Minecraft Dungeons Review: A Diabolical Battle of Blocks
You know what Minecraft is. You’ve probably played it, because, well, it seems like everyone has at some point. So, after spending $2 billion on buying the whole IP, it’s no surprise that Microsoft is trying to expand the game into a franchise. Minecraft Dungeons is the first foray into totally new territory. It’s an instantly recognizable dungeon crawl that features as much Diablo as it does Minecraft.
In fact, it maybe mixes more of the classic dungeon crawler than it does its own namesake. Minecraft Dungeons is a straight-up hack and slasher, through and through. It looks like Minecraft, but certainly doesn’t play like it. For parental units, this game is probably going to be a gift from the gaming gods. It’s the fun of much more violent and bleak dungeon crawlers with a flair for the fun and absurd.
The blocky character designs make the villains look mostly absurdly funny. There are various types of armed Illigers, spiders, witches, zombies, skeletons, ghosts, golems, and other mostly familiar monsters, along with farm animals that you can either ignore or just hack up too. Across over a dozen levels, you’ll trudge through swamps, deserts, towns, deep underground lairs, castles, and more.
Of course, the big appeal is four-player cooperative multiplay both on and offline. Microsoft is adamant there will also be cross-play added in the near future, but it’s not there just yet.
Minecraft Dungeons Review: A Diabolical Battle of Blocks
Admittedly, it took me a while to warm up to Dungeons. There are elements of it that, despite the overall fun of the game, still seem like lost opportunities.
First is the character creation. You pick a skin from a fairly robust assortment, but there are no classes, no specialties, and no differences between them beyond looks. Any customization is done based on the armor, weapons, and items you equip, which makes it easy to miss the perks and personalities of Diablo’s very specific classes and characters. Here, characters are blank slates, mannequins to dress up and fight with.
Adding to this issue is the random nature of item collecting. Whether you get new items from treasure chests or the blacksmith and artifact-shilling shopkeeper, there’s no control over what they have for sale. You literally pay them gems for a random item. Sometimes, this lands you a truly magnificent weapon, like a spear that creates poison clouds or a mace that calls down lightning. Most of the time, especially later in the game, you’ll just get repeat items to salvage immediately.
Items can be upgraded with enchantment points that do a variety of things that range from adding more damage or protection to increasing the time certain effects last. There’s a huge amount of objects to discover and try out, and each item has a level that can be increased. So, there’s a constant loop to upgrade even favored weapons to better iterations.
It’s frustrating, however, to discover the wonder of the game’s sledgehammer, then not be able to simply upgrade its level yourself or find a better one on purpose. Thankfully, when you salvage an unwanted item, you get back any enchantment points you put into it.
Just the same, this is one major part of the game where more of the source material would have been welcome. It may have Minecraft in the title, but there’s no mining or crafting in Dungeons. There’s no destructible scenery beyond specific urns or the occasional mission-imperative items (like a particularly amusing bit where you literally kill all the big baddy’s cooks and destroy his buffet tables).
Much like Diablo, there are also no camera controls. The right stick lets you dodge, but it does not move the camera. Unlike Diablo, however, the visual nature of Minecraft, frequently makes it hard to distinguish elevations, since textures frequently look so similar. Other foibles include no ability to save in-mission and, horrifyingly, no actual pause, which should be a criminal offense.
While the overall level design is quite excellent and varied, the maps too frequently have a horde of dead ends, nooks, crannies, and side passages begging the completionists among us to explore them. While these diversions from the main objective are usually filled with more monsters and, therefore more fun bashing mobs, there’s a lack of actual treasure hidden around that becomes noticeable the more you play.
Probably the biggest peeve beyond the lack of a pause for those playing with younger kids or just more casual gamers is the complete inability to share equipment. Chests spew out items that only one specific character can pick up, even if they have no need for it. Not being able to share in a Minecraft game feels counter to the whole point of Minecraft. You also have a limited number of shared lives during a mission, which seems like a step back.
Yet for all that, Minecraft Dungeons is still a riot, whether playing alone, with kids, or just your buds. Some of the levels are huge, and exploring every corner of their maps can take an hour. Others are shorter and more direct, but the game never feels boring, and the action never dumbed down. Later in the game, the levels can get hectically crowded and nearly overwhelming due to the number of mobs it throws at you.
It’s true that experienced players can certainly get through Dungeons in a day, but that takes away from the level of secrets the game holds. Just following the straight mission objective path means missing potential portals to secret levels, of which several have already been discovered and more are waiting to be. Plus, there are at least two DLC map packs on the way.
Then, there’s the camp. Camp is where players go between missions and seems like nothing more than a picturesque place to sort items, buy random things, and look at the world map. As the game progresses, however, the camp map begins to unlock more and more areas, and exploring it becomes an ongoing objective all on its own.
Minecraft Dungeons Review — The Bottom Line
- Great hacking and slashing, dungeon-crawling gameplay for everybody
- Four-player support on and off-line
- Large diverse levels and tons of items to discover
- Affordably priced
- Bland characters
- No pause, in-mission saves, or item sharing
- No camera controls
- Not enough hidden treasures in maps
Minecraft Dungeons certainly has its fair share of flaws and even outright bugs, but the more time spent with it, the more enjoyable it becomes. It’s hard to deny that it should have had more of its namesake’s crafting and building gameplay, but overall, this is an entertaining action game for all ages.
That it’s surprisingly cheap (the base version is $20, and $30 gets you future DLC and special items) is also a huge bonus.
[Note: A copy of Minecraft Dungeons was provided by Microsoft for the purpose of this review.]