A dungeon crawler might seem like an unexpected choice for a new game in the Minecraft franchise, but give it some lateral thought, and the concept actually makes a lot of sense. Mojang's talent for procedurally generated entertainment centred around co-op and creativity finds a happy home in the action RPG space, in fact, as playing Minecraft Dungeons quickly proves, albeit not without a few growing pains hindering the user experience at launch.
Fast facts: Minecraft Dungeons
Release date: May 26, 2020
Platform(s): Xbox One, PC
Developer: Mojang Studios
Boiled down to its rudiments, Minecraft Dungeons is made up of three things; fighting, collecting, and levelling. The 10-hour campaign whisks you and up to three other friends across a number of diverse levels filled to the bucket with enemies and loot, and it's your job to explore every nook and cranny, dispatching mobs via classic point-and-click combat embellished with plenty of Minecraft flavoured twists.
There's even a story to follow along with if you need some narrative context to all the hacking and slashing but, honestly, it's nothing to write home about. There's an evil king with a mystical orb of power who you need to take down… aaand that's about it. While I appreciate the production value boasted by Dungeons' handful of plot advancing cutscenes, it's a shame that Mojang doesn't make better use of Minecraft's expansive well of folklore for something a bit more fan servicing. No-one would have missed the simple story that's presented here instead, which feels like a wasted opportunity at best.
Thankfully, Minecraft's prosaic storytelling isn't much of an issue, because its key ingredients are compelling enough on their own terms. Mojang has taken a more inventive approach to the action RPG template, ditching traditional class-based roles for a system of player progression and customisation that's far more malleable, albeit at the expense of some depth. A character's role on the battlefield is instead determined by whatever armour, weapons, enchantments, potions, and ability-bestowing artefacts they might have equipped at the time, each carrying stat bonuses and special abilities that combine and react with each other like active elements in an alchemical cocktail. The results are ever-changing, always fun, often visually spectacular, and sometimes radically unbalanced, but never to the detriment of Dungeon's entertainment value.
Want to be a wizard-like healer that also just happens to wield a massive, electrified warhammer? You can do that. Found some agility-boosting Fox armour that meshes perfectly with your Elite Power Bow and Flaming Quiver? Become the volleying vulpes you always knew you were born to play. Minecraft Dungeons' refusal to abide by the compartmentalised rules of its forebears makes for an experience that gleefully embraces the volatility of experimentation, and it's all the better for it.
It helps, of course, that the moment to moment kinesthetics of Minecraft Dungeons' gameplay mechanics feel stellar to use. There's a general sense of rigour and fluidity underscoring combat, ensuring every swing of the blade and thrum of the bow is precise and satisfying in its feedback, all anchored by a silky smooth framerate, easy-to-use control scheme, and high threshold of technical polish that never once lets up.
Minecraft Dungeons looks and sounds the part, too, presenting itself as a natural extension of the Minecraft universe in a way that could only have been achieved by Mojang itself, which understands its megalithic IP better than anyone. Creepers self-combust, animals drop health-restoring meat, and lava pools bubble and fizz with menace, as the campaign's map of distinct levels mix familiar sights with dazzling new environments that expand upon the voxel universe you know and love. For Minecraft fans, then, Dungeons' top-down tour through the franchise's many biospheres of iconic sandbox scenery is a treat.
It's worth stressing, however, that Minecraft Dungeons has less meat on its bones than you might expect from a typical dungeon crawler. The full campaign can easily be completed within six hours, and while its New Game Plus modes and difficulty sliders ensure there's some replay value to be mined from that baseline of content, there's definitely a finite amount of entertainment on offer at launch. The game's reliance on procedural generation means that exploring hidden areas away from the critical path is often just as likely to lead to an empty dead end as it is treasure, for example, and that sense of limitation undermines more than just Dungeons' blocky topography.
Though there's much to love about Dungeons' looser, lighter approach to role-playing, it comes at a sacrifice to the more meaningful sense of progression otherwise derived from absent systems such as skill trees, class composition, and loot customisation. Outside of the levels themselves, you'll be able to purchase randomly generated loot from vendors at your home base, but that's about it, leaving the threshold for advanced character progression limited by Dungeons' focus on short-term improvisation. Those who enjoy the high-level tinkering and endgame meta the genre is known for may, therefore, find Minecraft Dungeons somewhat inadequate in the long run, though Mojang has promised to support the game with new content far beyond launch.
Built to last
As a more approachable entry point for the hack and slash genre that levels the playing field against its brawnier contemporaries, Minecraft Dungeons succeeds wholeheartedly, filling a gap in the market in a way that only a Mojang creation could. But those achievements aren't enough to avoid the sense of feeling a little shortchanged by Dungeons' light touch, with the base game only just meeting the bare minimum of what is typically expected from an action-RPG in terms of content, replay value, and player progression.
Even so, the block-based hacking and slashing is fun while it lasts, and no doubt addictive for some, with enough flair and polish to easily recommend it to any intrigued Minecraft player, and even those possessing no history with the franchise whatsoever. Just make sure you've brushed up on your Creeper lore before rushing headfirst into a pack of them, or you might regret the outcome.
Reviewed on PC using a game code provided by Microsoft.