Minecraft Dungeons is the latest installment in what is easily Xbox Game Studios’ biggest IP (just look at the sales of the original game!). Pitched as a Diablo-dungeon crawler, the game features 10 procedurally generated levels with branching routes, tons of loot, and a number of tough mobs to fight – either alone or with friends. However, has the newly renamed Mojang Studios managed to pull off this genre shift, or are they better off sticking to their bread and butter?
Beginning with the story, Minecraft Dungeons tells the tale of the ostracized “Arch-Illager” who was mocked and belittled by those around him. Fed up with the injustices of the blocky world, he finds himself in possession of a relic that grants him immense power, and he begins to use it to exact revenge on the society that belittled him. With his reign of terror sweeping across the land, the quest to stop this evil fiend is given to you and up to three of your friends. You venture across ten different worlds, discovering the evil plots at hand, and try to thwart them (i.e. shutting down a Redstone mine or destroying an important artifact the Arch-Illager uses for his evil will). Needless to say, the plot is nothing special, but it gets the job done. What particularly helps is the humour found in the cutscenes that deftly balances cuteness with physical comedy. Perhaps the biggest issue is the ending which – without spoiling – is rather anticlimactic, and the story doesn’t quite feel complete.
Moving on to the gameplay – Minecraft Dungeons is a definite mixed bag. Beginning with the positives and the combat itself feels great, with each swing of an axe, sword, pickaxe, hammer and more feeling incredibly satisfying. Bows feel even better, with their immense speed and attack distance helping to fend off many of the evil foes. The level design, while procedurally generated, also feels tight, with multiple routes, a ton of chests and often ample space to fight the game’s many mobs.
The game’s progression system is simplified but engaging. In an attempt to simplify RPG mechanics to reach a wider audience, all of your abilities are tied to the loot you earn. Instead of classes, you have armour, where, for example, the Wizard armour makes you into a wizard-like character, and these can be changed on the fly. Upon levelling up, you can customize your loot’s attributes, gaining new abilities for your player. When the time inevitably comes that your loot just doesn’t cut it, you can salvage all of your upgrade points and apply them to other items. The game doesn’t do the best job of communicating this, but it is a unique and simplified system that, while lacking the depth of better ARPGs, makes up for it in accessibility.
However, as I said before, Minecraft Dungeons’ gameplay is a mixed bag, where the game really falters is in its approach to difficulty, especially in single-player. Firstly, from what I have noticed, enemy density does not change whether you are playing with one, two, three or four players, meaning in solo the game can be a slog at best, or far too difficult at worst. This issue comes to a head in the final level, wherein your squad is put in incredibly cramped corridors against Dynasty Warriors levels of enemy concentration. It can become quickly overwhelming, even with the appropriate gear.
Exacerbating these difficulty issues is the fact that enemies and drops are randomized. On one level, I spent the vast majority fighting waves of brutal guards, enchanters and snipers. I failed the level and went to restart, just to find myself faced against a ton of mooks that could be taken out with one hit. This inconsistency persists, with the inverse holding true often, as well. Drops are also a significant issue as, for example, arrows, a vital aspect of the game’s combat, are in short supply in some playthroughs, and everywhere in others. Worse yet, arrows cannot be bought using in-game currency, meaning there is no way to adequately prepare for what the game may throw at you. Thankfully, in the event you do fail a level, all loot you earn, barring arrows, can be kept with you.
Moving on to aesthetics, and Minecraft Dungeons absolutely nails the look and feel of Minecraft, and in many ways even elevates it. The music is great across the board, with many calming and adventurous tunes. The graphics themselves, while not groundbreaking, are easily the best the “vanilla” style of Minecraft has ever looked (barring the RTX demo) with dynamic lighting, realistic weather and better texturing. There are plenty of skins to pick from, but the ability to create your own is sadly M.I.A.
While the game certainly does look the part, it doesn’t take full advantage of the Minecraft IP. All of the enemy mobs you have come to know and love are here in spades, from the explosively temperamental Creepers to the spooky scary Skeletons (they still send a shiver done my spine). However, the creative aspects of Minecraft are sadly missing. For example, your base is already made for you, instead of allowing players to create their own hub to express themselves. Skins, as mentioned before, are designed for you too, so that creativity isn’t there. Finally, in the titular dungeons themselves, there is no chance to take advantage of the world to, for example, mine secret passages or build staircases and bridges to reach out-of-bounds areas. It’s incredibly simplistic in its design, and while it does the job well enough, it does take away some of the creativity associated with Minecraft as a whole.
Finally, there are a few small things I’d like to touch upon. Beginning with length, the difficulty with the final level notwithstanding, and Minecraft Dungeons can be beaten in around something between three and four hours. Higher tiers and the randomized levels do increase the replayability level, but a sprawling ARPG this is not. And then in terms of accessibility, the game continues Xbox Game Studios’ commitment to making games approachable to all, and you can remap your controller as you see fit. Unfortunately this commitment does not continue to the camera itself, which is nonadjustable, making your character and enemies difficult to see. Finally, the price of the game of £16.74 or free with Xbox Game Pass, and given the replayability this is rather fair.
All in all, Minecraft Dungeons on Xbox One is a fun but flawed dungeon crawler. Mojang has done a pretty good job adapting the franchise to the dungeon-crawler style. However, in their attempt to streamline the more niche genre to reach the broader Minecraft fandom, they have somewhat lost sight of some of what makes those titles so endearing. An inconsistent difficulty curve, an unclear progression system and an over-emphasis on co-op at the expense of the single-player experience threatens to derail the game, but the strong combat, level designs, aesthetics and humour shine through. Minecraft Dungeons is easily best enjoyed among friends and family and will delight players of all ages, but the feeling that more could be done with the IP hangs over it. There is still a good amount of enjoyment to be had, and Mojang has promised future updates to grow the game. Give it a shot if you’re a fan of Minecraft or you’re looking for some fun with friends.