There’s a lot to be said about a game with a cute antagonist. The Arch-Illager in Minecraft Dungeons is honestly the most endearing little guy, with his boop-worthy Squidward nose and absurdly small stature. He was bullied as a kid for the way he looks, and once exiled from his humble hamlet, drawn to the allure of the evil Orb Of Dominance. We’ve all been there. People make mistakes… he just needs a good talking to, OK?
My opinion of the Arch-Illager quickly changed when I reached the Redstone Mines, where my co-op partner remarked at the current objective – ‘Rescue The Slaves’. You see, little Archie’s power trip made him turn on his own people, brainwashing an army of innocents to do his vile bidding.
In response, you and up to four friends must delve into the underbelly of Minecraft’s most curious biomes to undo his deeds, fighting familiar and unfamiliar mobs, crafting character builds along the way. Minecraft Dungeons’ simple premise is a clever use of one of the most popular franchises of all-time, yet I’m not convinced that this isometric action RPG lives up to the standard set by its phenomenal precursor.
First off, let’s get this out of the way: I beat the game in a single sitting. It took me and my co-op partner roughly three hours and 20 minutes to topple the Arch-Illager’s regime on a fairly average Wednesday afternoon. Not bad for an upstart adventurer duo! But also, inherently quite disappointing.
There are two scaling difficulties beyond the default offering where you can run the gauntlet for better loot and items. But after a few levels on hard mode, I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to keep at it, for reasons I’m about to dig (aha) into.
Minecraft Dungeons’ character builds and loot system at first appear enticing, but ultimately end up hollow. Each hero has three slots: a melee weapon, a ranged weapon and a suit of armour. Beyond that, they can equip three artefacts, which possess special abilities that can get you out of a bind in battle. To fill these equipment slots, enemies and chests drop items of varying rarity, as well as useful currency – emeralds – which you can trade in back at your camp for random bits of kit.
It’s a very loose and accessible system, meaning all ages can pick up and play Minecraft Dungeons without worrying about ‘the meta’ or having to spend ages fiddling with statistics to get the best results. In that sense, it succeeds. But the problem is that your build always feels fleeting, to the point where it becomes unsatisfactory.
You can enchant any of the items in your top three slots – with one point delivered each time you level up – but when you find something better, you can equip it and salvage your old items to get those enchantments back. This means that you’ll never really hold onto the items you love for very long, and there’s no means to upcycle them so you can be the wolf-suit wearing, harp-crossbow firing zombie menace that you’ve always wanted to be.
This certainly provides a lot of freedom, but it strips the players of any agency about the kind of hero they’d like to cosplay as. And by proxy, this removes the exciting mini-narratives and established roles that usually make co-op dungeon crawlers exciting.
Some of the levels are a little bloated for completionists, too. At first, I enjoyed digging out each secret and chest and revealing every corner of the map, but there wasn’t enough focus on rewarding your efforts, so I stopped exploring so much. This was a total bummer, especially when that spirit of exploration that it didn’t inspire in me is exactly what makes Minecraft so much fun.
Plenty of other dungeon crawlers do this well by offering more substantial secrets and hidden treats. I wanted to be able to physically dig through walls and uncover exciting areas and challenges, instead of constantly feeling like I was trapped by the level design and taking part in the same optional battles. Because of the game’s procedural loot system, no one weapon holds any desirable weight to it. There could have been a reason to explore if the game was keen to let you keep your favourite weapons, but instead, it all just boils down to currency and integers.
Luckily, Dungeons is no slouch in the difficulty department, and in our playthrough, we came up against some tricky challenges that required logical combos and build-tweaking to take down the boss battles that can blindside you in the midst of a swamp or a fiery forge.
These combat challenges graft in enemies from Minecraft lore and adapt their abilities in an appealing fashion, with some playing like bullet hell mini-games and others requiring synchronised use of the environment to pummel burly beasts. We died a lot trying to figure them out, and they certainly constituted the best moments in the entire game. Even so, the adrenaline-pumping swarms of skeletons and spiders that arrive in later levels make for some hilarious moments of fear and luck, where we’d escape a game over by the skin of our teeth or figure out an enemies foil on the fly.
I was disappointed by the difficulty of my second playthrough, which seemed very numbers-based and not curated. Rather than introducing late-game enemies earlier or mixing up combat arenas, the same enemies merely hit harder and have more health. This is what put me off from playing it through again, though I feel as though it’d be fun to return to for a few hours every now and then if I could summon a few friends.
Unfortunately, we also caught wind of a few annoying glitches. We managed to break one of the early missions by exiting through a door without the key item, to do some extra exploring, which forced us to restart the map and lose our progress. There was also a good amount of lag when playing in co-op, and a few connection glitches meant either one of us had to restart the game or we had to swap hosts to get a level to load. I’m hoping these were just local to our internet and not worldwide, and I’m sure they’ll be ironed out ASAP – but it’s still worth noting.
Beyond the disappointing missteps, Dungeons has plenty of pleasing features, including a robust accessibility menu that presents itself at the start of the game and a handy chat wheel for in-game communication. The game also boasts a strangely exceptional use of the Xbox controller’s rumble system. The thump of stone trap doors and the vivid TNT explosions feel immersive in your palms – it reminded me of the excellent HD Rumble functionality baked into the Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Cons.
The music is terrific as well – by god, whoever composed this game’s soundtrack needs more than just a pat on the back. I’m pretty sure it’s not Minecraft’s C418, but it homages that style so carefully and leaves an excellent impression, especially during those moments of peace when you’re relaxing in the campsite – the melancholy tones really help you melt into the atmosphere of the world.
Minecraft Dungeons is out now on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Xbox Game Pass.
Minecraft Dungeons is a competent dungeon crawler with some odd design choices that made it hard for me to summon the will to keep playing beyond its disappointing runtime. The narrative isn’t much to shout home about, and all the charm, rumble and music in the world can’t save it from being a lacklustre opportunity to transpose the incredible world of Minecraft into another genre. Yet, given that it retails for a modest £14.99 and is available at launch on Xbox Games Pass, it’s well worth a punt for young families or groups of Minecraft fanatics who aren’t looking for the depth of Diablo.
- Reliable, accessible gameplay for the whole family
- Brilliant boss battles complemented by a superb score
- It’s oozing with cutesy charm, dictator villain aside
- The progression system lacks depth and character builds are ultimately hollow
- One playthrough will take you roughly three to five hours
- Doesn’t do enough to reward exploration