Minecraft is not just one of the biggest games of all time, it’s transcended the boundaries of what we know as gaming. You can find it being used in classrooms, where it can be used to teach design and construction skills, a simple trawl through Youtube will turn up a host of incredibly accurate reconstructions of both real-world and fictional locations, and in recent months, it’s even become a repository for forbidden texts, circumventing the prohibitive laws of regimes that prevent free speech.
Minecraft Dungeons is less likely to see such high-concept or humanitarian uses. Instead, it takes the blocky world of Minecraft and turns it into a multiplayer dungeon crawler. I imagine the elevator pitch was “it’s Minecraft meets Diablo”, and would you believe that’s exactly what it is?
Dungeon crawlers task you and any friends you might fancy bringing along with heading down into a dungeon/mine/deep cellar to dispatch the largely undead enemies you’ll find there, all the while keeping an eye out for treasure chests packed with loot and resources. The drive to find a slightly better suit of armour, or a sword that does magical fire damage, has proven to be a heady mix, with the best examples – Diablo, Torchlight and their peers – keeping the genre alive.
Minecraft Dungeons takes all of that, and wraps it up in a lovely, isometric Minecraft skin. Despite the simplistic, blocky nature of the franchise’s visuals, it’s a great fit for the pulled back viewpoint, and provides the sense that this is absolutely a Minecraft game. That’s helped by the eternally recognisable creatures and enemies that populate every stage. From Illagers that are at the heart of the game’s wrongdoings, to the eternally terrifying Endermen that leap out of range whenever you think you’ve cornered them, they make perfect dungeon-crawling fodder.
There’s a light narrative that runs though the game, as it falls on your shoulders to end the despotic rule of the Arch-Illager that has blighted the landscape. Each cutscene looks fantastic and really brings the world to life, but it’s not hugely integral to all the bashing, arrow-firing, or loot collecting. Your character build, your melee and ranged weaponry, and your Artifacts, are the beating heart of the game.
There are nine stages in total – with more promised on the level select screen – and they each showcase different Minecraft themed areas. A run through all of them probably won’t take too long, especially with a committed group of friends – whether you’re playing locally or online – but you can return to every level, crank the difficulty and find better gear, in an ongoing loop that’s repeatedly satisfying.
Anyone that’s ever played Diablo knows the importance of looting, and Minecraft Dungeons has weighted it perfectly for both a younger audience and fans of the genre. Chests and drops from enemies are all colour coded so they can only be picked up by the matching player. There’s no fighting over loot, and the only time where an ounce of selfishness can come in is at supply chests where everyone gets one turn, but anyone can nab the items that come flying out.
It’s not so pervasive either as to become annoying. You can head into your set-up with the push of a button, but you’ll swiftly learn that this doesn’t pause the game, meaning that it’s only by agreement that you can stop and dive into your equipment settings. It can still cause a little trouble in local co-op though, with mis-timed button presses not only stopping the action, but often leaving you at the mercy of a mob that’s just appeared.
Another element that makes its way over from the main game is Enchantments. Every time you level up, you gain a point to spend enchanting a chosen item, adding new passive skills or abilities to your loadout. It’s a clean and simple set-up, made all the more accessible by being able to regain all of your enchantment points when you scrap a weapon that’s outlived its use.
Things get more complicated, and more involved as you progress. Where the base weaponry might seem straightforward, loot comes in increasing levels of rarity, with different and often multiple Enchantments to choose from. Once you’ve added in Artifacts, which can do things like lay down healing circles or spawn llamas to help you in battle, you’ve got a whole host of elements with which to tinker.
It means you’ll be spending more and more time playing with your set-up the further on you go, and it’s impressively all-consuming. It takes away any sensation that this is a stripped back dungeon crawler, and it scratches the exact same min-max itch that the best dungeon crawlers manage to.
The fact that you can take all this on with up to three friends, both online and in the real world, lifts the game even further, and co-op is an even better way to experience the game. There are a few annoyances – you can occasionally lose sight of your avatar in the midst of everything, especially when there’s four of you running around – but it’s a small price to pay for the frantic, engaging action and all that sweet, blocky loot.