Minecraft has become an institution since its inception as a humble indie game, having since become the best-selling video game ever while also solidifying a new genre that’s been iterated on countless times in the years since it released. It would stand to reason that a brand with that kind of power would go on to generate all kinds of sequels and spinoffs, but aside from a multi-season Telltale game, none exist. Bearing this in mind, Minecraft Dungeons is a substantial milestone for the franchise, as this is a notable break from the traditional gameplay of mining and crafting. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as genre-defining as its parent game, offering up a perfectly enjoyable but woefully unremarkable take on the dungeon-crawling genre.
The story picks up following a lonely Illager, who is rejected by his peers and wanders the Overworld in search of a place to belong. His innocent desire for love quickly curdles into a much darker lust for revenge as he’s laughed at and turned away by everyone he comes across, and in this darkness of the soul, he happens to stumble upon an ancient temple that houses an artefact called the Orb of Dominance. The Orb grants the Illager a whole slew of frightening powers, and he uses these to amass an army that can invade the Overworld and subvert it to his will. You play the role of a nameless hero who takes a stand against the now Arch-Illager’s tyrannical reign, and… that’s about it.
As far as storylines go, this is about as barebones and simplistic as possible, but it offers up just as much of a framework as is necessary. Dungeon crawlers are hardly known for their engaging and emotional stories, as the core experience ultimately revolves around relatively mindless gameplay. This genre is the kind in which you turn off your brain and get on the gear treadmill, killing monsters and getting loot that lets you kill bigger monsters with better loot. Bearing this in mind, the sidelined story actually works in Minecraft Dungeons’ favour, as it keeps the gameplay front and centre while still giving you a vague reason for pursuing that gameplay.
There’s no interconnected overworld in Minecraft Dungeons; you instead select a series of isolated levels from a world map, which then delivers you to a randomly-generated level that tasks you with fighting back at the Arch-Illager in some fashion. One stage sees you freeing a village from his grasp while another requires that you destroy a forge that’s churning out some of his soldiers, but all the levels remain the same on a foundational level. Though new enemy types occasionally enter the fold, there aren’t any new environmental puzzles or otherwise memorable changes beyond aesthetics. Again, Minecraft Dungeons is par for the course with the genre here. It’s mildly disappointing that more isn’t done to differentiate levels from one another beyond a purely surface level, but this criticism is more an issue with the genre than the game itself.
Levels are about ten-to-fifteen minutes long and follow an exceedingly simple gameplay loop in which you hack and slash your way through countless skeletons, creepers, and zombies until you reach the boss fight for that level. Combat is kept simple, with most mobs being easily dispatched by holding down 'A' and watching as your character hacks their foes to pieces. You also have a bow with limited ammo that can be found along the way, and picking off foes from afar is made simple via the inclusion of a helpful auto-targeting feature that all but guarantees your shot will find its mark.
To help spice things up a little more, you can also equip up to three different 'Artefacts', which bolster your offensive and defensive options. These are each governed by a cooldown period and vary wildly in terms of what they can offer. One artefact that we got a lot of use out of was a totem that would provide a passive health regen effect for a limited time to anybody standing within the aura it casts. Another favourite is a fireworks arrow that causes a huge area-of-effect explosion on impact. There are plenty of different setups you can go with for Artefacts, some of which can synergize quite well with each other, and they help to add some much-needed depth to the often mindless nature of combat.
As you battle through each level, there are plenty of opportunities for finding new gear – either by enemy drops or treasure chests – and you’re encouraged to pursue these drops when you can as they represent the main progression of your character. Levelling-up effectively only gives you the chance of finding gear with bigger numbers, and the only agency you’re given in building your character comes via enchantment points that you get upon each level-up. These can then be invested in passive skills for your weapons and armour, such as a chance to create a poison cloud on a hit or to progressively raise the fire rate of your bow with each shot.
Enchantment points are locked into that item, but if you salvage it for emeralds, you can get those points back to reinvest in other gear. This enchantment system provides some much-needed customization options, but it still feels a little too simplistic for its own good. There’s no way to create a 'build' for your character in Minecraft Dungeons in the same way that you’d expect for this genre, and that simplicity then has a knock-on effect of making battles far less engaging. It’s not as fun to cut your way through hordes of enemies when you know there isn’t much meaningful reward for it, as there aren’t very many things to invest into.
For example, the emeralds that you get from salvaging gear, killing enemies and finding treasure can only be spent on either a randomized pull of any potential weapon or armour piece appropriate for your level or on an equally random pull for any artefact. Most of the things you get from these random pulls are worse than the stuff you already have, which can make engaging with this economy an exercise in futility. The more you play it, the more it becomes evident that Minecraft Dungeons needs something more to make the grinding worth your time – whether that be more useful loot drops, deeper progression systems, or greater means of utilizing the in-game economy.
The moment-to-moment hack ‘n’ slash gameplay is mildly entertaining but hardly enough to justify the cost of admission, meaning more weight is being placed on the resource and stat management to give Minecraft Dungeons that all-important fun factor. The issue is that the management side is also underwhelming, with player agency being limited to only a few potential variables to grow the character further. This is likely a consequence of the game being designed as a more kid-friendly title, which makes it difficult to criticize too harshly in this regard, but those of you looking for the kind of experience that’ll offer potentially dozens of hours of enjoyment will be disappointed by the relatively shallow offerings here.
As ever, adding a couple of friends into the mix helps to keep things more interesting, and Mojang has done a great job in making co-op as seamless as possible. Split Joy-Con play is supported, and you can add or drop up to three friends locally or online via an easily accessed menu. Though the core gameplay loop doesn’t change with more people, it still introduces a little more delightful chaos to the repetitive structure when you have a friend on hand to throw bombs into the fray and offer up support as needed. Part of the strength of Minecraft Dungeons’ simplicity is that it’s easy for an outsider to pick up, and we could easily see this release becoming an on-the-go favourite for short pick-up-and-play games during lunch.
In terms of presentation, Minecraft Dungeons borrows wholesale from its parent game, presenting you with a delightfully blocky world that nonetheless can prove to be quite beautiful in surprising ways. There are some impressive lighting effects on display here, leading to plenty of moments that’ll have you reaching for that capture button, but the flipside of this is that Minecraft Dungeons runs at a rather poor framerate. In handheld mode, it seems to hold to the target 30 FPS more tightly, but frames are still dropped on a frequent basis. In docked mode, matters are worse, with the framerate sometimes dipping into the 15 FPS range. Considering the simple look of Minecraft Dungeons, it’s not immediately clear what causes the Switch hardware to chug like it does, but suffice to say, this is not a very well-optimized release. It’s far from unplayable, but we were rather disappointed by the performance and hope that some patches to fix the issues are being prioritized.
As far as replayability goes, Minecraft Dungeons is a bit middling in the sense that the whole campaign can be beaten in roughly five hours or less. After this, there are two additional difficulties unlocked with new loot and tougher enemies to face, but you’re still stuck running through the same content again. Your mileage, then, will vary entirely upon how much the gear grind hooks you. Mojang has promised future DLC with more missions, enemies, and loot, but this will be paid and hasn’t yet been released at the time of writing. Compared to its genre peers, then, Minecraft Dungeons comes up rather short, but if you’re allured by the delightful blockiness, the relatively low amount of content can be overlooked.
At its heart, Minecraft Dungeons is the sort of release that feels like it rides on the coattails of greater games a little too much. If this game did not have the Minecraft branding, it’s not much of a leap to assume that it would scarcely garner any attention based purely on its own merits. The gear system, combat, level design, and presentation is all fine and entertaining in its own right, but there’s little here that we could point to that elevates this game alongside or above peers such as Torchlight II, Diablo III or Path of Exile. Bearing this in mind, we’d give Minecraft Dungeons a very light recommendation to those of you looking for a surface-level introduction to the ARPG genre or for something to play in co-op with the kids. If that doesn’t describe you, then we’d suggest going with either Torchlight II or Diablo III, which both offer a more substantial and fulfilling experience of this genre.