Note to viewers: most framerate hitches seen in the video are due to my capture/hardware setup and is not a reflection of the game’s performance, though I did experience some slight framerate dips on the Switch version. I apologize for the inconvenience.
Minecraft Dungeons is a welcome looter action RPG among Microsoft’s first-party offerings, and it’s made the jump to Nintendo Switch. While it doesn’t stray too far from the typical tropes of others in the genre (think Diablo)—and despite some odd departures from those same tropes—Minecraft Dungeons is a lighthearted take on the aRPG that is welcome to both newcomers and genre enthusiasts alike, thanks to the balance it strikes between accessibility and character progression that’s only as deep as it needs to be.
Sitting somewhere between the original Minecraft and Telltale’s Minecraft Story Mode, the narrative of Minecraft Dungeons only serves to give players a reason to jump from location to location. Shunned by his own kind, an Illager seizes power for his own and becomes the Arch Illager, becoming a tyrant over Illagers and monsters alike. The player’s quest centers around tracking down the Arch Illager and snuffing out his tyranny. It’s by no means a moving or even compelling story, but it doesn’t need to be. In Minecraft Dungeons, gameplay is king, and that’s where the game truly excels.
Fans of isometric action RPGs won’t need much of a primer, but for those new to the genre: think of Minecraft if it were a third-person action game without the mining, building, or crafting. That’s essentially the elevator pitch for Minecraft Dungeons. You choose a starting skin for your character, and after a brief tutorial, you’re thrust into the world of slaying familiar Minecraft baddies. Fans of the source material will recognize zombies, creepers, spiders, and other fauna from the original Minecraft. That said, a knowledge of the source material isn’t required to fully appreciate Minecraft Dungeons for what it is, but even a brief familiarity with the original game will cue lightbulbs when you recognize a monster, or have an idea of what a boss’ attacks might be.
As previously mentioned, Minecraft Dungeons doesn’t stray very far from the status quo of aRPGs that have come before it, particularly games like Diablo—there are even loot goblin clones!—but it’s a far more boiled-down flavor of those types of games. Each character is outfitted with a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, a single outfit of armor, and three artifacts—think of the latter as abilities. Melee weapons vary from swords to daggers, from maces to giant hammers; ranged weapons are either bows or crossbows; and artifacts are far and away the most varied—from healing totems to ranged attacks, and even to summoned familiars or team buffs. Despite that, at first blush, there doesn’t seem to be much to work with in Minecraft Dungeons, the versatility of the combination of the three artifacts you can have at one time alone give the game a surprising amount of depth—and that isn’t even considering the enchantment system.
Enchanting in Minecraft Dungeons can truly change the way you play the game in surprising ways. You earn enchantment points by leveling up—one per level—and any enchantment points you put toward an item can be recouped by deconstructing (or destroying) the item. Each melee weapon, armor outfit, or ranged weapon can have between one and three enchantment slots, and each slot can have two to three possible enchantments to choose from. The number of available slots and the enchantment options for each slot in an item are completely random, so there’s no telling what you’ll get or what combinations you might be able to come up with. For example, a bow I’d used for the majority of the game had the Bonus Shot and Fuse Shot enchantments, which gave a chance to spawn an extra arrow and a chance for those arrows to explode after a short period, respectively. Not only was it enough to have a chance for an exploding arrow, but the extra arrows increased those odds—and sometimes, even multiple arrows would explode at once, which was perfect for clearing large mobs. It’s little happenings like this that truly allow Minecraft Dungeons to punch above its weight.
The added value to that is that Minecraft Dungeons is simply fun to play. All of my multiplayer outings were with my 11-year-old son—an avid Minecraft fan in his own right—and we had a blast playing through all the different levels and exploring the parallels between the original game and this one. This was my son’s first foray into aRPGs (since games like Diablo are too mature for him at this point), and while there was a brief learning curve, he had the rhythm down pat before the tutorial ended. Controls are responsive and intuitive, and we never encountered any issues that prevented us from completing our goals—any time our party wiped, it was something we did wrong and not the fault of the game’s design.
That said, there are a few odd design choices we encountered and were confused by. Typically, in games like Diablo or Torchlight, venturing from the beaten path often yields rewards, whether it be loot, gold, or some combination thereof. Hardly did we explore a divergent path in Minecraft Dungeons and felt rewarded for our efforts. The only real incentive to explore is to either find more monsters to defeat for more experience, or if you have the Explorer armor enchantment, which gives you a small health recovery for each one hundred blocks you explore. More often than not, we followed the in-game marker toward the next objective because we felt exploring would just lead to wasted effort.
That said, the game’s loot system mostly works in its favor. Though there isn’t much incentive to explore for loot, there are random chests sprinkled throughout levels that contain loot, but those are few and far between (save for some of the secret levels, which I won’t spoil here). Most loot drops will either be from defeating monsters, or from trading in-game currency at camp, which is essentially the hub world between levels. The latter nets you one random melee weapon, armor outfit, or ranged weapon from the blacksmith, or a random artifact from the wandering trader. Weapons and armor have three different rarities: common, rare, and unique. Unique-level items often have a special name (Red Snake versus a common bow, for example) and have special abilities. Unique items really do seem to have a low drop rate, so coming across one feels like an event unto itself.
One quality-of-life feature of the game that’s both a blessing and a curse is the reserved drop system. The blessing is in that the game will drop weapons or armor for specific players if you’re playing with a party in an effort to distribute loot fairly. The curse is that this feature seemingly is random and is not always equal. In some cases, when playing with my son, I often received several reserved drops in a row while he received nothing, and vice-versa. This is further complicated by the fact that, at the time of this review, there is no way to drop or trade items with teammates. The only recourse to get rid of an item is to deconstruct it, which nets you a small sum of currency and any enchantment points you spent toward that item. There were many occasions on which I would pick up an item that would be perfect for my son’s character build, but since I couldn’t drop it or trade it to him, my options were to use the item myself or deconstruct it, thereby wasting its potential. Many unique-level items fell by the wayside simply because we couldn’t drop or trade them with each other, and that’s truly a shame.
Another blessing and curse is the life system. If your party wipes, you are instantly respawned with full health and artifacts a short distance away from the site of your demise. However, you only get three chances at this—after the fourth party wipe, you’re sent back to camp and must restart the entire level over again. The good news is that any character level progress or loot obtained before the wipe is retained.
As for difficulty, the game has three overall difficulty tiers—Default, Adventure, and Apocalypse—and within each of those tiers are six more granular difficulty tiers. Each of the game’s levels has a base difficulty based on where it falls in the story arc (meaning, one of the final levels can’t be played on Default II, for example), but you can scale up the difficulty of any level depending on your character’s power level. The Adventure difficulty can only be unlocked by completing the game on Default difficulty, and Apocalypse can only be unlocked by completing the game on Adventure. For the most part, playing the game on Default while not scaling the difficulty up is a breeze, but even on the lowest difficulty settings, there is a rather large difficulty spike in the final two levels of the game. Be warned—you’ll likely need to retread past sections to level up your character and earn some better loot before tackling the game’s final level. With grinding to take on the final level, my initial playthrough clocked in at around ten hours. But, of course, your mileage will vary in that department.
Despite some of the design and gameplay frustrations, Minecraft Dungeons is a simply gorgeous game. The art style of Minecraft in general is arguably divisive, but skeptics may find it more palatable or easier to appreciate given the bird’s-eye view. Pre-conceived notions aside, it’s hard to deny the game is artfully crafted, from the way character shadows dance amid the chaos to how grass and trees sway in the wind. The game’s ten locations are diverse and gorgeously crafted, with enemies and designs that fit each theme well. I’ll be the first to admit the low-poly nature of Minecraft in general typically turns me off, but I had an absolute blast playing through Minecraft Dungeons, and the game’s presentation only aided in that enjoyment.
When it comes to platform-specific features of the Switch version, you won’t find any extras here. The use of rumble is put to good effect for things like explosions, but HD rumble was not utilized here. As far as performance, compared to the game running on the launch Xbox One, my experience was largely the same, though I did notice the Switch version had a significantly reduced frame rate in some areas, particularly when there are multiple characters and enemies on screen and spell effects are going off. I wouldn’t call it a deal-breaker by any means, but it’s certainly worth noting.
The game does also feature online multiplayer, but at the time of review it’s console-specific. Mojang and Microsoft are aiming for cross-play via a future free update.
For such a seemingly simple package at its surface, Minecraft Dungeons has much to offer beneath its terrain. While it doesn’t stray very far from the genre norms set forth before it, Minecraft Dungeons simplifies the looter action RPG and puts its own spin on the genre, all while faithfully drawing from its source material to great effect. With such a strong initial outing, and Microsoft’s commitment to taking player feedback into account for future updates, I’m excited to see where the game goes with the next two planned DLC drops and beyond.
Many thanks to Microsoft for providing a review copy of Minecraft Dungeons.