I did not expect to have as much fun with Minecraft Dungeons as I have. I’ve been a fan of the Diablo-style ARPG for many years and one of my favourite things to do is inspecting new takes on the formula, poking around to see how they stack up to the genre’s eternal grandfather. It’s clear that the Minecraft Dungeons team feel the same way. Even at this early stage, you can see the way it incorporates the best aspects of the genre into its systems, while simplifying the often dense mathematical structures that make up its beating heart for younger audiences.
Build with numbers, not blocks
What struck me at first is how steady the game feels. The movement speed is set to a casual stride so the player can make the most of each attack. On PC, the left click swung my character’s melee weapon while right-click fired off an arrow. The slower movement lets you strategise a little, prioritising certain targets to better disperse mobs. It may feel interminably slow for Diablo veterans used to pumping move speed for a faster grind, but I can see the thinking the behind it. If you still find it too slow, then you can always go hunting for items that buff your movement speed. If you’re an ARPG fan, I’m sure you’re perfectly fine with that.
In Minecraft, you build your house with blocks. In Minecraft Dungeons, you build your character with numbers. The philosophical crossover there is so neat that I feel like I need to clap the devs on the back for it. Your build dictates what your character excels at. You pump certain skills and take certain abilities when levelling up that push these changes forward. Otherwise, it is your individual gear that will provide the most substantial bonuses. Let’s say you find a helmet that offers a +20% to any attacks you make that deal fire damage. If your character is melee based, you might now go looking for a sword that deals fire damage to take advantage of that. If you were crafty, you might go looking for other gear that has the same +20% fire damage stat. Equip three pieces of gear with that stat and they’ll stack. Suddenly your sword is doing 60% more fire damage than it ordinarily would. This is a very basic version of the broad ARPG loop. At its highest levels, character builds can take advantage of numerous buffs that produce astounding results.
Mathematics for fun and damage buffs
Minecraft Dungeons operates at this most basic level. Any gear you pick up is either equal or just slightly higher or lower than your character’s level. Your character has six gear slots — two for weapons, one for armour and three for consumable items. Common tier gear generally has a single baseline stat. Rare items have a baseline stat with one or two secondary stats — my current armour grants +59 health, but also gives me +10 arrows to any bundle I pick up and gives me +30% ranged attack damage. What this tells me is I can use this armour to build a character that is a menace with a bow. So I took my common bow and upgraded its attack speed to +15%. So now not only am I picking up tons of arrows, I can just fire them non-stop. And because the games moves more slowly, I can take my time and pick those ranged targets off at my leisure.
You see what I’m driving at. When building a character, looking at the whole puzzle and seeing where the pieces intersect leads to the biggest rewards. And right now that’s where Minecraft Dungeons is succeeding most. It’s not only easy to equip new gear, but it’s also easy to upgrade them too and the rewards for doing so are immediate and obvious. This keeps the process of manipulating the game’s systems simple and fun. Great stuff. Equipment you don’t want can be dismantled for currency. I do want to point out that Minecraft Dungeons goes the extra step of adding an Undo button when dismantling a piece of gear. I’ve accidentally milled valuable loot in every ARPG I’ve ever played. An Undo button is brilliant. Thank you to whoever implemented that, you are my own personal lord and saviour.
The look and feel of low-fi
It’s amusing to see a game that looks like Minecraft proudly show you an Unreal Engine logo on bootup. Unreal is the engine of choice for AAA high fidelity visuals, not Minecraft‘s signature low-fi look. It’s actually a testament to the talent of development teams Mojang and Double Eleven that the game looks exactly like the real thing.
Minecraft Dungeons embraces the overhead isometric view of its ARPG contemporaries to better show off the map around you. As in the original, Dungeons does a lot of visual work with (seemingly) very little. The beta only contains two distinct biomes — forests and caves — though they are already getting some mileage out of both. I’ve played forest levels that are summery and green, dark and mysterious by night, and others that are autumnal and cozy. The cave dungeons are often sprawling and certainly have the feel of being proc-gen, a staple of the ARPG genre. Every level in Minecraft Dungeons is procedurally generated, but you can feel it most keenly in the caves. Sometimes you’ll get a wonky floor plan with hallways in strange places, or the occasional dead end.
Bring a friend
Minecraft Dungeons features four-player co-op that can be played online or via couch co-op. The game was definitely designed around this mode because playing with a group is a blast. If you want the game to shine, then get kids involved. Chaos ensues every time with arrows and spells flying in every direction. It’s this co-operative mode that makes Minecraft Dungeons feel like an ideal entry point for anyone curious about ARPG’s and how they work. Loot is distributed evenly and is all account-based so no-one can steal it from you, meaning no hysterics from kids who miss out.
To date, the beta has been an ideal way to ride out a long, rainy day in isolation and I’ve been thankful for the access. Like a reassuring mug of hot tea, Minecraft Dungeons goes down easy and only wants you to have a good time. If you’re into working the numbers to your advantage, it’s delighted to assist you. If you just want to wallop a bunch of Creepers with friends then it’s happy for you to do that too. Delightful. I can’t wait for more.
Minecraft Dungeons is currently in closed beta on Xbox One and Windows PC. It releases on May 26, 2020. The author was provided access from the publisher for this preview. You can find out more about the game here.