Minecraft Dungeons finds just enough balance between a Diablo clone and its own blocky creative ecosystem to be worth digging into.
This review of Minecraft Dungeons is based on the Xbox One version, played through the Xbox Game Pass subscription service. It is also available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Windows.
Most of my Minecraft knowledge is second-hand, gleaned from my daughter endlessly playing Creative mode and constructing elaborate fortresses to hide away in. Naturally, then, I recruited her as my couch co-op partner for Minecraft Dungeons, Mojang’s new Diablo-lite dungeon-crawling spin-off that’s available for free on Xbox Game Pass and at a pretty reasonable budget price everywhere else. This proved to be a good decision, in part because it was handy having a cute little talking glossary on-hand, but mainly because the game’s clearly designed for that kind of laidback family-friendly experience.
And the blend of Minecraft’s anything-goes creative ecosystem and bizarre internal mythology with a just-deep-enough ARPG works surprisingly well. The core loop isn’t even that different. Where once you’d descend into the bowels of a jagged landscape to forage for resources with your own working-class hands, now you bonk the game’s enemies over the head and goodies spill out; where once you’d retreat to the relative safety of sunshine to turn those minerals and materials into a house or a castle or any number of other things, now you sleep at a campsite and use them to beef up your pixelated explorer with better weapons and equipment so they can venture into the wilderness once more.
Minecraft Dungeons isn’t a long game, then – it has nine levels, each contained in a unique biome with its own gimmick, and a couple of secret areas, all of which you can traipse through front-to-back in a few hours. But that isn’t really the point. Like most dungeon-crawlers, this one expects you to revisit those potted areas, most of which admittedly strain the definition of the word “dungeon”, on higher difficulties and with better gear. The hope is of levelling up your adventurers further and outfitting them with increasingly rare goodies. And on and on it goes.
Nothing about this is new or pretends to be. The vibe is of baby’s first ARPG, and while Minecraft Dungeons never quite shakes that association, accessibility shouldn’t be confused for a lack of depth or smart design. Even the way it trots out familiar enemy types – shambling zombies, detonating Creepers, skeleton archers – as a way to explain the simplistic mechanics is a clever use of series’ shorthand: “Of course you run away from Creepers!” my daughter explained as one blew up in my face while I idly swung at it with a sword.
The game’s scalable difficulty system gives you plenty of chances to learn these little details; while it eventually locks out settings that it deems you too powerful for, it’s accommodating enough that the kiddies won’t feel overwhelmed as you progress. Individual levels are chunky and rife with mobs, but you get three free revives per level to help you push through them, and a whole range of weapon, armour and artefact options to help you fine-tune a build or develop a specific playstyle. Those artefacts are the most interesting component, I think. You can equip three at a time to different hotkeys, and each has a unique offensive or defensive effect – the first we found was a firework that upgrades your ranged attack to a pretty AoE explosion. They feel like the kind of abilities you’d unlock if Minecraft Dungeons had a skill tree, which it doesn’t, though with the welcome flexibility of being able to swap them on the fly.
The game doesn’t pause when you bring up in the inventory, though, which my daughter still doesn’t quite get. She’s constantly bringing up the menu during chaotic fights because she’s excited about some new toy she’s picked up, which makes me grateful that it’s all so streamlined. Little green up arrows or red down arrows quickly indicate whether a piece of gear is better or worse than the one you have equipped. Applying enchantments to your equipment – you earn enchantment points each time you level up – is a simple affair, and if you decide to scrap whatever you’ve enchanted for a better version you get all the points back. It’s about as simple as such a thing could be, though it doesn’t stop me screaming at her to close the menu every time she does it.
This kind of stripped-down approach can be seen everywhere in Minecraft Dungeons. Combat is a simple matter of swiping away with a weapon, pinging arrows, or deploying artefacts. Evasive rolls and glugging health potions keep you alive (the latter is governed by a cooldown rather than limited uses.) The areas are decently-sized without being sprawling, and you can pull up the map overlay that fleshes out as you explore, so there’s no chance of getting lost. Loot is often reserved for each player, so you don’t have to fight over it. These kinds of convenience features feel like dumbing-down, but they’re not, really – they’re just useful ways of accommodating everyone, preventing petty disagreements, and keeping things fun.
Those who want more of a challenge can find it in harder post-game difficulty modes full of buffed enemies and rarer loot, and some procedural generation keeps re-running areas a more pleasantly surprising experience than it might otherwise be. But I’m not sure there’s enough meat on the bones of Minecraft Dungeons for it to become the kind of game you spend a gargantuan amount of time with. The combat gets a little repetitive, character sprites are liable to get lost in mobs or some of the more visually busy environments, and some minor performance hang-ups – at least on my Xbox One S – give the overall sense of a game that’s fun to play for a while with your kids but likely won’t hold you beyond a few cursory outings. At the price, I think that’s fine. Mojang might not have struck gold here, but they’ve tapped a rich vein of family fun nonetheless.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.