all honesty I enjoyed Minecraft Dungeons. It taps into that part of my brain that just wants some mindless carnage for an hour or two and a few pieces of shiny loot for the effort. And it’s nice to have something bright and cheerful in a genre that’s mostly dominated by stuff like Diablo, Path of Exile and Grim Dawn, or in other words dark and gloomy. And the fact that you can get it on Xbox Gamespass is a nice bonus.
All in all, then, Minecraft Dungeons is a solid ARPG that probably could have been so much more. Young Minecraft fans should enjoy it and its especially good for families to enjoy together. But veterans of numerous ARPG campaigns won’t find much of interest here, unless they’re looking for something light and easy to cleanse the palette.