Minecraft Dungeons is not entirely the game you think it is. It's easy to look at the blocky Minecraft exterior and assume this is "Baby's First Diablo." I mean, Minecraft is a game for everyone, with 200 million copies sold and a huge footprint in all sorts of entertainment and educational spaces. Mojang could've taken this homage to Blizzard's dungeon crawler, filed away all the edges and made some quick money. Instead, Minecraft Dungeons does its best to stand alongside its peers.
Minecraft Dungeons tells the tale of grand heroes that stand up to the Arch-Illager, a once-maligned figure that found a mystical cube of power. Really, it's just an excuse for a party of four to go hacky and slashy through a horde of Illagers, Zombies, Spiders, and more monsters from Minecraft lore. Like most Diablo-style games, there's not a ton of thought on the part of enemies, who walk forward, waiting to be shredded into a blocky (read: family friendly!) pile of corpses.
Enemies are torn up across nine standard levels, each with their distinct visual look. The journey travels across the fog-laden Soggy Swamp, the autumnal glow of Pumpkin Pastures, and the burning lava of Fiery Forge. As I wandered across these landscapes, it was clear that Minecraft Dungeons is playing in a different visual space compared to its vanilla counterpart. Yes, the blocky composition of the world remains the same, but Minecraft Dungeons plays host to a stunning set of visual effects, like the soft glimmer of candles, the blazing orange of the aforementioned lava, or the gentle luminescence of ice crystals. If the descriptions don't make it clear, Dungeons plays with light, shadow, and color far more than its namesake and it looks fantastic doing so.
Get Equipped With… Llama
As a dungeon crawler, Minecraft Dungeons is largely concerned with the acquisition of loot. There's a host of weapons at your disposal, with swords, glaives, and bows having their own style of dealing damage. (You'll even run into series' staple pickaxes as a weapon type.) You'll also run across different flavors of armor, pushing toward being a hefty hit-taking tank of a warrior, or a ranged hunter.
Minecraft Dungeons' rethink with its loot is the enchantment system. As you level, you'll gain enchantment points, which can be spent to unlock bonus effects on weapons and armor. Enchantments are randomly rolled on equipment when you pick them up. They come in random slots with two or three enchantments each, and spending an enchantment point on a set decides the path for that item. Say you pick up a Claymore with two enchantment slots, and the first slot has Fire Aspect, which sets mobs on fire, and Looting, which offers an increased drop rate on loot. By spending a point on Fire Aspect, you'll lock out the ability to choose Looting.
Think of it as a quick-and-dirty skill tree for your gear. High level gear offers more enchantment slots, and once you are higher level yourself, you'll have more enchantment points to really fill out your character. And you don't have to worry about losing those points, as salvaging gear that you've spent points on refunds those points.
The rest of the loot system is filled with Artifacts, special items that offer various abilities on use. These include items like a bunch of wheat that summons a spitting llama companion, an amulet that consumes the souls of fallen enemies to create a powerful laser, or the Fireworks Arrow, which temporarily turns your arrows into screen-clearing explosions of color. Combined with weapons and armor, artifacts allow full warrior customization for battle. My final loadout for my first runthrough includes armor that healed me when I killed, a potion that shocked enemies nearby, a mighty swinging axe that created thunderbolts, and a bow that shoots multiple arrows and created poison clouds. Minecraft Dungeons is all about playing around with these combinations to really make your own warrior.
Minecraft Dungeons doesn't want you to be precious about gear though. Early on, I received a unique weapon called the Venom Glaive, which did a ton of damage and created poison clouds as a pure bonus effect, not an enchantment. I held onto it as long as possible, but eventually I outleveled the weapon and salvaged it for emeralds, the currency in Minecraft Dungeons. You'll always be changing your armor and weapons, and the game offers no upgrade system to keep your favorite gear competitive. In my first runthrough, this was a bit annoying, as it meant it was difficult to stick with a gear set that was working for me. I found myself overflowing with swords in one case, when all I wanted was a longbow. You simply have to hope for the roll of the dice.
As a counter, Minecraft Dungeons offers players the ability to target specific loot. Each of the levels has a distinct loot table: a set of weapons, armor, and artifacts it drops. As an example, the Venom Glaive showed me that I really enjoyed the glaive weapon type, but it actually only drops in the Soggy Swamp and Desert Temple levels. So if I wanted another, my best bet is to re-run those levels and hope for a good drop. Luckily, thanks to procedural generation, the levels are never entirely the same. The key parts of each level remain, but the hallways between them come in a variety of potential configurations. Still, an option to upgrade certain gear and not wait for the RNGod to bless me would've been preferred.
Minecraft Dungeons is wholly built to encourage re-running content in this way. You probably won't see every weapon type and artifact in your first run, and every level is surprisingly tunable, allowing you to engage with the difficulty at your own pace. Not only are there three different difficulty tiers—Default, Adventure, and Apocalypse—there's also six levels of difficulty within each tier of each level. There's a clarity to choosing where you land, because a combination of difficulty tier and level as a recommended power level: Creeper Woods Adventure III is recommended for power level 45. Punch above your weight and survive, and there's better gear awaiting as a reward. It's an excellent amount of flexibility in play, though for some reason, Minecraft Dungeons won't allow for lowballing things below a certain minimum level.
The Trouble With Creepers
It's here that I note that this lack of lower level options is odd for what feels like a family friendly game. There's no cakewalk mode for running through Minecraft Dungeons with children, and in certain encounters and boss fights, you'll go from full health to dead in seconds. You heal via artifacts, dropped food, or a potion with a set cooldown. I'd say Diablo 3, Torchlight, or Path of Exile are a bit more free with healing items compared to Minecraft Dungeons, especially in a clutch situation.
I only died twice on my first runthrough, but on my second, the game started throwing some Alamo-style situations my way more often. This led to more situations where I had to use my potions, and a stronger reliance on healing artifacts, which diminishes some customization options in terms of gear. You can die three times in a level before it kicks you back to the beginning, but it wasn't until later in Adventure that this started to become more of an occurrence.
It wasn't a problem for me, but I should point out a lack of ongoing difficulty tiers in Minecraft Dungeons. Take Diablo 3 for example: once you get to the endgame Torment difficulty, there are actually higher versions of that, topping out at Torment 16. You'll hit the top-end of Minecraft Dungeons way before that, ending at Obsidian Pinnacle Apocalypse 6. I assume that Mojang will add more in post-launch content, but it's something to keep in mind if you're going to drink deep this dungeon crawling buffet.
You don't have to go it alone though. You can play up to four players locally or online, though Minecraft Dungeons lacks any sort of random online matchmaking system. Instead, you have to hope someone else on your friends list is playing the game so you can join up. I would've at least liked a Public board system like Path of Exile, where I could drop my online game as open for parties. Co-op does add a bit of life to Minecraft Dungeons, as I found myself getting bored of solo re-runs around the middle of my Adventure playthrough.
You can feel the love Mojang's team had for Diablo and the like. Not only did it not skimp on the difficulty, there's also a host of secret levels to uncover that aren't easy to find. (There's one that's a call back to Diablo actually.) What Minecraft Dungeons really is is a streamlining of games like Diablo, Torchlight, and Path of Exile. It keeps the basic play and hunger for progression, while dispensing with the absolute deluge of stats and numbers to keep track of.
Is it the best dungeon crawler I've played? No, but it's a very good one. With a $20 price tag (it's also on Xbox Game Pass), Minecraft Dungeons provides just enough Diablo-style action in an aesthetic anyone can enjoy. With local co-op, it's a great family game, even if the littlest children can't fully enjoy it like a Lego title. So if you're not up for being hip deep in demons and you want to enjoy some dungeon crawling with a friend, Minecraft Dungeons a damned good option. That said, I am looking forward to seeing what it becomes over the experience that's available at launch.
Mojang spins up its own take on the Diablo dungeon crawling formula. While it looks like it might be "Baby's First Diablo," Minecraft Dungeons has a good degree of challenge available for you and three friends. It's more focused on lowering barriers by streamlining the acquisition of loot, instead of miring you in pages of stats. There's a decent tail of playability with three levels of difficulty, but you'll have to look to potential post-launch content for the length of experience some dungeon crawling fans crave.