The blocky dungeon crawler that is Minecraft Dungeons left a positive impression on us when we first checked it out at Gamescom 2019, and with its release looming ever closer, we were itching to dive in to take one last look. Recently, we got the chance to view an exclusive online event hosted by key developers David Nisshagen, Måns Olson, and Laura de Llorens, and we were also able to spend some hands-on time with the ongoing closed beta on PC.
Minecraft Dungeons unfolds within the Minecraft universe and, as expected, shares the same blocky aesthetic that has made the series instantly recognisable. Unlike Minecraft, however, Dungeons features a fully-voiced story campaign with the central antagonist being the Arch-Illager, an outcast who has risen to power after obtaining the Orb of Dominance. Story snippets within the beta were brief (there's nothing to the extent of fully-animated cutscenes) and saw us rescue the villagers that had been terrorised by this newfound threat.
Fans of traditional dungeon crawlers will likely find themselves at home here as the core should feel familiar. You explore randomly generated dungeons, hack down waves of attacking enemies, and then snatch up as much precious loot as possible. Dungeons are displayed from an isometric perspective and players advance themselves forward by left-clicking (on the PC), and the same gesture is used for melee attacks. Combat leans towards melee with most encounters happening up close but you can fire off arrows with your bow too to pick off enemies from afar by right-clicking.
With this unexpected offshoot deviating drastically from the main title - it's one we believe can be approached and enjoyed by anybody regardless of their familiarity with the series. That's not to say that Minecraft fans won't find anything familiar beyond its blocky exterior. Hostile mobs such as exploding Creepers, Chicken Jockeys, and Skeleton Horsemen are all offensive roadblocks taken from the original title. The team also conveyed to us that with Dungeons they wished to pass on the humour that has become part of the series' identity. We saw this on stream as a developer's arrowheads grew to comical proportions after modifying them with an enchantment.
Within the beta, we were able to sample quests from three stages and these were Pumpkin Pastures, Creeper Woods, and Creepy Crypt. Each of these stages featured randomly generated pathways and contained scripted objectives that played out at the same each time. Pumpkin Pastures with its bright autumn hues offered more of an open and flowing route for us to explore and the ominous Creeper Woods felt more cramped and claustrophobic. Each stage also featured hidden pathways which allowed inquisitive players to scoop up some diamond-embellished treasure chests. On one stage we ventured into a shadowy tomb and had to complete a simple block-based puzzle before being handed our reward.
We appreciated that we could equip any loot that we obtained as there wasn't a class system present to pose restrictions. All loot can also be modified using 'enchantment points' that you receive from gaining XP and levelling up. Furthermore, all loot has its own set of randomised abilities and these could be improved up to three times using points. One axe we obtained, for example, had Fire Effect, which enabled us to set mobs on fire, another had Thundering, which offered us a 30% chance of striking enemies with lightning. We liked this system as it didn't enable one piece of gear to be instantly superior just because it had higher base stats and a lot of consideration was placed into what we wanted to equip.
Minecraft Dungeons can be played both online and via local co-op and the difficulty scales based on the number of players in your party. A mechanic we particularly liked about co-op is how increasingly challenging enemies would swoop into action until you are able to revive your partner's downed character, or until you die trying. Loot within co-op is individualised for all players, which is another touch we appreciate, as it puts a stop to greedy players snatching up an entire haul. Another thing to note is that there is no way for players to transfer items between each other's inventories - you just have to pull in the big loot yourselves.
The developers confirmed that it would take around five hours to steamroll through all of the story content but we can see there is a large replayability factor here. Each quest you embark on has an adjustable difficulty scale and this, of course, dictates the challenge and how rare the loot will be that you'll be obtaining. Playing through a level on the lowest end of the difficulty scale compared to something at the other end makes for a refreshing change as you'll encounter new threats such as enchanted enemies. The more pronounced difficulty, coupled with the randomly generated dungeons and the promise of better loot had us coming back to replay the beta's three stages.
Before closing out the live stream the developers revealed some of their post-launch plans, as well as touching upon the Hero Edition. We learnt that cross saves and cross-play won't be available at launch but they will be coming in the future. They also mentioned that the Hero Edition would act as a season pass and would enable players to receive two chunky story-driven DLCs. We didn't learn of when these expansions will arrive but Hero Edition purchasers do get some Day One goodies such as a chicken pet and two different character skins.
Minecraft Dungeons appears to be another promising yet unexpected venture for the wildly popular franchise and, fortunately, we won't have to wait long until we can sink our teeth into the full release. We enjoyed that all loot was equippable and how the enchantments really made us consider what to keep hold of. We're sure that this one will be another hit with fans of the franchise and we would urge those that are interested dungeon crawlers to keep it on their radar.
Minecraft Dungeons is scheduled to be released May 26 on PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One, and will be available to Xbox Games Pass subscribers at launch.