Minecraft Dungeons offers up something completely new for fans of the legendary franchise. It’s hard to believe that in under a decade, we’ve seen Minecraft go from an underground crafting toolset/game to pop culture phenomenon to even a choose-your-own adventure-style game. Now, Mojang Studios is back in the saddle with an isometric dungeon crawler that blends the voxel-based look of the franchise with a bit of Diablo, and a surprisingly brisk pace to the action. For the first time, the Switch gets a day and date launch alongside other platforms for a Minecraft game – and Dungeons’ format winds up working great either on TV or on the go.
The core gameplay loop is simplistic in theory, but quite additive with some real depth in execution. You can have short and long-range attacks as either primary or secondary, or choose to go all-short or all-long range if you want. You’ll battle against waves of enemies and go through somewhat compact dungeons, but unlike many games of this ilk, the worlds you’re in have a lot of life and color to them. Each area has a distinct look and feel, which breaks up the core formula of battling a slew of enemies – as does being able to change loadouts not only between dungeons, but mid-battle when you get loot from enemies.
Minecraft Dungeons is a very open game in the sense that you can start out with many different character appearance options – but your play style isn’t dependent on them. Want to play as a green tunic-clad guy with a sword and arrow stash? Go ahead. Want to focus on magic with special gear that helps amplify your skillset? Have fun. There’s a lot of freedom in how you choose to play, and if you so desire, you can play it like an isometric action-heavy Zelda-style game, or as a long-range shooter. You’re given ample ammo for ranged weapons and can break down anything you grab from foes, and don’t need, into either cash or core elements to make more gear.
The dungeon-crawling design blends in a lot of combat and a bit of puzzle-solving to keep things interesting. The procedural generation of in-game elements keeps things limited to a stage’s theme, but otherwise, no two runs will be the same. Being able to switch between melee and long-range attacks at a moment’s notice is great and being able to slash with a face button and shoot arrows and the like with the right trigger feels natural. You can aim with more precision using the left stick, but just not pressing it will result in you attacking the closest foe with a ranged attack. This is usually the best way to attack enemies from afar and will save you from quite a few boss battles as long as you’re not surrounded by foes.
When that happens, you want to make use of the right stick’s roll mechanic and evade. You can also escape death by enchanting weapons with various elemental attacks. Attaching lightning enables more immediate damage, while adding flames to your arrows allows them to do more damage. With that in particular, it can be a real help because enemies are busy dealing with the flames and aren’t attacking you – so it gives you some breathing room. That second or two extra may be all the time you need for your health potion to refill and then keep you in the hunt.
Death is something that will happen at some point in your adventure, but is handled in a fair way. You have four overall lives to tackle the dungeon. That will usually include at least one “find a thing or hit a few levers” section, alongside a couple of survival rooms that are a good test for later boss battles as you need to focus on defense more than offense and winning – not just winning quickly. They’re wars of attrition and something that can make you a better player in the long run. Offline and online play is possible, although online players can be a bit iffy to find.
Local co-op allows for four players as does online, and that definitely makes the adventure a bit easier. With that setup, you can focus on either attacking or healing depending on what you need. Various attire changes can help out in multiplayer games because you can add things like healing to your allies passively without having to worry about them as much. It also allows boss battles to be more of a stick and move style when needed, and enables more damage to be done to keep the pacing up and minimize the single-player slog that can happen.
The key to getting the most out of Minecraft Dungeons is to play it in half hour to hour-long sessions. The gameplay loop is about the same no matter what, so if you dig it, then you’ll like it – but the lack of freedom when it comes to crafting hurts things. For a Minecraft-branded game, it seems odd to have so many things like loot-building left up to chance with things like lootboxes and trading in-game coins into the shop to upgrade part of your gear. That aspect of the game feels half-baked and hurts the game a bit. The core action is still a ton of fun though, and it’s a blast to play.
Visually, the Xbox One and PC versions have a ton of impressive lighting effects. There are various shaders all over the world for things like trees, fire, a moonlit sky, and elemental attacks. The framerate is also rock-solid on the baseline Xbox One and is great on PC as well. The Switch version holds up well in many regards, but does get a drop in framerate when the action gets heavy and lacks a lot of the visual flourishes of the other versions. It performs quite well in docked mode, but suffers more in portable mode – and the small icons used for your HUD really need a size option for the Switch because you can’t adjust them and the only size they’re on is very small even on a regular Switch, let alone on a Lite.
The game’s sound design is solid, but unremarkable. The soundtrack is light-hearted fantasy fare that fits the settings well and does get more intense during chaotic scenes – but never really gets out of first gear. The voiceover work is rather good, with the limited narration making the minimal story at least feel somewhat important. The best part of the game’s audio lies in the sound effects, which vary from weapon to weapon and make slicing up foes with dual-wielded blades feel totally different from laying them out with a crossbow or a giant magical sword.
Overall, Minecraft Dungeons is a well-meaning game that succeeds far more than it falters. The core action-based dungeon-crawling gameplay loop is far more fun than others like it and puts the emphasis on fun than grinding. There are many upsides to this, but there is a bit lost when it comes to the story – which is rather barren. However, if you want to get into dungeon-crawlers, this is a great way to go about it. It works as an action RPG, or just a core action-based game with stats to keep track of every now and then. It looks great on the Xbox One and PC, and while it falls a bit short on Switch, its smaller dungeon size is perfect for the Switch’s at-home or on-the-go nature.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
This review is based on a digital copy of Minecraft Dungeons for the Xbox One provided by Xbox Game Studios.