Minecraft is famous for its Creative mode – the option which gives an endless supply of digital Lego for you to play around with. It’s the place people build replicas of their universities or the Sistine Chapel or that big tower from Lord of the Rings. But for me, Minecraft has always been about its Survival offering. There, the blocks I build with are ones I’ve dug out the earth myself, while having to fight off monsters and chomp down on baked potatoes in order to keep going.
Minecraft has always been an RPG, is what I’m trying to say. And so while Minecraft Dungeons might sound an unlikely concept – a more accessible Diablo with Creepers – it ends up feeling a natural extension of the formula. Minecraft is defined by its gameplay loop of delving underground for resources, then surfacing back into the sunshine to build. Dungeons’ levels simply dole out their prizes in return for defeating Minecraft’s enemies, rather than asking you to pickaxe gemstones out of walls.
Start to finish, Dungeons is not a long game. It hosts nine biomes, each of which holds a level based around a particular theme, with a couple of secret areas thrown in for good measure. Contrary to its name, most of these biomes are actually not dungeons at all, but ruined villages or desert plains, swamps, canyons, castles and pastures. Each has a particular gimmick – such as the Redstone Mines, which laces its level with fast-moving minecart tracks that continually criss-cross your path like tinsel down a Christmas tree. It’s bad news for you if you’re standing in the way when a minecart comes through, or good news if you’ve herded enemies into its path instead. It’s also the first place you meet the hulking Redstone Golem, one of the game’s most punishing mini-bosses, who’ll punt you into the nearest lava pool if you as much as glance in its direction.
Enemies are taken from a familiar pool at first, so act as a convenient shorthand for how to manage them when they come at you in droves. Everyone knows what a Creeper does when it gets too close, or that skeletons prefer to attack from range via firing arrows. Enchanters buff nearby allies, so you’ll want to get rid of them first, while witches throw potions with bubbling pools of poison. Dungeons is at its best when it’s throwing a dozen or more of these enemies at you at once in a cultivated mix, often in tight areas where manoeuvrability is low and you must juggle abilities and movement to deal with new waves of problems on the fly.
How you do that is left up to you and any friends you’ve brought along for the ride (there’s support for four players locally or online). Dungeons has a scalable difficulty system which adjusts to cater for more players and encourages replayability. But it will also lock out lower difficulty levels which it decides are now too easy for your power level. It is generous in that it gives all characters three free revives per level (and retains boss damage if you all wipe during a big encounter), but its areas often last a good while… Speaking from experience, it’s very easy to lose a life or two while you spend half an hour mopping up every chest and exploring every last corner – a half hour you’ll then have to repeat from scratch if you fall to that level’s final boss, simply because you’ve not given yourself room to try and work out a strategy.
Dungeons does not have a class system or a permanent skill tree, although you can level multiple characters if you so choose. Instead, it has weapons and armour with a limited number of perks to pick from and upgrade, plus three slots for gameplay-modifying artefacts. These items are the closest things to class traits Dungeons bestows, though all are swappable at any point, even mid level if you can find a quiet spot to open your inventory. Some artefacts are simple, such as an explosive firework arrow, or a barrier you can summon which blocks incoming projectiles. But some are wonderfully elaborate, such as the Harvester artefact which sucks up the souls of all fallen enemies to fill an energy meter – which you can then blast out in a wide radius.
I shifted my playstyle a few times in my first trot across Dungeons’ biome map. Initially I started quite cautiously, focusing on ranged abilities that matched my spelunking armour which gave me a vicious pet bat. But as the levels wore on I found myself getting stuck more and more in the middle of fights, which is where I found the Harvester artefact slowly becoming an essential part of my character build. By using a melee weapon and armour which both buffed soul acquisition I could run into the centre of an enemy cluster and detonate myself, then immediately harvest the enemies I had just offed, refilling my souls meter to go again. This worked great, until the enemies got tougher still, and I opted for a middle-ground approach, one with the souls mechanic for crowd clearance but also a cluster of fire arrows that deal damage over time to let me keep some distance.
Finish the game’s campaign and you’ll unlock the first of two harder difficulty modes, each with its own selection of buffed up enemies and rarer loot to customise your playstyle further. Apparently there’s a way to summon an Iron Golem pet. I would like to find the artefact or armour that lets me do that. Already I’ve found myself re-running several of the missions again just for a little more XP and to scoop up some of their potential rewards I’ve yet to uncover. Dungeon’s procedural generation system works well – each run through feels different enough in terms of layout, with mini-bosses dotted in at random points as surprises, and each biome feels distinct.
The late-game level of Fiery Forge offers probably its standout visual palette – a mix of crisp white snow on the slopes of a lava-filled mountain reminiscent of Tolkein’s Moria. Inside the mountain, areas open to the sky allow flakes to fall through into the heat haze of the caverns below. Dungeons can be a surprisingly pretty game, but it suffers a little on the base Xbox One. There are occasional hang-ups in performance, a moment every level or so where the game needs to stop and have a think about a particularly busy scene. I previously played a beta build of the game on PC which did not have any similar issue. Hopefully this is something which can be smoothed out post-launch.
After every trip into a combat zone, Dungeons returns you to a peaceful camp area. This no-combat hub lets you practice your builds on hay target dummies, buy and upgrade equipment and explore a small area without fear of enemies. Poking around here is a perfect little cap to every adventure – akin to that feeling of returning to the surface after a long spell underground in the original Minecraft. It’s an area which, in the hands of any other developer but Mojang, I feel like might have been missed. Instead, it rounds out a strong extension to the franchise, and by far the most promising Minecraft spin-off released to date.