To this day, Minecraft is a behemoth. Released on about a dozen different platforms, having spawned multiple spin-offs, selling an obscene amount of merchandising and still persisting as a massively streamed game, this creative title just never stops becoming relevant. Even when Fortnite took all mainstream media’s attention, Minecraft still had even bigger numbers. Last we’ve heard was September 2019, when Mojang announced they had a whopping 112 million users per month. It is therefore no surprise that the studio has scrapped most other projects unrelated to this IP, to focus instead on expanding the core game with updates and DLCs, on top of further strategies to expand the brand towards other genres.
The recently launched Pokémon GO!-like AR game Minecraft Earth is one huge step in that direction, but there’s also a smaller, yet no-less exciting project that’s about to hit most platforms, most interestingly for us including Xbox One, launching day one on Game Pass and Game Pass Ultimate no less. We’re talking about the top-down action RPG Minecraft Dungeons, a sort of Diablo-lite set in the blocky realms of this iconic franchise. We had the chance to try out the PC beta before the game’s release next month, here’s what we think about it!
Put it in the block
The game immediately provides a fairly generic storyline in which a shy and mistreated villager turns into an ‘Illager’ thanks to the powers of a mysterious cube, which allows him to build what is essentially a dictatorship of sorts, eliminating and conquering everything that crosses his path. Can’t say it’s a unique premise, but it’s delivered very well thanks to well-crafted and atmospheric cut-scenes, delivered by a female narrator putting a lot of emphasis on the events on top of epic symphonic music. And this excellent presentation translates to the actual gameplay as well; as soon as we get to control the character (whose look we could choose from a series of Minecraft player skin presets), it becomes clear that we’re talking about a highly polished, stylish and recognizeable product, despite being set in the world of an existing IP. Brilliantly crafted ambient sounds, beautiful light effects and filters that make the retro blocky style of the game feel modern and exciting, and most importantly a gameplay loop that simply feels right to play from the very first second.
As mentioned before, a good basis for comparison can be Diablo 3. If the player chooses to use keyboard and mouse, it’s about what anybody can expect from an ARPG of this style: click around with the left mouse button to move, use a variety of attacks and spells with the other mouse button, clicking on the HUD or by using keybinds, alternating health potions and looking at ability cooldowns in the process. Similarly on console, it’s once again the gamepad version of Blizzard’s game that the developers seem to have taken as a canvas, with the left stick handling the 360 degrees movement of the main character, the right reserved to the dodges, and the rest of the buttons handling the various attacks and abilities. These are mainly divided in 3 categories: a melee attack for close quarters combat, arrows that can be shot from high distances, and a series of special abilities like explosive attacks, short bursts of speed, and so on.
Despite completely revolutionizing the core gameplay compared to Minecaft, what impresses the most is how naturally they translated the game’s iconic imagery into an action RPG. Swords, axes, pickaxes, bows have all turned into effective weapons, as there’s no longer hunting for materials, blocks or terraforming in any way. Chests are now found around the maps and contain treasures. Food is now used as a means to get health back, or alternatively some extra perk like increased speed or cooldown recovery rate. TNT is now an item that can be picked up and thrown at enemies for a massive splash damage that can take out multiple dangers at once. Other than that, the imagery is exactly what we’d expect from Minecraft: villages on green hills full of wooden houses, dark dungeons made out of stone and minerals, dense forests. The enemies also share looks and functions of most equivalents in the original Minecraft: spiders shooting webs, creepers self-destructing, and so on. Even peaceful animals like cows and pigs can be found roaming the map, and they can be murdered for a chance to get some money or health. How cruel.
As with most role-playing games, the emphasis is on evolving your main character, who will level up as the experience obtained by completing quests and killing monsters is gained. Stronger and stronger variations of items and spells can be found. In the case of items, which are divided between the armor, the melee weapon and the bow, they can even be enchanted up to 3 times, donating special powers to them in the process like increased loot finding chances or increased healing abilities. The game does a great job in allowing the players to experiment though, as every enchantment that is applied to an item can be freely revoked when the item is substituted for a better object.
The game has nowhere near the item variety or skill variety of something like Diablo 3, but then again we’re talking about a small action RPG project, working as a 19.99 USD/EUR spin-off to a similarly priced indie game. In the 4 levels of the beta, the variety wasn’t particularly stunning, but there’s a compelling gameplay formula, one that can also be played cooperatively both online and offline. There’s even a convenient hub where players can customize and upgrade their gear without the pressure of enemies looming. All in all, we expected a stylish Minecraft spin-off, a Diablo-lite like mentioned. It certainly is that, but there’s an unsuspected amount of unique style elements, a very compelling gameplay loop, and tons of multiplayer options for long-term engagement.
We believe Microsoft and Mojang have an intriguing, potentially very successful game in their hands, and we’re excited to continue our journey on May 26th, when the game is released on Xbox One and PC, available day one on Game Pass and Game Pass Ultimate alike.