Update: We have revised the review after the online servers became available. The score has been increased to 8.5/10.
Minecraft: A global phenomenon. An unlikely spin-off.
- Developer: Mojang Studios / Double Eleven
- Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
- Release date: 26th May 2020
- Genre: Dungeon Crawler
- Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Switch, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: Xbox One X/ASUS TUF FX505DY (Win 10)
- Game Supplied by: Microsoft Game Studios
Considering the runaway success of Mojang’s excellent block-building masterpiece, it’s surprising there haven’t been more spin-off games or sequels.
When Mojang first announced Minecraft Dungeons, I’m sure many people, like me, expected either an expansion to the base game or perhaps a similarly styled game revolving around the same basic create and craft gameplay. What I didn’t expect, was a Diablo-style dungeon crawler.
Minecraft Dungeons has moved away from the world-building and crafting gameplay of its namesake. Instead, they have opted for the exploratory and RPG-lite gameplay of games such as Diablo, or for those who remember that far back, Gauntlet.
Mojang’s take on the formula is surprisingly competent. They have managed to keep the gameplay simple enough for younger players to pick-up easily. At the same time, the mechanics still retain enough depth to keep parents engaged if they play with their children. That’s not to say it’s a kids game, though, as the sharp spike in difficulty in the latter stages may actually be too much for less-experienced gamers.
Your basic attacks are a simple one-button melee system utilising swords, axes and daggers, and a ranged attack courtesy of bows and crossbows. As you would expect, newer, more powerful versions can be found throughout the levels. Each weapon has its own advantages and can be enchanted to improve its passive or active abilities. Weaker but faster-striking weapons are better suited for tackling larger, weaker mobs, while the slower but heavier-hitting weapons have advantages when dealing with tougher foes.
Armour also comes with differing bonus stats, ranging from defensive strength increases to faster attack speeds or improved resource gathering. Your armour and weapons can also be enchanted, with each offering a varying amount of perks. Choosing the right enchantments for your weapons and playstyle is essential. Searching for the weapon you want, with the right combination of perks and stats is what these games are all about, encouraging repeated runs through dungeons.
In addition to your basic attacks, you also have three slots (assigned to X, Y and B on Xbox), where you can assign artifacts that you find. They have a variety of different effects; defensive artifacts can provide projectile shields, healing for you and your party or stunning and knocking back mobs; offensive artifacts augment your attack strength with flaming arrows, summonable llamas or other companions that will help you in combat or you can store energy from the souls you collect to unleash as a devastating attack. Understanding how to combine these weapons, artifacts and enchantments for maximum effect is crucial.
Create your own class
Minecraft Dungeons doesn’t have character classes in the traditional sense. There’s a reasonable selection of skins to choose from, but it’s disappointing there is no deeper level of customisation available. All of the options are fundamentally the same, it’s down to the equipment you choose how your class is determined.
For younger gamers, it’s likely they will just look to the level rating of an item to decide if it’s a worthwhile upgrade over their current piece. Without understanding the specifics of different build types, such as DPS or tank builds (and this isn’t explained in-game), you can end up with a high-level yet poorly optimised build that will struggle in tougher dungeons.
For those who understand the systems, though, it enables you to change your loadout on the fly. If you come to a section where you are getting swarmed by large mobs, you can switch to fast-attacking weapons with healing artefacts to clear them out quickly or choose heavy, slow-firing ranged attacks with movement and knockback artefacts to maintain distance if the situation dictates. Being able to effectively switch class at will helps alleviate the issue of the relatively small variety of weapons available, but personally I would have preferred if there were distinct classes as it offers far more replayability.
Where’s the crafting?
Where Minecraft Dungeons has missed a trick, though, is by not incorporating the already well-established crafting mechanics of Minecraft. Making it possible to collect resources that could then be crafted into weapons back in the camp would not only have added depth but would also be more in keeping with its source game.
The same can be said of the story. Minecraft, despite its apparent simplicity, has a fairly in-depth amount of lore, furthered by the likes of Minecraft: Story Mode. In Dungeons, though, the story is introduced through an introductory video that only plays the first time you start the game, and through short cutscenes/voiceovers at the beginning of some levels (Something about an Illager who’s got the hump about something and wants to take over the world. That old chestnut). There was the opportunity to have, for example, scrolls in the chests you find that could have expanded on the lore. Instead, we have easily ignorable and overly brief cutscenes.
Better with friends
Minecraft: Dungeons has a very robust multiplayer system in place. You can play four-player local co-op, or go online to make up your foursome. At the time of writing, we never managed to find an online game to join. I did, however, play with my kids (5 and 6 years old), and they really enjoyed the first few levels. Once we passed the midway point on default difficulty though, it became too difficult for them and they lost interest.
Rather than split-screen local multiplayer, you are all kept on the same screen, with a teleport system if anyone gets trapped or caught too far behind. It works very well, but when you have four players romping around as well as sizeable mobs it can get a little confusing as to where your character is. As far as couch co-op games go, though, Minecraft: Dungeons is superb.
Update: Online play
Updated: We have had some good sessions with our TGA team now. Even with my character at a significantly higher level than theirs, Minecraft: Dungeons does a great job of balancing the difficulty. In many games, trying to play with mixed groups means the lowest levelled player can’t do any meaningful damage and ends up dying frequently. Here, everyone in the party was able to contribute.
Enemies are vastly more numerous when you play with three or four players. Having so many enemies on screen meant we were able to effectively utilise class-based builds, and we had great success running with a healer, tank and ranged DPS characters. It’s even more intense than anything in single player, and at times it is absolutely exhilarating.
This is amplified when someone is downed: If you are knocked down, you can be revived, but you have to be fast. After 30 seconds, the darkness closes in and starts damaging everyone else in the group. This makes for some memorable moments as you launch rescue attempts, charging in desperately trying to hold off the enemies while other players revive your downed friend.
When playing online, the most important loot such as weapons, artifacts and armour is shared out on a per-player basis. Items like arrows and health pickups are first come, first served, so communication over who needs them most is important. I did find that in a mixed group my team-mates got decent loot, but everything for my character was under-levelled and basically useless. I still earned plenty of XP, though, which in turn means when I do find loot at my level, I should still see an improvement.
Minecraft: Dungeons is definitely worth considering if you are thinking of picking this up for your kids, but with the caveat that this is nothing like regular Minecraft, and it is a very challenging game. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d imagine around ten-year-old and up should be a suitable age to be able to comprehend the gameplay systems.
The level art is very appealing. There’s plenty of distinction between each environment, and they all share that excellent Minecraft feel. Obviously, being Minecraft, it’s all made of the same chunky, blocky textures you’d expect, but the lighting is great, and it’s a huge draw for younger gamers (my kids love the look of Minecraft Dungeons).
Minecraft Dungeons has a procedurally generated level design. There are a few core blocks of each map, with connecting passageways and off-shoot paths randomly incorporated into each level. While this helps offer variation for replayability, it lacks the focussed design and memorable elements you get from bespoke level design. I found that quite often you can fight your way through loads of enemies, just to reach a dead end with no rewards. After spending thirty minutes or so clearing every nook and cranny of the early levels, I ended up just following the objective marker and relying on the loot I found organically.
Loot-pigs pop up frequently (pigs with fancy treasure chests on their back) and I often found decent loot in those. At the rate you level up, you are better off ploughing through the levels and collecting the stronger weapons that invariably come as you progress. As such, I found many levels only took around fifteen to twenty minutes to run through solo. As you reach the endgame and are on the hardest difficulty, then searching out these paths becomes more beneficial as the loot ends up being much more worth it, but the generic nature of the procedurally generated levels is actually counter-productive here.
Play it again, Sam
Each level has scalable difficulty settings, that can help you out if you are stuck, or offer a challenge if it’s too easy. In addition to this, though, there are default, adventure and apocalypse difficulty levels. After completing the game on default, you can then play through again on adventure difficulty. Successful completion of the game on adventure difficulty then opens up apocalypse difficulty.
Beyond offering more of a challenge, these higher difficulties also reward you with much better loot. If you only play through the game once, you will probably be able to clear it in anything from four to six hours, but you will miss out on the best of the gameplay. Minecraft Dungeons has obviously been designed to encourage multiple playthroughs and the relatively short levels make it easier to pick-up and play in short sessions as you grind for loot (there are no mid-level save points).
For seasoned gamers, there’s not really enough variety in either the loot or the dungeon layouts to provide the life-consuming grinding that Diablo 3 is capable of, but as a more approachable version that is still suitable for children to play, it toes the balance well.
In the twenty or so I hours I spent roaming the blocky dungeons, I’ve completed the campaign on normal and adventurer difficulties, and I’m currently grinding the gear to complete the game on apocalypse difficulty. It’s an addictive game, but I can’t wait for the servers to open up so I can play multiplayer online. For solo gamers, despite the relative ease with which you will breeze through the opening stages, the difficulty ramps up exponentially soon after, and the necessary grinding puts a dampener on progression. It’s fun, but damn is it intense.
The loot hunting is as addictive as it ever is in this kind of the game, but the lacklustre level design means you are far more likely to rush through each level, which in turn gives you stat-based roadblocks. Thankfully, the in-game combat is excellent and surprisingly good fun. Hopefully, multiplayer online will make it easier to make progression, but for solo players, it feels like forced repetition is needed if you are ever to reach the endgame.
Minecraft: Dungeons is a very polished game, highlighted by the quality of the combat. Online play is superb, with far more enemies to take on and robust options to encourage teamwork, and it is perfectly balanced. Unfortunately, it feels like they’ve missed out on a lot of potential with an underwhelming story and overall lack of content.
If you are a hardcore fan of the dungeon-crawling genre, then you will likely love the combat systems, but there may not be enough here to keep you engrossed long-term. For a newcomer looking for an accessible entry, though, this is a great way to introduce yourself to the mechanics and systems involved.
Review code for Minecraft: Dungeons was kindly provided by Microsoft Game Studios.