Hands on with Minecraft Dungeons, Mojang's unexpected expansion of the Minecraft universe

(Image credit: Mojang)

After a point-and-click adventure game, alternate reality mobile app, line of officially licensed Lego sets, and (still in the works) feature film, the question has to be asked; where else is left for Minecraft to go? Mojang's answer in Minecraft Dungeons will surprise you, but spending a weekend with the series' latest spin-off proves to be more than enough to convince me that it's landed on another winning addition to the Minecraft universe, though one not without its fair share of growing pains. 

Let's address the elephant in the room: It's easy to take one look at Minecraft Dungeons and write it off as "My First Diablo". Indeed, there's certainly some truth to the reductive assumption that this is a child-friendly spin on the action-RPG without any of that genre's infamous bite. Combat is relatively straightforward and exceptionally streamlined, with a limited pool of keybound abilities that are a far cry from the myriad action tiles of Blizzard's seminal dungeon crawler. 

Minecraft Dungeons also adopts a more linear structure than you might assume it would, given its lineage, with a full campaign that players can follow by progressing through procedurally generated (but distinctly themed) levels clearly outlined by a Super Mario Bros' style overworld. As for loot and role-playing, you're able to enchant your equipment to unlock new abilities, but with only one armour and two weapon slots, and no classes, the threshold for tinkering and self-expression is deliberately stunted. 

A worthy build 

(Image credit: Mojang)

If it sounds like I'm being nitpicky, I'm only trying to stress the type of audience that this game is primarily geared towards. It's exactly the sort of thing I can imagine being obsessed with ten years ago, and I can already envisage hordes of children playing the crap out of this thing when it launches on May 26. Indeed, given the present state of affairs, Minecraft Dungeons could be a godsend for parents looking for some much needed 'me' time after weeks of trying to keep their kids entertained indoors. 

For one thing, there's no mistaking that Dungeons is a Minecraft game through and through. Never a studio to build things by halves, Mojang's work in making this spin-off look and feel like an authentic extension of the Minecraft universe does most of the heavy lifting as the initial draw here. From the unmistakable vistas of its cuboidal mountain ranges right down to the delightful soundtrack, whose new twists on classic themes could easily fit as additional earworms for Minecraft's original score.

Similarly, Mojang has been careful to maintain classic gameplay elements of Minecraft and reintroduce them into Dungeons with an action-RPG twist. Artefacts, equippable items which make up the majority of your active ability slots, include an impressive selection of familiar Minecraft tools, right down to the humble fishing rod, used to draw enemies in and stun them for a killing blow. TNT crates, meanwhile, can be discovered, collected, and thrown into mobs like ticking time bombs with huge area-of-effect potential, and you can even deploy a Tasty Bone to summon a wolf companion to fight by your side, just like in Mojang's iconic sandbox.

(Image credit: Mojang)

"There's no mistaking that Dungeons is a Minecraft game through and through."

It's a shame, then, that building holds no determinable presence in Dungeons, especially as creativity remains the core of Minecraft's DNA, and Fortnite has now proven just how effectively a building system can liven up traditional combat. 

Still, it's a minor complaint for a fastidiously polished experience that feels breezy, comforting, and thus distinctly Minecraft, even without the ability to piece together on-the-fly defenses, brick by brick. On the subject of structure, it's worth highlighting that there's also an element of randomness that pervades the entirety of Minecraft Dungeons, from the ability to trade Emeralds for randomised loot from vendors in your hub world, to the addition of what appear to be loot boxes that can be opened for treasure at the end of most levels. 

Mojang has promised the game won't contain any microtransactions, so here's hoping these... *ahem* "surprise mechanics" are merely in place to keep the loot pool feeling fresh and competitive, rather than the foundation for future monetization practices. 

Hack, slash, fish

(Image credit: Mojang)

Minecraft Dungeons supports up to four players in a single session, both locally and online, and – even running through the beta with just one another friend  – it's clear that this is an experience that's better together. Indeed, with full support for both controller or mouse and keyboard, a range of accessibility options alongside crossplay and PC specs that deliberately keep the technical barrier low, Mojang's efforts to open up Minecraft Dungeons' gates to all should be commended. 

Even after just the small taste provided by its closed beta, it's obvious that Minecraft Dungeons is no quick cash in, nor is it the Diablo-lite clone that early detractions would have you believe. To be clear, you can tell Mojang wants this to be a game for its core Minecraft audience above all else, but Dungeon's high production quality, broad appeal, and authentic charm could win over any Minecraft fan, old or young, lapsed or addicted. If you're looking for something to pass the time over what could be a very insulated summer season, Dungeons could very well be your new favourite hobby. 

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Alex Avard

I'm GamesRadar's Features Writer, which makes me responsible for gracing the internet with as many of my words as possible, including reviews, previews, interviews, and more. Lucky internet!