Developer: Mojang, Double Eleven
Platform: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch
Release Date: May 26, 2020
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
Links: Amazon | Official website | Nintendo eShop | Windows 7/8/10 version | PS4
When Microsoft acquired the game studio Mojang in 2014 for a whopping $2.5 billion, fans of its biggest series, Minecraft, immediately wondered what would happen next. Would this be the end of Minecraft on rival platforms like PlayStation? Was the Java version toast? Would we have to suffer through some ill-fitting abomination like Minecraft: Kinect Dance Party?
Turns out, Microsoft has largely been a solid shepherd for the blocky series. The traditional Minecraft game continues receiving regular free updates across every platform imaginable, and its cross-platform builds sit alongside the original Java incarnation. Also, we didn’t wind up with a bunch of annoying spin-off games; so far, there has just been a well-reviewed Telltale adventure and a decent Pokemon Go clone.
Microsoft and Mojang’s combined ambitions grow this week with Minecraft Dungeons, the first series spin-off to germinate from within Mojang’s offices. At E3 2019, the studio admitted to having run a skunkworks division for some time, focused on finding the right game concept for its mega-hit universe. Its first spinoff salvo comes in the form of a family-friendly action-RPG.
Should you get caught up in the game’s apparent sales pitch—a dungeon crawler in the shadow of titans like Diablo III and Path of Exile—you’ll arrive at Minecraft Dungeons a little disappointed. Yet what’s interesting here is that Mojang’s design decisions, which revolve around adapting the genre to something that thematically fits the series’ universe, totally worked. This is a unique offering for the well-trodden genre, which is a remarkable feat. And while it lacks the “endgame” punch of its inspirations, Minecraft Dungeons is easier to sell when described as follows: a beefier, more addictive take on the LEGO action series.
To arms! As in, blocky, stubby arms
The plot keeps things simple. A new villain called the “Arch-Illager” (pronounced like “villager” but without the “V,” so, like, it’s ill, and not in a Beastie Boys way) is spawning an unprecedented number of “mobs” (the series’ monsters) and needs to be stopped. While vanilla Minecraft includes plenty of combat options, this scourge is too great both in power and in numbers for that moveset to suffice.
Hence, the blocky heroes of Minecraft Dungeons look familiar—complete with default characters Steve and Alex as options—but their new controls shamelessly pilfer from the Diablo archetype. Action is viewed from a top-down, isometric camera angle, and heroes have a mix of melee and ranged attacks, along with explosive spells, helpful pets, dodge-roll maneuvers, and a full-body equipment menu to click through. (All platforms support gamepad control, while many also let you swap in a mouse and keyboard.)
Continuing the Diablo theme: every level is randomly generated according to a theme (swamp, castle, dungeon, etc), with pre-made chunks fitting together to build your above-ground and underground journeys. They’re pretty much all action-oriented. Some of these pieces include requirements like “free five villagers from cages” or “get a key” to advance, but these are designed to direct your heroes into combat, not to strain your brain.
Up to four heroes can play in co-op, either on the same screen or connected online. Unfortunately, as of launch, cross-play is not enabled—apparently not even between players on Xbox One consoles and Windows 10, which is a break from Microsoft’s usual Xbox Play Anywhere pledge.
Make your own hero
MD‘s first major differentiation comes from its lack of discrete classes. Mojang’s developers explained during a pre-release press event that they wanted to let players “build” their play experience the way they might custom-build a traditional Minecraft instance, and that means your playstyle revolves entirely around your inventory.
Every character gets six inventory slots: one melee weapon, one bow-and-arrow, one suit of armor, and three “artifacts,” which I prefer to call “abilities,” because that’s what they are. These are the kinds of skills you’d expect from, say, a Diablo skill tree for a particular class. Unlike Diablo, MD lets you mix and match whichever ones you want. Maybe you want to have one tanky ability (a grappling hook that grabs and pulls baddies toward you and away from friends), one ranger ability (super-charged fireballs), and one necromancer ability (conjure a battle llama that spits at your foes). Find the respective items for each ability, then place them into your three slots. Most revolve around a cooldown timer instead of something like a “mana bar.”
Weapons and armor come with their own built-in stat bonuses, and these favor particular play styles, whether by strengthening armor, making your arrows stronger, or shrinking your cooldown timers. On top of those, there’s also a new “enchantment” system. Pick up a new piece of armor, and you’ll see a little diamond in your menu with three options for perks. As an example of a possible trio, one randomly generates poisonous clouds; one generates lightning damage to nearby enemies whenever you dodge-roll; and one adds a straight damage bonus to your every attack. All three of those sound nice.
The catch is, once you pick one of those three, the other two vanish. Enchantments always work this way, where a new melee weapon, bow, or piece of armor will make you whittle down possible perks. You’re also spending a limited supply of enchantment points on all three equippable gear types, which further adds to your decision-making matrix. And you’ll do this a lot: Whenever you equip a new piece of gear, you can recover your old enchantment points by “scrapping” the older stuff (which you’ll likely want to do, since this is a loot-driven game, and there’s often better loot around the corner). This is how I learned I didn’t actually like the game’s electric-dodge-roll perk: I spent points on that with an early piece of armor, found I didn’t care for it, and opted to not choose it on future equippable items.
Rolling with the random-loot punches
In the game’s early stages, cycling through all six equipment slots and finding a preferred play style felt organic and fun. New weapon types typically emerged with a clear numerical lead over whatever I had equipped, so I’d switch from a massive, slow hammer to a frenzied, short-distance dagger and benefit, even if this meant retooling my general combat strategies.
Ars Technica was only able to test the game fully on Windows 10 ahead of launch, which ran smoothly on a variety of PCs. The Xbox One version didn’t unlock until later, and while it ran smoothly on Xbox One X, at a full 60 frames per second, it came with a huge problem: a lack of cross-save functionality between Windows 10 and Xbox One. This is the first time we’ve run into this issue since the major Xbox Play Anywhere initiative launched years ago, and it’s unclear whether this will be resolved. If you’re a fan of swapping your save file between a PC and a console, be warned.
Update: Shortly after this article’s publication, we received review code for the Nintendo Switch version. As of launch, this port locks to a mostly stable 30fps refresh… so long as you play in portable mode. Connect this version to the Switch dock, on the other hand, and its near-1080p resolution gameplay stutters on a painfully regular basis, to a point where I would not recommend this version for couch co-op until it’s resolved. In either Switch playstyle, pre-recorded videos also play back with a painful amount of stutter.
The same goes for every other equippable element, and that quality multiplied when I had a co-op playmate by my side and bouncing off their new-loot acquisitions. At first, we were annoyed by a strict game limitation: no sharing of loot. Anything your character picks up is only for you, not to be traded or swapped. Uh, what? I thought we could build our characters however we wanted, Mojang! But as we dug further into the game, and our loot’s numerical jumps began to plateau, this rolling-with-the-punches loot mentality evolved. My co-op partner at one point got tired of her archetype and changed her loadout, which meant she would no longer serve as the party’s healer. “Oh, I’ve been holding onto a healing item,” I replied, and after equipping it, I swapped a bunch of other elements to go full ranged-mage while my cohort transformed into a damage-eating tank.
Compared to the genre’s stalwarts, MD is less about settling into a prescribed role and more about rolling with the random-loot punches, and for some players, the results may feel more fun and loose. For others, the fact that your existing loot cannot be numerically boosted a la Destiny could prove frustrating. You may have to give up on a particular hero archetype when the game’s incredibly random reward system denies you the high-valued gear you’ve been dreaming of.
One thing in MD‘s favor is how solid each weapon and item type feel. Some shine more when they’re matched with a perfect set of appropriate gear; the aforementioned grappling hook sucks if you’re not otherwise built to wipe out waves of melee foes, for example. But for the most part, melee, ranged, and magical attacks all feel fun to mash over and over and over (which matters in the repetitive, do-it-again genre of a procedurally generated dungeon crawler), and the enchantment system makes it easy to drizzle ridiculous bonus abilities on top. Want a crossbow that regularly shoots five bolts, which then explode in both burning flames and poisonous clouds? Make it happen, then watch those little damage-indicator numbers pile up on your foes as they melt away.
The “okay, folks, let’s get serious” switch
While the game’s opening trio of levels are a snoozer to play through—both in your first run-through and in subsequent higher-difficulty runs—the rest are full of life. A mix of familiar Minecraft foes and brand-new monsters fit together in satisfying action-RPG fashion to overwhelm players and force them to be mindful of their combined strategies. Careful juggling of splash-damage abilities, temporary invulnerability boosts, and other super-powered perks will be necessary once mobs start coming together in brutally choreographed waves.
What’s more, the levels themselves factor into where and how you can move, and the best ones include wacky, Minecraft-appropriate tweaks you might never see in Diablo. A castle level includes bouncy pads that launch you (and your foes) from tower to tower, which melee and ranged battlers alike can capitalize on. In a lava refinery, certain relics can be triggered to send out massive straight lines of laser damage, which are great to activate—so long as you don’t accidentally walk into their line of fire. I do wish MD delivered more of these wacky moments, because they powered some of my most memorable fights, but they only emerged roughly 10 percent of the time.
The game’s first “campaign” playthrough is paced with a nimble difficulty ramp-up, the kind that will let any age group and proficiency get the hang of the game’s mechanics and customization paths. After that, your future game runs are largely the same in terms of level generation… just with crazier waves of enemies to contend with. Once MD flips the “okay, folks, let’s get serious” switch, it’s at a point where nobody in a campaign should consider themselves a “casual” player. And for those players, MD‘s harder-challenge zones start slapping special enchantments on more of the bad guys you face. In practice, MD’s enchantment variety is solid enough, in terms of making the game’s finite enemy variety comparable to other “endless” dungeon crawl options.
But at least in my experience, “endgame” loot gathering was a slow crawl. I found myself beating level after level in increased difficulties, only to emerge from each with a bunch of low-powered loot and far fewer “exotic” drops than even the default campaign served. Hopefully, this is an issue with pre-release tuning, because when the game gives you enticing reasons to switch from one class to another, and to go to crazy-customization town in your new form, the results are a blast.
Blocks vs. bricks
I know, I mentioned “LEGO action games” at the top and haven’t spoken about that. It’s a loose comparison, but stick with me.
I like playing LEGO games with family members on occasion. The games are mindless, they’re satisfying, and they have good audio and visual feedback for laying waste to all kinds of bad guys. On a base level, Minecraft Dungeons nails this quality for the most part, because the sensation of default, button-mashing combat is identical.
In bad news, Minecraft Dungeons does not let you smash walls, punch trees, or otherwise deform the environment, which a LEGO comparison might lead you to believe. I understand why Mojang went this route: its randomly generated levels have to guide you into combat in a clear, fun way, and smashing or digging through terrain would make this style of game a mess. (If the LEGO series served wholly randomized levels and deformable terrain, I might throw a bigger fit, but their pre-set worlds make it easier for them to sneak block-busting moments in.)
But in great news, where LEGO games run out of steam pretty quickly (even unlocking new hidden characters doesn’t really change your tactics), Minecraft Dungeons does a wonderful job incentivizing experimentation without making it difficult to figure out. Get new item. Equip new item. See how new item makes you stronger, more explosive, or just plain weirder. Kill mobs. Repeat.
Thus, with a $20 price netting you a 7-hour base campaign, plus a deeper dive into harder difficulties, Minecraft Dungeons is a no-brainer recommendation for a simple-yet-nuanced co-op game. (It’s also, wouldn’t you know it, an Xbox Game Pass freebie.) Limit your expectations to the $20 level—with no microtransactions beyond a $10 DLC bundle for new future levels—and you’ll come away with a surprise hit, whether you’re soloing, playing with kids, or forming a dead-serious four-player clan.
- Satisfying combat, as driven by solid controls and a satisfying audio-visual pop.
- Make-your-own-class system keeps players bouncing between playstyles through the game’s campaign.
- Wackier levels deliver the kinds of memorable, environment-driven moments you won’t find in Diablo.
- As of press time, the loot system needs tuning to keep endgame content more exciting.
- If you’re the kind to get attached to a single class and stick to it, Mojang doesn’t give you a lot to work with.
- Glitches during the pre-launch period caused our heroes to randomly die during critical battles. Fingers crossed this’ll be patched.
- As of press time, Mojang makes M+KB players on PC jump through hoops to add a single gamepad for local co-op, which is just plain silly.
- At launch, the Switch port’s docked performance has too many stutters and is not recommended.
Verdict: It’s priced right for a clever, family-friendly alternative to Diablo. If you’re looking for a new co-op game, buy.