Minecraft: Story Mode Episode 1 - Fluffy Good Fun
It's been only been three months since the first announcement, but the first episode of the great collaboration between Telltale Games and Mojang is now upon us. Minecraft: Story Mode - A Telltale Game Series is here!
When the news first broke, I'll admit, I didn't quite know what to expect from a story-driven Minecraft game. There was a lot going for it: A-list voice actors! Survival-adventure premise! Telltale! I was optimistic. I'd had reservations about the Telltale Borderlands game when that news first broke, but the game is very good, and my doubts proved to be unfounded. I was set to be pleasantly surprised about this game as well.
Still...making up a story for a game that was founded on essentially zero story certainly made it feel like both parties may be grasping at straws.
In some ways, I feel like this proved to be true.
Lighter in premise than The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, and more family-friendly than either Tales from the Borderlands or Game of Thrones, there are plenty of Minecraft-y references to keep any die-hard fan smiling through this good-natured, funny romp as our heroes join forces to save the world from oblivion.
Unfortunately, while story is the name of the game, Story Mode gives you only a sliver of backstory in the opening cinematic before launching pell-mell into the modern-day drama of nerdy protagonist Jesse (voiced flawlessly as a male by Patton Oswalt and a female by Catherine Taber), his group of friends, and his pet pig as they set out to win the EnderCon Building Tournament.
This would be just fine if we had any inkling, Minecraft veteren insider info or otherwise, about what exactly goes on in this world. How old are these people? What do they do? What kind of world is this? Are there twilight curfews and border patrols against monsters? Do people have parents or do they just pop out of the dirt like mushrooms?
(The answer to at least one of those questions is that they're 'youths' - but I know this because I read the press release discussed here. You're hard-pressed to find that out otherwise.)
Perhaps Telltale, so used to working with franchises rich with fully fleshed-out storylines and world details of their own, have gotten a little spoiled in this respect, because Minecraft doesn't provide any of that - it is an empty sandbox that was created to build your own world, completely and utterly. And it doesn't look like there was really time to do that in Episode One.
There's room to grow in the coming episodes, and plenty of world/story gaps that can be filled in in their own time, but for the moment, Story Mode features characters that, aside from Jesse, feel somewhat flat and two-dimensional.
And how does it look and feel?
Of course, the world itself certainly looks like Minecraft - houses, environments, objects, even the letters on the signposts are meticulously realized with instantly recognizable vanilla Minecraft textures. The character models have gotten a bit of an update - they conform for the most part to their blocky world, but with mouths and jaws that can open and close, and hair and accessories that jut out of the main skeleton. Close enough to pass muster, but more suited to cutscenes than their vanilla counterparts.
It's very easy to remember that you're not actually playing Minecraft, and infinitely harder to forget that you're playing a Telltale game.
And there are a lot of cutscenes.
In typical Telltale fashion, the game is littered with unskippable cutscenes and timed responses as the characters throw path-altering choices (some small, some life- and relationship-changing) at you almost willy-nilly, and your decision needs to be made in seconds.
These scenes are made very bearable by the excellent voice acting from all parties, even minor characters. This season features the voice work of Brian Posehn, Ashley Johnson, Scott Porter, Martha Plimpton, Dave Fennoy, Corey Feldman, Billy West, John Hodgman, and Paul Reubens (you can check out the launch trailer with actor interview snippets here).
Then there's the fact that Telltale happily throws in cheeky good fun and Minecraft references galore - shearing sheep, punching trees, and collecting sand blocks in a training/supply-gathering montage, collecting nine slime to craft a slime block just like you're supposed to, references to the building mechanics of the original game when you have to build a shelter.
(Unfortunately, you don't actually get to physically build and design anything yourself, all of it is handled by Telltale QTEs.)
...There's also Reuben, the pet pig who adds a personal touch to the training regime of his best buddy.
Telltale also appears to have learned from their Tales from the Borderlands experiences, because this game introduces the utterly innovative RUN MECHANIC. A run mechanic in a Telltale game! Unscripted! WASD-controlled!
It was so unexpected and so beautiful (and offered so casually, as a helpful little tooltip in the opening sequence when you first gain control of Jesse), I swear I shed a tear.
It doesn't seem like a big deal, but it ups the enjoyment and "video game feel" - some of which that's taken away when your innate curiosity about your surroundings moves you to root through nearby chests or check out posters and signs, and you're rewarded with micro-cutscenes instead of the simple open-close mechanics of the original game.
Word of warning: Those of you who are looking to check this game out should be willing to settle in for a little to keep on playing. You have quite a few cutscenes to get through before your closest auto-save point, and if you don't make it this far, you'll have to go through most of the unskippable cutscenes and dialogue options again.
Furthermore, in less-than-typical Telltale fashion, this game's auto-save feature does not work nearly as seamlessly as it has in other games of its type - the Cloud Save feature pops up in the mid-right of the screen during appropriate parts, but I found that, for me at least, a lot of the time it just doesn't manage to sync to the Cloud.
Furthermore when starting up the game again to continue, there is an unexpectedly long wait time to get through the menus - first to check for DLC, then to sync to the Cloud Server. No ALT+tabbing while this process happens, or else it will fail - you'll just have to sit tight for about 30 seconds to a minute to let it do its thing.
Thankfully the Cloud Server isn't exactly integral to playing this game - and you have the option of turning off the cloud save and using your local save file instead.
Should you buy it?
All said, there is a pretty compelling story introduced in Episode One that I'm very happy to see more of, and characters that I wouldn't mind knowing more about. Technical issues were surprising in such a well-worn format, but not enough to take away from the game experience. The voice actors are on point and are some of the top reasons why I find this game so charming - I am definitely looking forward to more adventures in the future.
I am pretty confident that it's only going to get better the further on we go. But as always with multi-part games, I suggest holding off until more's been released to get a good idea of what you're in for. What's better about this particular Telltale game is that I feel you don't necessarily need to have played a great deal of the original Minecraft to get any real enjoyment and understanding from the game, like you do in Game of Thrones or Tales from the Borderlands.
Episode 1: 'The Order of the Stone,' is the first of five episodes, and is available digitally on PC, Mac, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360 - as well as iOS and Android mobile systems as of yesterday. The game is also slated for release on Wii U and PlayStation Vita, but with no confirmed date. Check out your appropriate outlet via the Telltale Online Store.
(In the interests of full disclosure, a copy of this game was provided by Telltale for the purposes of this review.)