Blizzard hasn’t tried to hide the fact that it’s going very, very dark on Diablo 4. In the game’s announcement trailer, shown at BlizzCon earlier this month, a trio of adventurers were eviscerated, their insides woven into a hideous flesh cape to be worn by the demon Lilith. Minecraft Dungeons doesn’t go quite so hard on the human-entrails-as-fashion vibe, but it’s got almost everything else you might want from a dungeon-crawler.
This article originally appeared on Kotaku UK.
Mojang’s take on the isometric ARPG doesn’t stray far from genre conventions. A pack of adventurers – each representing an established class trope like mage or fighter – enters a dungeon in which it takes on increasingly powerful hordes of enemies. Treasure is hunted, monsters are slain, the dungeon is cleared. Rinse and repeat.
Beyond the dungeon-crawling itself, Minecraft Dungeons opts for a few changes that distance it from more hardcore competitors. Utilising Minecraft’s blocky aesthetic is one way to distance your game from a genre inspired by classic RPGs, but Mojang has also opted for a more flexible approach to character identity. Instead of forcing a player to commit to a particular archetype, Dungeons lets you build classes on-the-fly: to be a tank, just don some heavy armour; if you’re more into DPS, find some gear that reduces cooldowns.
It comes at the cost of depth, but this is a game more about bombast than strategy. Spamming my bow and arrow meant that I could stop enemies from ever getting close to me but, if I wanted a change of pace, some enchanted boots let me sprint into the fray and hack skeletons apart with a pair of fiery sickles. If a room looked like it was going to cause problems, a block of TNT or explosive ranged attack could thin out the crowd of approaching monsters with ease. I’m not sure it exactly counts as balance, but there’s something refreshing about smashing through one dungeon and moving quickly onto another.
It’s almost like Minecraft Dungeons has been built for two very different groups of people. It’s impossible to ignore the ‘baby’s first dungeon crawler’ vibe that Mojang is so obviously leaning into, but at the complete other end of the spectrum, the speed and efficiency with which you can take on a level offers a sense of catharsis lost in more hardcore examples.
While it seems unlikely that Mojang will find an audience among those more dedicated fans, it has absolutely nailed the child-friendly nature of Minecraft Dungeons, even within this more traditionally gritty genre. Spells are easy to get right, but have long enough cooldowns that you have to think at least a little carefully about when to use them; puzzles are about co-ordination and exploration more than logic and problem-solving; and the class and equipment systems mean that if you’re not interested in grinding for the perfect character, you can still hack and slash to your heart’s content. Spookier genre tropes are still here – I had to see off plenty of skeletons and necromancers during my run – but build them out of blocks and suddenly they aren’t as worrying as they might have been elsewhere.
I expected Minecraft Dungeons to be secure in its identity: this is a game built to introduce younger generations to a decades-old genre, and it does so with aplomb. What I didn’t expect was a fast-paced, energetic, and surprisingly free-flowing take on that same style. It may struggle to appeal to purists, but what does that matter when you’re looking to find an entirely new audience.