Review | Minecraft Dungeons
Minecraft is more than a game, perhaps even more than a phenomenon: it’s an ecosystem. There’s been entire concerts in Minecraft. Even an entire data library of banned journalism stored in a Minecraft mod. It’s been a space of amazing creativity and learning for millions. It’s no surprise then, that many people are impatiently waiting for another game in the franchise: Minecraft Dungeons. This new game isn’t about building, though: it’s about looting. This new entry feels more like Diablo than Minecraft though, giving up to four players a chance to battle mobs, slay bosses, and grab gear. In that spirit, Minecraft Dungeons makes an accessible, fun dungeon-crawler for the young and for Minecraft fans, but bugs and a rough loot table keep it from what it could be.
In Minecraft Dungeons, your hero is fighting against the forces of the Arch-Illager. After being kicked out and wandering the wilderness, the Arch-Illager finds a magical orb that gives him massive power (think Lord of the Rings’ One Ring), and he looks to destroy the world that cast him out. You’ll venture through one of the game’s nine stages at launch, fighting with melee weapons, arrows, and artifacts.
Minecraft Dungeons streamlines many dungeon-crawler systems, making the game easy to hop in and play. There’s no class system, so any character can use any item they find. Customizing your build is all about the items you have equipped: each has a single power rating for easy comparison. Weapon types have varying speeds, splash damage, etc., so you can choose what fits your play style. You can also equip three artifacts, each of which having varying effects. Some heal, some are defensive and stun enemies, some deal damage. Others work based on a cooldown, while some are powered by souls: a gauge that refills a bit for each enemy you kill. There’s no limit to what kind you can equip, so you can make a build that’s hyper-aggressive or really defensive. This probably really shines when playing multiplayer, though I was only able to play solo for this review.
Perhaps Minecraft Dungeons’ best tweak is the enchantment system: randomized perks attached to each weapon. A weapon may gain have up to three enchantment slots, and up to three choices for each slot. You can only choose one enchantment per slot, which can make for some tough decision-making. Common enchantments can add elemental damage, increase attack speed and so forth, while “powerful” enchantments can do things like issue pulse waves that slow enemies. Thankfully, you can get enchantment points back by breaking down weapons, making it easy to make newer, stronger loot battle-ready at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, finding good loot will sometimes prove far harder than feels good.
One of Minecraft Dungeons’ big marketing points is procedural generation, which means the levels are different every time you play. This could be exciting to people coming from games like Path of Exile or Diablo III; even though the enemies may change with each difficulty, the maps stay the same. Procedural generation means you never know what’s around a corner, or what’s potentially at the end of a forking path. More often than not though, there’s nothing at the end of that path. Literally nothing, a dead end, or maybe a treasure chest with a few emeralds in it. This brings us to my biggest issue with Dungeons: the loot table.
Every loot-based game from Diablo to Destiny struggles with its loot table. Loot is essentially a payout from the game’s slot machine: if the wins are too big too often, the game feels cheap and bland. But loot-based games are about a balance between time spent, challenge difficulty, and reward…and Dungeons too often made me feel cheated. I consistently played the game a couple difficulty levels above recommended, which seems to increase both the difficulty of combat as well as the complexity of the map. So many times I would venture off of the main path, fight through a good 5+ minutes of enemies, sometimes even a miniboss, and then find literally a dead end.
Winning against difficult minibosses feels like a victory, particularly Redstone Golems and the franchise-familiar Endermen. Often though, the rewards usually didn’t feel to scale. Most often I’d get instant-use consumables, like a Shadow Brew: a few seconds of invisibility, with increased damage to the first attack target. A cool buff, but useless when you have to walk more than ten seconds to get back to another mob. They also usually drop emeralds, which you can spend between missions for loot boxes. I usually didn’t find much in a loot box that was better than what I found mid-mission, regardless of how infrequently I actually found weapons. The few Unique-level weapons I’ve found in 12+ hours of play I’ve enjoyed, but I usually replace them quickly with stronger, yet more common gear. The nature of the grind, I suppose.
Maybe this is a symptom of a work in progress, especially judging from some of the bugs I encountered. Particularly in Minecraft Dungeons’ last two stages, I’d sometimes sink through the floor, fall to the bottom of the stage and just wait there. Once, even an enemy fell off the stage and sat motionless with half its health. These bugs can go from frustrating to game-breaking when you’re locked from progressing forward until you defeat all enemies and there’s a mob stuck underneath the floor. I also experienced some significant frame drops in rooms with fires/particle effects, even playing on standard quality with a pretty powerful PC. Still, the game is new, and hopefully some of these issues will be fixed with day one patches. That’s how I feel about most all the problems I’ve encountered with Minecraft Dungeons, really.
I beat Dungeons’ base campaign in ~7 hours, which is clearly by design. They have both New Game+ and New Game++ (Adventure and Apocalypse Mode, respectively) with better loot and stronger monsters. I’ve spent another 4+ hours in Adventure Mode, and though the combat’s harder, I haven’t gotten that “OH THAT’S AMAZING” feeling like when I first got a polearm in Diablo III in New Game+ that summoned ghost minotaurs to fight for me. I imagine that the people most excited by Dungeons will be franchise devotees, the ones who will know the sound of a Creeper from a mile away, who will get a special kick out of the screen fuzziness before an Enderman appears.
Even then though, I wonder how much devotion Dungeons will get out of people with a passion for Minecraft proper. Even as someone who doesn’t play Minecraft, I kept wishing I could change the terrain. Wishing that I could build structures in my base, or feel like I had more impact in this world. That seems like such a big part of the Minecraft universe; without it, it feels more like a Minecraft skin layered on top of another, more generic dungeon-crawler.
Even with these issues though, I enjoy Minecraft Dungeons. I’ll likely put more time in with it between playing heavier, story-based titles, but I’m compelled by its gameplay. The combat is fun and light, and perhaps the Apocalypse Mode will carry more of the awesome loot I seek. Also, at a $20 price point, it has plenty of action for the entry cost. Maybe its biggest competitor is still Minecraft itself: a world with infinite customization options and mods. But maybe Minecraft Dungeons will be a gateway for people who feel overwhelmed by Minecraft at first glance… a chance to defeat the Arch-Illager and save the world from evil while taking in just a taste of what the blocky world has to offer.
Final Score: 7.5 out of 10
Editor’s Note: GotGame was provided a copy of Minecraft Dungeons for review from Microsoft.