This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Minecraft Dungeons.
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So after Microsoft bought Minecraft they must have said “Ha ha, it’s mine all minecraft, and we got it away from Notch before he went too weird on us, now what shall we do with it?” And in reply the thoughtwaves of the Microsoft corporate hive mind emitted only cricket noises. Telltale Games came along and said “Hey, I know, let’s make a choices matter except not really episodic adventure game!” Oh piss off Telltale Games, you tried to turn my last colonic endoscopy video into a choices matter except not really episodic adventure game. Choices matter except not really episodic adventure games are not the answer to everything, especially not questions like “How is Telltale Games going to unfuck itself.”
So, the question remained, what to do with Minecraft? Minecraft is a pure sandbox creativity game set in an infinite number of randomly generated functionally infinite worlds. What you gonna do, make a sequel that has twice as much functionally infinite content? Or built of slightly larger cubes? This isn’t like Halo or Gears of War, you can’t just slowly fade in the logo with an incremented number on the end and watch an auditorium of fanboys drench each other in come. Minecraft is a hobby. It’s the model train set of the 21st century.
Minecraft fans don’t want sequels that just repackage what they’ve already got and fuck up all the mods, they just want the odd content patch to add slightly taller iron fences and giraffes and pastry lamination and that’s a difficult thing to cut a pulse-pounding hype trailer around. But, you can’t just buy something and then keep it as it is forever, this isn’t a fucking art gallery, and so Minecraft Dungeons had to be made, a game that is the equivalent of moving your hand in a circular motion and going “ehhhhhh” because you feel obliged to say something, anything, to fill the silence.
In case I wasn’t making this clear, I believe there’s a fundamental issue with Minecraft Dungeons on the conceptual level. It’s an isometric hack and slash dungeon crawler for up to four players, and while yes, there are swords in Minecraft, and yes, there are things you can hit with the sword in Minecraft, it was never more than an incidental hassle to make it all the more satisfying when you finally finished your roller coaster shaped like Nicki Minaj lying on her back or whatever your project was. To base your spin off around something so incidental to the point of Minecraft is to spin right off it, out the garage and down a storm drain.
Essentially all Microsoft has done is slap Minecraft’s art style onto a completely unrelated game, and I’m pretty sure part of Minecraft’s identity lies in how it looks like absolute shit. Oh, the style functions as intended, sure, but there’s a reason why Minecraft projects only look impressive once they go past a certain size, ‘cos close up everything looks like it’s made from family pack sized boxes of Ricicles. And the art is literally the only thing connecting Dungeons to Minecraft, you could swap out everything for Monopoly board pieces and retitle it The Day Uncle Pennybags Finally Snapped and it would work just as well. Not that this precludes Minecraft Dungeons from being a fun and interesting game, no, it’s everything else that does that.
Let’s start with the plot. In the peaceful land of Microsoft’s Minecraft registered trademark, a bitter and vengeful villain randomly finds a Triforce, I mean Cosmic Cube, I mean generic all-powerful Maguffin invariably taking the form of a simple geometric shape that glows a bit, and then a numberless horde of generic monsters pour out of his armpits and now you, the hero stroke heroes, must fight to liberate the innocent residents of… whatever they’re calling this place. And all of this is established with what I can only describe as a sense of disengaged inevitability.
The story is set up with a very bored-sounding narration and very little time is wasted on establishing how or why we, the heroes, found ourselves in this situation. You are heroes and there are baddies currently standing around being alive and not asphyxiating on their own teeth and that’s all the motivation you’re getting. What I wonder is if the human minions of the villain ever look at the zombies and skeletons and kamikaze hedges they’re forced to work alongside and regret dropping out of higher education, but don’t worry about it. This is the tokenest of token plots to add token context to an extremely token game. Not a particularly long game, either, just eight or nine token levels in token biomes before a token final boss and a token ending.
It is a better embodiment of token than a Chuck E. Cheese arcade with one black employee. So it’s definitely trying for the co-op focus, it’s got all the signs – online is the default mode and single player offline mode you have to opt into with that air of tacit disapproval multiplayer games always project like a waiter in a posh restaurant when you ask if you could just have a side without an entree, you have to go back to the hub / matchmaking zone between every level, and every cutscene shows three extra dudes mysteriously accompanying you like they’re the documentary film crew.
But I played the whole game solo and never once felt I was missing out. There are no classes or much in the way of support abilities that emphasise co-operation, every level is just getting funneled along a path and stabbin’ a number of dudes large enough to be stimulating to fight in an “escaping from a roomful of balloons” kind of way but not large enough that extra help was needed.
In fact, with Minecraft’s “box ottoman space program” art style that means every character has the exact same silhouette, having three other blockheads running around could only make things more visually confusing, like dropping your last watermelon jolly rancher into a box of lego. As for the core gameplay, you pick a weapon, the Minecraft sword, the Minecraft axe, the Minecraft pickax or the Minecraft halberd if you don’t mind completely breaking down the already thin facade, and then you go from room to room swatting it at anything that moves. And yes, I have been putting off bringing up the core gameplay, well deduced Inspector Poirot, ‘cos frankly there’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It’s a competent enough combat grind with all the right impacts and balances.
It does present a difficulty slider before each level, which usually for games like this would strike me as developer shorthand for “please balance our game for us, we couldn’t be bothered,” but I rarely felt the need to tweak it. If you are determined to have fun with Minecraft Dungeons, like it was the only thing your mother got you for your birthday and she’s going to break out the wire coathangers if you don’t seem appreciative, then you might well find fun, or at the very least distraction from what sounds like a very unhealthy home environment. But the point is, the inoffensiveness of the gameplay makes it as substantial as a puff of air.
And Minecraft Dungeons is as much Minecraft as a balloon with a Minecraft logo printing on it. Potentially amusing if you let the air out so it makes a farting noise but still just a big ball of air with fuck all to do with the original. Even that Telltale adventure game remembered to put some crafting in, for fuck’s sake, it was a join-the-dots version of a Da Vinci masterpiece but it was something. I don’t know what you could comfortably add to Minecraft Dungeons to make it more like the authentic Minecraft experience. Replace the main villain with an aggrieved little brother holding a bucket of lava?