I’ve always been jealous of other people’s Minecraft skills. They’re building entire sets from The Lord of the Rings and battling dragons. I’m here in a mud hut wondering why I trusted my friends not to throw lava in the chicken coop. Luckily, Minecraft Dungeons trades digging and crafting for a top-down dungeon crawler. Friends can still fall into lava, but my chickens are safe. So that’s a win, right?
Anyway, looks like there’s an Arch-Illager burning down villages, summoning evil armies and wreaking havoc. Better dust off the old Chosen Hero garb and prepare to save the day. Simple, and never taking itself too seriously, the plot does just enough to keep things moving. Each level starts with an introduction explaining whether I need to save prisoners, thwart plans, or kick some Illager butt.
Before starting, I fully expected to be playing through dark caves made up of painfully blocky textures. It turns out that Minecraft Dungeons is charming and colorful. Ore glows brightly in Redstone Mines and autumn trees sway gently in the breeze of Pumpkin Pastures. Sadly, this isn’t the time to admire the scenery, as enemies constantly barrel towards me. Skeletons rattle as they fire arrows, witches laugh while throwing potions, and creepers, well you know, explode. There’s something both iconic and funny about hearing their hisses, rattles, and groans within this beautiful environment. It’s probably one of my favorite things.
Navigating the nine main dungeons is kept simple. An arrow (almost always) points you in the right direction, and despite occasional switches or keys to find, nothing comes close to calling itself a puzzle. Exploring is worth it, though. Not only can it make levels last for over half an hour, but procedural generation means treasure chests, secret dungeons, and even entrances to extra levels could be hiding anywhere. I will say that it does lead to moments of poor game design. One path, no joke, had three mini-boss Golems on it. My reward was wasted lives and an empty dead end. It was painful.
Minecraft Dungeons offers a few to fight; using a melee weapon, ranged weapon, and artifacts. The only extras are a dodge roll, armor, and a reusable potion. Each equipment type (weapons and armor) have variety. Melee weapons, for example, include a sword, pickaxe, duel wielding sickles, and a few others. Everything has a base purpose, even if it’s as simple as fighting with increased speed, or straight up harvesting enemy souls to fuel certain artifacts.
Equipment also comes with up to three randomized ability slots. Each one that’s available will give a few options for what it can be filled with, which could range from setting nearby enemies on fire, reflecting some damage, or dropping food items each time I drink a potion. Cool stuff doesn’t come for free, though. Enchantment Points are gained by character leveling and are needed to both activate abilities and further enhance them. It means having to prioritize buffing certain weapons, or choosing abilities that’ll be useful for the whole party.
Enchantment Points are the only thing gained by leveling up. There’s no stat upgrades, skill trees, or even job classes. However, I’ve been happily distracted by this setup. Abilities have a decent amount of variety, and testing out combinations is constantly rewarding. My favorite is easily the hammer, thanks to its satisfying ring of splash damage. Equip this bad boy with chain lighting and, well, I ran around exclaiming ‘Thor!’ to every fool in my way.
Meanwhile, equipping three multiple-use artifacts adds some extra fun to battles. I love running into the middle of a hoard and blasting them backward with my wind horn, or watching my faithful llama spit in their faces. Take that. My husband, as a second player, takes the more sensible role. His shield and health totems help combat the damage I inevitably sustain from trying to tank my way through.
In the beginning, I scoffed at healing abilities, having no trouble simply plowing through. Yet as I leveled up, so did enemy tactics. A turning point was trying to tackle a bridge surrounded by zombie spawning necromancers head-on. It didn’t go well. After that, more thought was put into positioning during fights, and which artifacts to have on hand. A lot is kept simple, but mistakes will cost lives. The final boss in particular is no joke. If a party falls four times, all your loot and exp is kept, but you have to start the level from the beginning. Fair’s fair.
Challenge does scale a bit for however many is playing, but single players, be warned; Minecraft Dungeons is clearly designed for multiplayer. There is a difficulty slider that kind of helps with this — hard levels are blocked off at the start though, and easy levels are greyed out later. So in reality, there isn’t much leeway on either side of normal. It’s a little harsh considering Minecraft Dungeons has been made with younger Minecraft fans in mind. Meanwhile, those who enjoy a challenge through new modes at the end, which include new loot drops.
That being said, there are some checks and balances in place. A blacksmith and wandering trader live in the campsite and offer random pieces of equipment, or artifacts, for in-game money. It’s possible to get lucky and pull something particularly rare that’ll help you tear through a particularly tricky section. Annoyingly, my husband kept getting all the cool new things, while I was stuck with low-level gear. I know it’s childish to pout, but his cool mining armor has a bat companion and I want it.
Joking aside, my only real gripe is that there isn’t a way of sharing loot with a friend. In multiplayer, item drops are assigned to a specific player, while money and experience is automatically divided. Should be an argument-free zone, right? Well, in reality, RNG can make things a bit unfair. Even if a chest drops one item per party member, they can still all be given to a single player. So it makes even less sense that players can’t share their spoils with each other. I want to hand over the cool bow I got to my husband, who prefers ranged equipment, so maybe I could finally get that bat armor in exchange.
Minecraft Dungeons has some randomization issues and is really against the idea of me sharing. And still, I’m perfectly content squashing waves of Minecraftian enemies with the most powerful abilities I can find. Yes, there is a childish nature to the whole thing. No, that doesn’t make it boring, or even lacking in challenge. Like the original, Minecraft Dungeons ultimately just wants you to have fun.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Microsoft.
The epitome of good things coming in small packages, Minecraft Dungeons is simple, wholesome fun.