Having taken the gaming world by storm both creatively and commercially, Minecraft has been melded into games of almost every imaginable genre, and it’s hard to think of a game that couldn’t fit within the Minecraft formula. Nearly any type of game can be, and likely already has been, created within the original, which makes creating an altogether new game a distinct challenge. An isometric dungeon crawler, in the vein of the Diablo series, might be one of the only genres that couldn’t fit into vanilla Minecraft’s gameplay, and Minecraft Dungeons is the franchise’s attempt at transporting Minecraft’s features to an altogether new genre. Employing the lightheartedness and lovability of the original game, Minecraft Dungeons creates an entirely new gameplay loop that, while not as deep as others in the genre, is an enjoyable, relaxing experience that fits perfectly into the franchise.
"Employing the lightheartedness and lovability of the original game, Minecraft Dungeons creates an entirely new gameplay loop that, while not as deep as others in the genre, is an enjoyable, relaxing experience that fits perfectly into the franchise."
On the surface, Minecraft Dungeons will be recognizable to anyone familiar with the original. Despite the isometric camera, the iconic blocky art style is a predictable staple throughout, and you’ll come across many familiar mobs, biomes, and terms. Despite its name, though, Minecraft Dungeons shares very little with the original Minecraft on the gameplay front. There’s no mining or crafting here. Instead, Dungeons follows in the footsteps of dungeon crawlers, whose hack-and-slash, loot-centric gameplay will feel familiar to anyone experienced in the genre. You’re tasked throughout with making your way through a series of levels to foil the plans of an outcast villager turned evil, named the Arch-Illager, who wants to take over the Overworld.
Despite lacking the depth of other dungeon crawlers, Minecraft Dungeons’ gameplay still makes for a rewarding loop that improves over time, allowing you to play either solo or in a team of up to four. There are slots for just a short-range weapon, a long-range weapon, an armor set, and three artifacts that give you special abilities. Because of this, it’s a lot more user-friendly and has an easier learning curve than others in the genre. At the outset, when you’re fighting primarily zombies, you’ll be able to get past them by simply mashing quick attack, but, as the dungeons progress and the mobs get more difficult, you’ll be more incentivized to pick off enemies with your bow before going into close quarters. Despite the mostly two-pronged approach to combat, it retains its enjoyability throughout. Even as I was fighting enemies in the final dungeons, I was still smiling as I could take out enemies with a single arrow or knock back groups of mobs with one swing of my sword.
The primary reward at any point of the game is the progressively high-quality loot. As you fight harder bosses or discover hidden paths, you’ll find higher-level loot that will make you that much stronger in combat. While it does its best in varying the types of loot you can find, one unfortunate symptom of having such a stripped-back combat system is that you’ll have seen every different type of sword, armor set, or bow fairly early on, and the progression will occur only in stronger versions of the same types of gear. While it is rewarding to see the occasional rare or unique item pop up, it’s much more common to see the same sword in your inventory multiple times, where your only choice is between level numbers. While you can salvage lower-level items for emeralds, the game’s currency, they can only be traded in for a random item or artifact that matches your level, and I had usually already found an item in a dungeon that was higher than the level of the item I randomly got, making for an economy that is sorely missing a market that intermittently changes what you can buy.
"Despite lacking the depth of other dungeon crawlers, Minecraft Dungeons’ gameplay still makes for a rewarding loop that improves over time, allowing you to play either solo or in a team of up to four."
Tweaks to combat come in the form of enchantments and artifacts. Enchantments work similarly to the original game, where a weapon or armor set can be given varying degrees of strength in an ability, such as a burning element to a sword or a health regeneration to an armor set. Artifacts offer the most variability in gameplay, allowing you to activate a special ability external from the sword or bow. You’ll quickly find which ones work best for you, such as the wolf who can enter as a party member or the explosive arrows that can easily clear out a group of enemies. I found the most enjoyment from being able to string basic attacks together with these artifacts, mastering every attack in my arsenal for a combo that takes out daunting swarms of mobs.
Each of the ten primary dungeons has a similar structure, gradually increasing the number of mobs until you fight a final boss near the end. Each also has a number of hidden areas that offer high-level loot, emerald stashes, and other secret rewards. While the dungeons naturally get more challenging as they progress, the difficulty level is ultimately up to you. Before each level, you can choose your own difficulty level, where harder difficulties beget better loot. This is a great system that allows anyone to set their own learning curve but rewards better players for their skill. Like its dungeon crawler peers, too, it’s made to be replayed. After a first runthrough, which might take 5-6 hours, it informs you of two higher base difficulty levels that give you further reason to keep replaying, as there are much better items and hidden secrets to find on repeat playthroughs. In some cases, difficulty comes in the form of dozens of enemies swarming you, which can seem like an unfair way to lose one of your finite number of lives. In most cases, though, the difficulty curve is fair, having true ramping up of skills and more difficult single enemies, even when you’re playing as a team and fighting larger swarms of mobs. The feeling of completing a difficult level or defeating an unflappable enemy is unparalleled, especially among some of the highly enjoyable bosses and mini-bosses.
Though the gameplay barely resembles the original Minecraft, the rest of Minecraft Dungeons is both a love letter to the franchise and a clever integration of its features into these new systems. The story is rooted in the lore of the franchise with its own twist, hinging on an understanding of villagers, the Overworld, and the Ender World. As you attempt to save the Villagers from the Arch-Illager, the story is as lighthearted and unassuming as Minecraft stories generally are, making for many fun smaller moments throughout its cutscenes and the Arch-Illager’s animations. Vanilla mobs like zombies and skeletons are rampant, and higher-level enemies call back to many of Minecraft’s stronger enemies. Around every corner is another reference to the original game, and, while it would have been nice to see a few more diverse biomes and items that fans know intimately, the connection between the two is unmistakable, despite its gameplay differences.
"Though the gameplay barely resembles the original Minecraft, the rest of Minecraft Dungeons is both a love letter to the franchise and a clever integration of its features into these new systems. "
While a dungeon crawler might not be the first genre you think of when you consider the Minecraft name, Minecraft Dungeons does a great job of transporting its style and tone to an entirely new type of gameplay. While its looting system is somewhat lacking compared to other, more hardcore games in the genre, the core of Dungeons is its easygoing, enjoyable, and rewarding team-based or solo exploration and combat, and it superbly executes what it attempts to create. There’s a ton of replayability to find better loot, stronger enemies, and hidden secrets, especially finding those items and secrets that relate back to the original game. Like its blocky art style, Minecraft Dungeons might not be the best dungeon crawler on the market, but it does everything necessary for a lighthearted, thoroughly enjoyable experience, just as every Minecraft experience sets out to be.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Enjoyable combat; Relaxing team-based exploration; Challenging bosses.
Shallow loot system; Underutilized economy.