As well as granting us with a slew of remasters and remakes, 2020 also appears to be the year where established franchises have decided to change tack and move to a top-down perspective. First there was Darksiders Genesis’s release on home consoles. Then Gears Tactics on PC. And now you have Minecraft Dungeons for PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch, which aims to make the dungeon crawling genre more palatable for a younger audience using those familiar blocky visuals. The result is a simple but satisfying take on the reliable Diablo formula, slotting into the Minecraft universe neatly with fun upgrading mechanics and lots of replayability.
One of the most surprising things about Minecraft Dungeons is its dedication to an actual story. Though not necessarily something fans of the series have cared about up until now, here it centres on all-round evil dude the arch-illager, who one day enslaves mobs of people to wreak havoc in the land after being bullied and exiled for looking different. It’s your fairly standard ho-hum fantasy fare, sure, but is a good enough cause to have you and a team of up to three others embark on an epic hack-and-slash quest to stop him.
Doing so involves fighting your way through endless waves of enemies and navigating various differently themed levels, which generally do a great job at feeling distinct from one another. The Creepy Crypt, for instance, is an early stage that is as gloomy as you’d expect, full of creepers and other nightmare creatures for you to slay. It’s all painted in Minecraft’s trademark family-friendly brush, of course, but it’s still nice to see that it wasn’t simply Diablo’s gameplay that served as an influence on the development team.
Unlike that series, however, with Minecraft Dungeons Mojang has decided to ditch the importance of specific character classes. Instead you’ll begin your adventure by selecting a silent hero from a roster of pre-determined looks (don’t worry Steve is one of them), with all of the game’s customisability being tied to level upgrades and specific items you’ll find in the world known as artefacts. Once collected, these gizmos bestow your character with all manner of special abilities. It might be a fishing rod that lets you pull elusive enemies closer to you or a set of boots the provides a slight burst of speed for whenever you’re backed into a corner.
Such randomness helps offset the combat from ever becoming too stale, as do the multiple upgrade paths tied to major items in your inventory like armour, melee and ranged weapons. You see, every time you level up you’ll be awarded with an enchantment ready to be slotted into any one of these, but each item has up to three distinct paths that each cater to a different style of play. Want to focus on health replenishment upon taking damage? You can do it. Like tackling enemies as a warrior and want a 3% chance of a lightning strike upon every hit? Go for it. Minecraft Dungeons might not feature procedural levels, but it’s easy enough to work to your preferred character build.
The levels themselves offer up a lot of variety, as mentioned, but some players might be disheartened to learn that the campaign is rather short in length. From beginning to end we were done with Minecraft Dungeons in just a little under six hours playing primarily solo. However, replayability does rear its head in the form of a New Game Plus mode, as well as difficulty sliders that are specific to each level and makes going back in to hunt a specific artefact you missed the first time around fairly easy.
While mining and crafting are never explicitly required throughout much of this top-down spin-off, the series’ staple exploration is back in full force. This is because, while levels play out linearly for the most part, bringing up the in-game wireframe map can reveal hidden nooks and mini dungeons that will often lead to alternative routes or an elusive new artefact. It’s in side activities like these where difficulty can take a sharp jump, with enemies tending to swarm you to keep the pressure on. Use your character build’s abilities appropriately, though, and it’s worth pushing through.
It’s a shame that Minecraft Dungeons couldn’t find a different way to challenge you outside of shoving more creepers on the screen. Especially since when playing solo, tactics like this can feel a bit cheap and overwhelming. As is the game’s nature to cover your character with certain elements of the environment. It’s not uncommon to pass under ravines or ridges to temporarily lose sight of your character. And yes, while you technically can still see through them, being a shadow doesn’t help much when being swamped by bow-wielding skeletons. Instances like this do happen, but luckily not very often.
Minecraft Dungeons doesn’t outright rewrite the dungeon crawling or action-RPG rulebook; rather serving as a more entry-level take on the genre that should appeal to both kids and kids at heart. There’s always risk when adapting a pre-existing franchise into a new format, yet now for the third time this year has it – for the most part – been pulled off with flying colours. Avid Minecraft fans are sure to get more from it thanks to plenty of littered-in references, but as a new interpretation of this block-based universe Minecraft Dungeons is a delightful co-op romp. It doesn’t outstay its welcome and is charming throughout.