Minecraft Dungeons Review: Good, but Better Elsewhere
It’s hard not to be cynical when one of the biggest franchises in the world wanders into the territory of other successful games. If something new is added, it’s generally accepted as a worthy entry, rather than a product designed with profit in mind. When Gears of War recently entered the squad based tactics arena, following the trail blazed by the brilliant XCOM, it was clear that large amounts of care and attention was applied throughout development. It threw away the complex base building and focussed on a more action orientated experience. Gears Tactics was a success, although it’s streamlined approach never quite reached the heights of the games it was trying to emulate.
Minecraft Dungeons, the first entry in the looter/dungeon crawler genre for the monolithic Minecraft series, uses a similar strategy to Gears of War. It carefully handpicks elements from successful looters like Diablo 3 and Destiny 2, but leaves behind many of the complex systems that make this genre great. And while I believe Minecraft Dungeons was designed with good intentions at heart, like Tactics it never quite exceeds the great games which came before.
Minecraft Dungeons Review
- Developer: Mojang, Double Eleven
- Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
- Available: Xbox One, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows
- Played On: Xbox One
One Illager to rule them all
Like most looters, the story of Minecraft Dungeons is extremely simplistic. It taps into the themes from The Lord of The Rings as an enemy, known as the Arch-Illager, has discovered a “One Ring”-type weapon. After selecting your hero, all of which are basically identical as there are no classes, you’ll start the game. Either alone or with three friends you’ll fight through levels, defeat enemies and earn loot. After finishing the story, you unlock the next tier of difficulty, with three tiers in total. The higher you go, the better the loot and with it the addictive cycle of the looter genre begins.
There are 9 unique locations to playthrough, most of which look like they’ve been plucked straight from the pages of the fantasy genre manual. An autumnal pasture with abandoned village huts, Witches in a swamp, a mine and the Arch-Illlagers fortress for the games final act. Although somewhat generic, each location is a joy to explore due to their varied premise and polished presentation. Some pop with colour while rich glows illuminate darker areas, like lava in the Fiery Forge map for example. I also loved how most maps had interesting mechanics or vertical exploration. It was a nice change of pace solving puzzles in the Tomb Raider-esque “Lost Temple”, and exploring at height created strategic opportunities to ambush my enemies. The topography also made exploring in Minecraft Dungeons especially refreshing as most dungeon crawlers have maps that are particularly flat.
When exploring, your efforts are always rewarded. There are enemies hidden away, secret chests to loot and a handful of optional dungeons to delve into. It’s all standard for dungeon crawlers, but it highlights a team of developers who understand the genre. Although you’ve likely seen most of this before, Minecraft Dungeons adds something new through unlockable levels. Occasionally, if you clear an optional dungeon, a bonus level unlocks on the world map, like “The Creepy Crypts”. I was genuinely in awe when exploring here. It was a mammoth space with huge crypts to crawl through and dense woods to explore when you emerged on the other side. It took me over an hour to complete as I explored its labyrinthian corridors looking for precious loot. Oddly though, you can’t pause the game at any point. (People with small bladders enter the Creepy Crypts at your own risk).
I had the most fun in Minecraft Dungeons when exploring theese bonus levels. I just wish there were more of them. These types of bonus levels would make a compelling, and much needed, end game. At the moment all the replayability comes from playing through the story at increasingly higher difficulties and unlocking bonus levels afterwards using secret runes. I was already getting tired half way through my second playthrough, as it’s the same objective every single time. (Even with procedurally generated maps). Unfortunately I had no interest in finishing the final difficulty and the lure of the last bonus level was utterly ineffective. Admittedly, this is a small £15 game, but there are many small games with greater replayability. (The £25 Deep Rock Galactic, for example). After one, or two playthroughs, you won’t be rushing back to play Minecraft Dungeons anytime soon. (More on this later).
One area where Minecraft Dungeons excels is the combat. It feels familiar with one button to attack and numerous interchangeable abilities. But again, the developers have added new mechanics by giving you an alternative attack using bows or crossbows. You can charge this ranged attack to send enemies flying through the air on impact. After carefully aiming one of my arrows, it was always satisfying watching an enemy ragdoll across the map. (And pretty funny too). Outside of bows, the combat is also fantastic due to flashy animations and outstanding sound design. Every connection in combat sounds impactful, especially the metallic ping of a critical hit, which never got old. Similar to the recent Streets of Rage 4, the sound design propels combat to near perfection. It was consistently enjoyable in every moment of Minecraft Dungeons.
To keep combat fresh each piece of varied gear, drops with random perks, known as enchantments. Enchantments range from chain lighting to snowballs that fire randomly from your armour, stunning enemies. At higher difficulties gear can drop with more enchantments, up to three in total. I’ll always remember my first pair of unique daggers with three enchantments. They electrocuted, burnt and stole health from enemies while spawning clouds of poison whenever they felt it was the right time. (Which was always). I’m glad Mincecraft Dungeons isn’t afraid to give us over the top loot as this is exactly the reason I love Diablo 3. Sure, these types of mechanics aren’t new, but I did appreciate how most had a charming Minecraft spin on them. I just wish the loot looked better. Unfortunately, the pixelated ascetic makes most of it look pretty bland.
Bottom of the Class
As previously mentioned, there are no classes in Minecraft Dungeons, and as a result, no unique class abilities either. In order to make up for the lack of abilities the developers have introduced artefacts, three of which can be equipped at once. You gain artefacts from a loot-box style chest unlocked after every mission (thankfully, they unlock for free), or by trading with a vendor for a random artefact (like Blood Shards in Diablo 3 or slot machines in Borderlands 3). All of the artefacts are extremely creative like a fishing rod, pet llama or a turbo charged mushroom. However in their current state, certain artefacts (like the fishing rod) are completely useless at higher difficulties. They are so underpowered it’s almost laughable.
For example, you activate certain artefacts using a unique mechanic, the captured souls of defeated enemies. One unleashes an explosion pushing enemies back with extremely high damage and another fires a continuous beam like you’re Iron Man. (Or literally the Wizard Class in Diablo 3). Oh, did I mention there’s a soul artefact which heals you? The efficiency of these artefacts is further amplified by certain gear which increases the amount of souls you can harvest. I got the rate so high at one point that I could literally breeze through levels by triggering back to back explosions. Having powerful gear is great, but there needs to be more viable options for artefacts. As it stands, I was throwing away nearly everything I picked up.
As Minecraft Dungeons targets a wide audience, everything is pretty simplistic. This is most clear when a Destiny 2 style power system calculates the stats of your hero. Personally, it’s too streamlined as I never had to think outside of “that one is more powerful than this one”. In some cases, if less powerful gear has unique abilities or enchantments, it is sometimes more powerful than newer gear. But unfortunately the new gear always wins as you need higher power in order to progress to higher difficulties. In Destiny 2, this isn’t a problem as you can bring gear up to your current power level. In Minecraft Dungeons though, and as everything is extremely simplistic, this option isn’t available. I begrudgingly said goodbye to my favourite weapons on many occasions.
“In both instances, and elsewhere in Minecraft Dungeons, this was the most complexity I ever experienced.”
In other looters, gear with stats are exactly the sort of hooks that keep me engaged. On occasion, Minecraft Dungeons attempts to tick this box, but it is far too fleeting. For example, gear boosts soul harvesting and one enchantment doubles damage if your soul meter is full. Another time I created a tank build with damage reducing enchantments and armour. In both instances, and elsewhere in Minecraft Dungeons, this was the most complexity I ever experienced. It doesn’t help that there are only six gear slots either. More complexity, through more gear slots, stats or complex synergies, would naturally create more reasons to keep playing. At the moment it all feels seriously shallow.
Minecraft Dungeons Review – Final Thoughts
In order to appeal to a wide target audience, Minecraft Dungeons has sacrificed the complexity that makes this genre great. Gear has simplistic stats and perks, there are only six gear slots and build options require little thought due to overpowered artefacts. And with no endgame and a repetitive story, the amount of replayability is extremely questionable.
But of course, Minecraft Dungeons isn’t aiming for fans of hardcore looters. Rather it targets a younger audience, fans of Minecraft or those looking for an introduction to the genre. With this in mind, I would recommend Dungeons to younger players, and even families looking for a game to play together. The developers have added enough to the formula to keep you entertained, especially if you click with the excellent combat.
If you are looking for an overall better experience, one that is far more rewarding and far more compelling, I would start by looking elsewhere. (Even to the games mentioned throughout this review). In the end, I won’t be returning to Minecraft Dungeons, but if it introduces a new generation of gamers to a genre I love, well, I’d have to commend it for that.