When I first saw Minecraft Dungeons gameplay, I was like “Is that Diablo, but with Minecraft?” Now that I’ve played it, I’m like, yeah: Minecraft Dungeons is basically Diablo with a Minecraft skin. Sure, it doesn’t mine the same mechanical depths as Diablo, and plays it safe with the formula instead of blazing its own path with bold Minecraft-inspired ideas, but it has all the fun combat, and loot it needs, and it’s accessible to just about anyone.
I don’t understand how Minecraft’s intentionally low-res art style can look so high quality, but Minecraft Dungeons is the most beautiful Minecraft world I think I’ve ever seen. The Diablo series’ hellish inspirations and iconography are swapped out for Mojang’s blocky creepers and zombies, and it’s set in familiar locations like swamps, mountains, and villages made with vivid and gorgeous color. Even in the dark recesses of caverns and dungeons, everything looks great. I was particularly struck by some of the more subtle lighting effects: heat emanating from lava warps and bends the light behind it, for example, and in one level a lightning storm rages outside as you storm a castle and flashes through stained-glass windows to throw colored light on the floors and walls below. It’s just lovely.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Even%20in%20the%20dark%20recesses%20of%20caverns%20and%20dungeons%2C%20everything%20looks%20great.”]Music and sound, too, are excellent. It has a soundtrack different from the main game, but it does a phenomenal job of keeping the lo-fi style of the original’s music while tweaking the feel just enough to make it thematically appropriate for a dungeon-crawling adventure. Levels with higher stakes near the end, for example, have much more dramatic music, but it never goes overboard or feels out of place in the Minecraft universe. You could transplant the Minecraft Dungeons soundtrack into Minecraft proper and it would feel right at home.
One of my favorite levels is an autumn-themed village that’s been pillaged by the forces of the Arch Illager. Its orange and yellow foliage sways gently in the breeze, and jack o’lanterns and harvested wheat bundles lay by the wayside in the ruins of the town. The rustling leaves and whispering winds of the ambient sounds took some primordial part of my brain to the same place it goes at the start of the actual fall season. I feel like I could just sit in the middle of the level and soak it up and still enjoy it.
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As far as graphical performance goes, I’m playing Minecraft Dungeons on a GeForce GTX 1080-powered gaming PC, and all the graphical settings automatically maxed out to their highest by default when I first started it up. I also set the frame rate to 120 (my monitor has a 144Hz refresh rate), which also caused no problems or hesitation, and I could probably go higher. It’s a pretty low-impact game, and even when the screen fills with mobs, projectiles, and magic, I didn’t notice any performance issues. There’s a definite advantage to a world constructed from the intentional low-fidelity building blocks of the Minecraft universe, especially with none of that pesky building or destroying to complicate things.
The story is simple and exists only to tie together the dungeon-crawling levels. The main villain, the Arch Illager, stole an Orb of Power from the other Illagers and uses it for generic evil. You spend next six to eight hours chasing him down and defeating his minions until finally you face him in his castle. That’s pretty much it – don’t expect the kind of swing-for-the-fences attempt at storytelling that Telltale went for with its Minecraft: Story Mode spin-off adventure.
Good Family Fun
When I first started a new game, I was thrilled to see a massive selection of what I initially thought were player classes, but it turned out you just choose from a list of pre-made skins. There’s nothing different about them from a gameplay perspective, which is a bummer, especially since that’s all there is as far as character customization. Some of them do look pretty cool, though – I went with the guy with the mohawk, because he’s clearly a badass.
This isn’t a Diablo game, but fundamentally the gameplay is just as sweet by any other name. You play through a level fighting enemies, searching for treasures of various levels of rarity, battling a boss, and then collecting a chest upon victory. One distinctive tweak is that, rather than a traditional skill tree, leveling up gains you an enchantment point you can use to add different powers to your items. For example, my current suit of armor has an enchantment where melee attacks cause magical thorn damage to any enemy in close range. There’s a decent amount of enchantments available on a per-item basis, and some items have two enchantment slots. My most recent bow, for example, throws out a fan of five arrows with each shot; this pairs well with the second enchantment where a certain percent of arrows pass through one enemy and into another, damaging them both. It’s not a ton of depth but it’s something to experiment with and can create formidable weapons.
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You get two weapons: a close-range melee weapon and a long-range weapon. For a ranged-based character build, I prefer the Hunter’s Armor, since it gives bonuses to your arrow capabilities, but there are other armors to suit the needs of a tank playstyle, a fast “assassin” or a soul-collector heavy on soul-infused artifact usage. You can slot three artifacts to your character with different offensive or defensive effects, which is just enough to expand your abilities in battle without overcomplicating things. There are also wolves, llamas, and other creatures you can call upon with artifacts, and they can make a big difference when you’re being rushed by dozens of lower-level enemies like zombies and need backup. Combat feels just right in a Fisher-Price: My First Dungeon Crawler sort of way: it’s not too complex but still gives you the abilities to confront enemies at range or face to face.
Speaking of ease, when I first started playing Minecraft Dungeons I thought the normal difficulty skewed a bit on the easy side. I was able to thoughtlessly hack and slash my way through the first few levels… but as I leveled up, so too did the difficulty. The latter half of the campaign is much more of a challenge, and required me to approach battles thoughtfully and carefully manage my potions and artifact usage. By the end, the difficulty felt just right for a first playthrough. In fact, for the final boss, I’d go so far as to say it was a little harder than I anticipated.
Beating Minecraft Dungeons unlocks a higher tier of difficulty for the character you beat the game with, and there are more granular grades of difficulty depending on your power for each mission. For example, in the default difficulty set at the outset, you can move up or down a few notches in the individual levels, but beating the game unlocks a higher tier of difficulty with gradated difficulties per mission. That means you can turn the difficulty down if you just want to grind through some enemies for a quick experience build-up, or you can crank it up to earn more experience and better loot by killing tougher enemies, but the very real possibility you’ll get smacked down and sent back to your base camp.
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You only have three chances per level: get defeated three times, and you’re out of luck. It can be frustrating to lose to a final boss and have to crawl through the entire level again, only to face the boss and lose again. As infuriating as it can be, there’s no penalty to your equipment or stats for losing, so even when you lose you’ve still made progress.
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Gimme the Loot
Probably the single most important mechanic in a dungeon-crawler is the loot, and Minecraft Dungeons has plenty of it. Levels are designed to encourage exploration, and if you venture off the beaten path you’re often rewarded with money, chests, or even maps unlocking secret levels. Some chests and areas are pretty cleverly hidden, but I found exploration a little inconsistent. Decades of video game loot tropes led me to believe I’d find a chest at the end of a long, dead-ended area on the map, but often they yielded nothing at all. On the flip side, occasionally I’d stumble into an otherwise-nondescript corner and find a chest containing rare loot.
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The loot system doesn’t try anything new, and it doesn’t have to. You can trade in your cash at your home camp to either a blacksmith (for gear) or a travelling merchant (for artifacts), and there’s still a thrill when you pull a Unique-level item. Items are completely randomized, and if you don’t get the loot you want you can salvage it for gems. One thing I liked about the salvage system is if you salvage an enchanted item you’ll get those enchantment points back without penalty.
What surprised me about the loot system was that it lacks a crafting system, which I don’t usually demand except that this is a spin-off of a game built entirely around that concept and even still has the word “craft” in the name. There’s a crafting table in the house in your base camp, and when I first saw it I started clicking it wildly, expecting a crafting dialogue to pop up. There’s also no mining or greater-than-typical breaking of things in Minecraft Dungeons, so its source material references are largely skin-deep. That’s not to say setting a dungeon crawler in the world of Minecraft is a fail; far from it. It’s charming as hell. But it definitely minimizes the “Minecraft” and maximizes the “Dungeons.”