Minecraft Dungeons has a content problem.
If you stick to its main questline, and don’t deviate too far from the handy objective markers, you’ll complete your first playthrough in just a couple of hours. Sure, this unlocks a new harder difficulty tier, and there’s a third one to go for after that…but new tougher enemies and shinier weapons aren’t quite enough to make up for the fact that this game has nine short core areas and a couple of bonus stages.
You might think I’m being hard out of the gate on this $20 game, available now(official site) for PC, Switch, PS4, PC, and Xbox One. But the action RPG genre that this game belongs to is famous for its lengthy grinds and endless tunnels of content. The similarly-priced Torchlight II has ten times this amount of gameplay, and free games like Path of Exile keep players coming back for years with regular content infusions.
Granted, Minecraft’s audience is different than those more violent games. The mega-franchise is a hit with kids and adults alike, and Minecraft Dungeons does deliver on the promise of a family-friendly loot-based action game. It’s the first proper new game release from developer Mojang in a long time, but as the first major expansion of the Minecraft franchise, I expected more than a short sample of content wrapped in a threadbare storyline.
Oddly, the game features no mining or crafting. Mining may not always have a place in the action RPG world, but crafting certainly does. I expected to build new weapons and armor throughout my short journey, but no. Instead, you’ll earn every item you use, either by finding it in a chest or random enemy drop, or by spending emeralds in your camp. The merchants in the main hub function a little too close to free-to-pay loot box mechanics in mobile games for my personal comfort. Instead of offering a selection of weapons and powerups to buy, they’ll offer you one blind item in exchange for an amount of your money. If you don’t like the item, you can break it down for a fraction of the emeralds you spent on it.
The prices for these blind items slowly increase as you advance in the game, and to be fair, the main missions offer plenty of loot such that you’ll never solely rely on the merchants to get the gear you’re after. Still, it seems like a system ripe for exploitation with microtransactions down the road. The game already has a $10 DLC pass available that includes a number of new cosmetic character options, and gets you two content packs coming in July and September. These will add a few extra stages to the game, which should help with its brevity at least.
It’s a shame that the game is short and laden with a blind box economy and no crafting system, because I think the core gameplay is a lot of fun. Dungeons features an engaging combat system with one button for melee, a dodge on the right stick, ranged attacks on a trigger, a rechargeable health potion, and three hot keys to which you can assign special relics with different powers. These powers are akin to what you might get out of a skill tree in other RPGs, and include things like companion summons, speed boosts, healing items, and special attacks.
You’ll find the relics through regular play, or you can buy them from the blind box man in the town for a high price. On leveling up, you can improve your current items with random enchantments, and you’ll be refunded those points if you break down an item, so it’s easy to experiment with different loadouts and not feel too attached to a particular weapon or armor set.
Most of the stages in the game take around fifteen minutes to complete on the default difficulty if you don’t deviate too far from the path, and they get harder and longer in the two higher tiers. One of the bonus stages, the Creepy Crypt, is comically long. It inadvertently shows the design wisdom in the pint-sized scope of the other levels. The maps are randomly generated each time you enter them, and often contain hidden chests and little mini dungeons to explore off to the side of the main path.
The game starts off slow, with a handful of classic Minecraft enemies to fight, but by the end of your first playthrough the screen will be filled with opponents and the bosses get fairly challenging. Regrettably, the game uses a lives system. If you lose all three of your lives on a stage, you’re booted back to town, though you don’t lose any of your collected items or experience points. I would have preferred to spend some of my emeralds and keep trying, as it can be rather frustrating to get to the end of stage then die on a hard boss because I ran out of arrows.
The game is a pretty solid production overall polish-wise, though I did encounter one bug where I got stuck in the air during the final boss fight on my last life. Fortunately, my character reset position after I fiddled with the controls for a while.
You can play with up to three other people either online or locally. I played the game on both the Xbox One X and the Switch. On Nintendo’s platform you have to sign in to a Microsoft account to access the online features in addition to having a Nintendo Network account, and I was able to earn Xbox achievements. Sadly the game doesn’t currently support cross-platform online play, though Mojang has hinted it might come in a future update.
The visual presentation, like the rest of the game, is aggressively serviceable. It runs on Unreal Engine 4, and on the Xbox it has a nice smattering of real-time lighting and particle effects, and a smooth framerate. The Switch version doesn’t hold up quite as well. In docked mode it regularly stutters, and the effects quality is noticeably scaled back. Portable mode has a better framerate, probably due to the lower resolution, and offers a play experience closer to the Xbox.
Minecraft Dungeons is one of the most vaguely competent, fine, and safe action RPGs I’ve ever played. The core combat is fun in spite of its simplicity and the random dungeon generation and regular loot drops provide just enough variety to keep you going to the end of its short campaign. But the overall level of content is dramatically short of genre expectations, and it all feels like an engine to sell piles of extra content packs in the future. That same model has been very successful for the original game on consoles, and with Dungeons already burning up the sales charts just one day after release, I could see that happening again.
If this were updated with an actual crafting system, a more expansive world, and a proper shop mechanic, it would be a standout example of the genre with a budget price, and a great “my first action RPG” for kids. But as it stands it’s not quite good enough to measure up to other similar games, and not quite Minecraft-y enough to be a good Minecraft follow-up.