One question always seemed to surround Minecraft Dungeons: who was it for? Whilst we think of Minecraft as being popular with kids, in actuality the blocky sandbox’s millions of fans are both young and old. A dungeon crawler inspired the likes of Diablo, Torchlight and Gauntlet, might then resonate with the portion of Minecraft’s more nostalgic audience, but could it capture the magic of Minecraft and the same broad appeal?
To find out, I enlisted the help of my mum. Listeners to our podcast would know my mum is a keen gamer, and avid Minecraft fan, but beyond the occasional Legend of Zelda game, she doesn’t have a lot of experience with dungeon crawlers. I was curious to see what she would make of it and was eager for a co-op buddy. And I’m pleased to report, she loved it.
Playing through Minecraft Dungeon’s story isn’t a serious undertaking. The story itself is simple: an outcast finds the Orb of Dominance, granting them evil powers that they use to ‘dominate’ the Overworld and wreak havoc. After a brief tutorial, there are just nine main missions that make up the bulk of the game, with a brief preamble contextualising each level. We moved through it rather comfortably throughout the weekend, albeit with a few attempts at the final boss.
That of course, would suggest the game is neither that long nor that challenging, but… there is a but. Difficulty does ramp rather suddenly. Within the ‘Default’ mode, you’re given a spectrum of difficulty for each mission that’s influenced by your ‘Power’ level.
As you find progressively stronger, better weapons, armour and artifacts (which grant you special abilities), you’re ‘Power’ will increase and game difficulty with it. You’re typically given a band on the spectrum with which to slide the difficulty up and down, with options one above and below your ‘Power’ level. If you want to smash through it, you can drop it down, but if you’re keen to chase better loot, slide it up. Perhaps a comparison to Destiny’s ‘Light’ level mechanic is apt; there’s a recommended level to play each mission, with a caution to those that overextend themselves before putting in the time chasing higher level items.
And that’s just within the game’s ‘Default’ mode. Once you’ve beaten the game, the ‘Adventure’ mode opens up, that ups the ante even more. It’s now put to you to replay the game with the difficulty significantly increased, but the rewards are all the better. You’ll encounter new enemy variations, new gear and new artifacts.
Beat the game again, and you guessed it, ‘Apocalypse’ mode opens up for the ultimate challenges and rewards. The endgame is formidable, and the challenge renders it not for the faint of heart, but once you get a glimpse of the gear you can get, you’ll be tempted to persist. Whilst the first playthrough is pretty friendly for all, those that are looking for a challenge are sure to find it.
Seeing as there’s a repetitive element, a lot rides on the game design and combat, which works rather well given its simplicity. A swing of your sword, ace, dagger, whatever, is mapped to one face button, with the others assigned to your equipped artifact. You can shoot arrows using the trigger, which often works in combination with an artifact that imbues the arrows with particular element powers. You can roll with one on the bumpers and heal with the other.
To stay alive, you’ll need to make use of everything at your disposal. There’s no way you can hack ‘n’ slash your way through it, especially at harder difficulties. Remaining evasive and timing your attacks is critical. Often, you’ll need to slink away to heal back up, or hope you find a consumable right when you need it.
Progression, as I’ve already mentioned, is very much tied to your gear. To a certain extent, so are character classes. There’s no one mage class, solider or tank, but equip the right combination of gear and you can kind of emulate it. I was particularly fond of a mage-like setup using the game’s ‘Souls’ mechanic. Defeating enemies allows you to collect ‘Souls’ which would fill up a meter and allow you to use artifacts not reliant on a timed cooldown. The right sword, bow or cloak would allow you to collect ‘Souls’ faster and make more frequent use of your magic attacks.
The combat is simple and intuitive, but variation comes only through the gear you acquire and changeup. Whilst there are subtle differences between the swing and the area of effect between a hammer and a sword, for instance, I’d like to have seen more variety in melee attacks with some combos or the like. For instance, whilst you can charge a ranged attack, there’s nothing similar for a melee attack.
There’s plenty of variety in the levels, however. These core nine missions take place across varied, yet familiar Minecraft environments, often inspired by the various biomes you see in the original game. Moving from cave to castle, from desert temples to swamps, each level feels unique, and a little fresh every repeat run with levels somewhat randomly generated. The sufficient enemy variety too, with some classic Minecraft baddies, but some new scaries as well.
In typical dungeon crawling fashion as well, you’ll need to explore every nook and cranny. If you don’t find hidden chests, loot and mobs, helping you increase that level completion score, you might stumble across one of the game’s secret levels. You don’t just stumble across them either; we’re still to uncover a couple.
They’ve done a brilliant job in condensing and transposing Minecraft’s unique, very blocky art style into an isometric view. Everything feels familiar, down to the soundtrack and sound effects that must’ve been pulled straight from existing game files. However, it’s clear the team has had fun putting these levels together; little details make the world feel lived-in like you’ve joined someone’s expertly put-together server. The highest praise I can think to give comes courtesy of my Minecraft-obsessed mum, who was jotting down ideas for her own castle as we played.
If you couldn’t have guessed by this point, I’d argue this is a game best experienced with others. The couch co-op works well for the most part; you can drop in and out instantaneously at any moment and keep multiple characters saved to a profile. If you leave an ally downed for too long, ‘Night’ will fall guaranteeing an almost immediate death, ensuring you don’t go it alone to the annoyance of your co-op buddies. You can’t pause or access your inventory at the same time, which is a little frustrating, but it’s obviously designed with online multiplayer in mind.
My mum and I are likely to keep playing, however. Those high-level items are an attractive perspective and are keeping us motivated through the grind as we progressively increase our ‘Power’ level. Better yet, with two expansions already announced, and an island marked ‘coming soon’ on the map, there looks to be plenty more to enjoy.
THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Bar a rather unexciting story, a little lack of nuance in the combat and a couple of misgiving regarding couch co-op, there is a hell of a lot to love and enjoy about Minecraft Dungeons. Rather miraculously, it's managed to pull off being both a game for all types of Minecraft fans and those seeking a challenging dungeon crawler. At launch, it's a little concise sure, but chasing that new loot means I'm not done with it yet, and likely won't be for a while still.