It is wild to think, but Minecraft Dungeons is actually the first Minecraft game I’ve ever played. The endless freedom and creativity is a far cry from the narratively driven story campaigns I normally enjoy, so this is a world that I’m relatively new to. Blocky images and unfamiliar enemies aside, Minecraft Dungeons represents Microsoft Studios’ first foray into the Diablo-style ARPG. While it’s clear that this experience was created to be a more simple, streamlined version of the genre, Dungeons provides a short but fun first step that lays the groundwork for future expansion.
What Is Minecraft Dungeons?
Developed by Mojang Studios and Double Eleven, Minecraft Dungeons is the first venture of the ARPG dungeon-crawler genre into the eyes of a younger generation. Historically, these types of games stick with darker, more violent tones a la Diablo and Path of Exile. This makes the blocky, quirky, lighthearted world of Minecraft stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of its competitors.
There have been many other concessions made for the younger demographic here as well. Many systems that are normally added to increase depth and customization have all been streamlined. So much of what makes an ARPG a long-term, highly personal journey has been taken out in favor of making the game more understandable and approachable by those who may be new to the genre overall.
There is a narrative here, but not one that’s worth worrying about too much. An evil guy named the Arch-Illager found a powerful stone called Orb of Dominance. Every one of the ten main missions is about finding and thwarting an aspect of his rule or power. This might mean destroying his foundries so he can’t make machines. It could mean attacking the witches responsible for making dangerous potions. They all have their purpose, but none really feel like there’s a larger story being told besides “Stop the bad guy.”
Show Me The Magic
Player advancement and the act of powering up is always essential to dungeon crawlers. Loot and power is how you entice the player to explore every nook and corner of the procedurally generated space in which the levels take place. Instead of leaning on in-depth skill trees or multi-layer abilities, Dungeons has opted to go the route of Artifacts and Enchantments.
Artifacts are player abilities. There’s a few dozen of them scattered across the different levels and all are pretty unique. Some are slightly more straight forward like a laser beam that damages everything in its path while others are a bit more quirky like summoning a pet llama that hurls damaging spit-wads at nearby enemies. What I didn’t like about these Artifacts is that there is no room for advancement of a given ability. If you find a level 10 laser beam, the only way to improve your laser is to find a new artifact of the same category at a higher level. I wish I could spend the mountain of gems I have on increasing the level of what I already have.
Then there are Enchantments. Enchantments are passive improvements to your gear that you spend skill points to level up. As the rarity of an item increases, there are more passives to choose from. Each item has one to three different Enchantment slots. Each slot has three different passives that you can choose one of. Once you choose the passive for that slot, you are locked in. This is how players can improve on a particular piece of gear until they find a higher level equivalent, similar to Artifacts.
This brings to light a flaw that I don’t enjoy in many games. The majority of advancement comes in the form of finding the same item multiple times. This, to me, just doesn’t feel rewarding enough to justify the grind.
Mind Your Surroundings
For how much of what we have come to expect from dungeon-crawlers that has been removed, Minecraft Dungeons does a surprisingly good job of keeping the experience fresh. I only wish this had been more apparent in the earlier levels. One of the main factors here where I see a degree of innovation is in environmental dangers.
For so much of what an industry titan like Diablo 3 did correct, there was very little in the way of things to be wary of outside of enemies. Minecraft Dungeons sidesteps this standard and adds many ways for you to lose your progress just by not paying attention. I was actually reminded of the not-so popular Diablo Immortals reveal from BlizzCon 2018 that we never heard from again. Lava pits, enclosing walls, trip-wire blades and much more are all around. It’s really too bad that we don’t see these kinds of challenges appear until about the sixth level. There were many opportunities for these obstacles even in the beginning.
Everything is Fine
Minecraft Dungeons is a perfectly fine dungeon crawler. At ten levels long, each taking between 30-45 minutes, there’s a good chunk of content here to enjoy given the low price point. This also seems to be a good starting point for players new to the genre without being overwhelming. Understanding who this game is for is extremely important in setting expectations for how much there is to experience here.
Those coming into Dungeons looking for Minecraft-themed Path of Exile are going to be extremely underwhelmed and disappointed. Even with the added difficulty settings, the Adventure Mode unlocked after the first playthrough and other hidden secrets, there just isn’t more than 10-12 hours of dungeon diving to complete. Add that on top of a limited number of enemy archetypes, same-y feeling environment design, and a small loot pool and the limits of the experience quickly start to bleed through.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the game. It’s just not for me. It’s not for the hardcore fan. It’s not for those of us experienced in pouring hours upon hours into their loot grind. This is especially true because that loot grind becomes repetitive so quickly. “Great job, you found this awesome crossbow. Now find it again at a higher level.” This just doesn’t feel rewarding or motivating.
On the other side of the brick, it’s important to analyze this game for who it is meant to be played by: the younger audience. I’ve already spoken to many community members and seen many comments on social media raving about how much fun this game is to play with kids. The shallow systems, simple loot, lack of progression, these are all things that make it understandable and enjoyable for those new to the genre and gaming overall.
That makes the heart of what this game is and the lens through which its quality should be determined. If it wasn’t made for the hardcore fan, why should it be judged against games that are? If it is seen as fun and high quality by the target demographic, isn’t that a success?
The game is only $20 brand new on Xbox, PC, and Switch, and comes as a part of the Xbox Game Pass program so it’s difficult to be upset at any of my major gripes. It’s a low cost game made for a younger audience. If older, more experienced gamers get even a few hours of enjoyment out of the deal, that seems like a success to me. I just wouldn’t expect to spend too much time diving deep into the endgame until more content comes out later.