Diablo invades Minecraft, bringing a cute style but a fleeting adventure.
For a series as globally popular as Minecraft, it’s almost amazing that the amount of spinoffs have been so low over the past decade. Following Telltale’s Story Mode and the beta launch of Minecraft Earth, Mojang is releasing Minecraft Dungeons, a cute dungeon crawler that smartly takes Diablo’s concepts and whittles them down into an elegant simplicity. While light on content and level variety, Dungeons makes up for its shortcoming by being a cute co-op romp through the charming blocky world.
At the outset, you pick a character from a pre-generated assortment. Contrary to the dungeon crawling genre, you don’t choose a class. While the flexibility is nice, this adds to an overarching feeling of the looseness. It also renders the dungeon-crawler concept of spinning up new characters in different classes moot. Characters instantly become more generic by the virtue that they are all fundamentally exactly the same. Where the customization comes is in the loot you find throughout the world. Your hero only has six equippable slots: a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, armor, and three artifacts. Melee weapons include axes and swords while ranged are all variations on bows. Armors are your main visual differentiator, letting your hero don animal pelts and metal armor. The artifacts are items and skills that are used on a cooldown. Examples of those include calling down lightning, firing bomb arrows, and stunning nearby enemies.
Leveling up doesn’t increase your stats but instead adds enhancement points that are used on weapons and armor to add buffs and bonuses. That’s where crafting your character can soar as the enhancement points can be used to make crazy synergies across all your gear. At one point, I found a powerful bow that featured an enhancement that would add a percentage chance the arrow would be retained after firing it. Combining that with bomb arrows would often give me a run of consecutive bomb arrows, laying waste to my foes.
Making your way through levels will lead you to finding more powerful items, necessitating you to keep changing your gear to go with the new higher-level weapons and artifacts. When you reach that point, you can salvage your old weapons to regain their enhancement points. While this sometimes makes the gameplay more amorphous, I enjoyed the playfulness of quickly churning through weapons and toying around with different combat styles. The loop involves always mixing and matching weapons with new perks and artifacts with interesting abilities. This aspect is a ton of fun.
That makes it a shame that the playfulness of the combat doesn’t extend to the level design. Retaining Minecraft’s trademark blocky look, the levels in Dungeons feature generic fantasy locales that consist of a wealth of corridors and kill rooms with the occasional light puzzle. Not that a dungeon crawler needs to be complex to succeed, but the solo experience here quickly becomes more of a slog. The best thing about it might be that there are only 10 levels, since the story ended by the time I was getting tired of the repetition. Levels are a mixture of procedural generation and defined mission objectives, which does add variety to replays but the changes aren’t overwhelmingly different.
Co-op certainly brightens up the experience, though. Four-player local and online play is possible, though you can’t mix local and online and, as of launch, there is no cross-platform play. Local play is fun, though the framerate did dip from time to time, especially when a lot of enemies appear on the screen at once. Online was smoother and it’s still profoundly weird to use Xbox Live on a Nintendo platform. You have to be Xbox Live friends with someone in order to play Minecraft Dungeons with them, but you still also have to pay for Nintendo Switch Online.
Though the main story is short, repeat trips are encouraged with procedural generation across three difficulty levels that all have tweakable difficulty settings for individual levels. The key to enjoying yourself is by embracing the grind of getting new loot and fiddling with your items and enhancement points. Playing in co-op locally or online also helps. Even still, only 10 levels that will take you only a few hours to get through initially isn’t a lot. DLC is on the way, of both the free and paid variety. At launch, a Hero Edition includes several cosmetic additions as well as two future level packs of undetermined size and scope. Free updates are also planned, though the specifics are unknown.
While the overall brevity and lesser level diversity is disheartening, Minecraft Dungeons is an enjoyable experience. It’s much harder to recommend as a solo player, but if you’re able to hang out on the couch and knock out some creepers with a pal or head online and smash up mobs with a buddy, the weaker elements can wash away. I had a good time playing Minecraft Dungeons. I just wish there was a little more to it.