The writer O. Henry is alleged to have said of New York City, “It’ll be a great place if they ever finish it.” I have a very similar feeling about Minecraft Legends. Its mix of real-time strategy and third-person action seems like it could be a splendid game, should Mojang ever get around to completing it.
Legends is an ambitious concept. As Minecraft Dungeons is to the action-RPG, Minecraft Legends is to the strategy game, another spin-off from the almighty franchise that attempts to make a complicated genre more immediately palatable to a family audience. However, where Dungeons is a roaring success, a delightful game to sit and blast through, Legends is a bemusing and messy creation that runs out of ideas before it runs out of tutorial.
How Minecraft Legends Becomes Strategic
It’s peculiar, reviewing something in the Minecraft milieu. It doesn’t matter a bit what I or anyone else has to say about it, because it’s predestined to be a phenomenon. My local department store is already filled with tie-in promotional products, from toys to t-shirts, a week before it’s even released. “Friends & Allies” reads one such kids’ shirt, showing the traditional Minecraft enemies stood alongside a heroic Steve-like, capturing the game’s USP: This time you fight alongside the Creepers, Zombies, Skeletons and so on, in a united front against a Piglin invasion of the Overworld.
In a large map (growing in size depending upon your difficulty level) that’s randomly arranged at the start of a single-player campaign, you are selected by three somewhat celestial beings, Knowledge, Action, and Foresight to repel the piggy invasion. These porcine pests are determined to take over the villages of the franchise’s erstwhile Villagers, building their own encampments, and despoiling the very ground beneath them. To fight against this, you play in third-person controlling your hero, accompanied by a team of golems that you create via spawners, who (are supposed to) follow you wherever you go, and follow your issued orders during on-the-fly battles.
It all begins pretty well. Knowledge, Action, and Foresight are all brilliant characters, excellently voiced and welcoming to new players. They are there to explain the basics of the game, as new concepts are introduced in the initial stages of play. You learn how to gather resources, starting off with wood and stone. Then how to build spawners, generate golems (and later Skeletons, Creepers, Zombies, etc), beginning with two types, a ranged arrow-firing block-like creature, and a melee rock-type, that furiously punches at enemies and enemy structures. Once this is established, Minecraft Legends lets you get into scraps with the Piglins, then you find a village, and get a rundown on the basics of protecting each location’s central well, done by building walls and defensive structures.
You roam the beautiful world on the back of one of four mount types (one’s a beetle that’s great at climbing, another’s a bird that can glide from heights without taking damage), all used to negotiate those familiar Minecraft biomes, mountains, and seas. But you can also build in this world by holding down the left trigger, then placing objects RTS-style around you, or drag-dropping lengths of wall into place on the ground near your character.
With all of these gameplay elements put in place, Minecraft Legends then just sets you free with almost none of the most important mechanics properly explained, while blathering new information at you while you’re trying to come to grips with what a complete mess the controls are. Devolving entirely into “tell, don’t show,” I was left struggling to work out how I was supposed to improve my tools, as it keeps demanding you should. Via trial and error, I eventually figured out it’s about building new structures at a central location, using materials it hasn’t told me how to get yet, and oh good Lord.
Why Minecraft Legends Is So Frustrating
Eventually, I figure all Minecraft Legends’ mechanics out. I get there. But it’s such a frustrating experience, only to learn that one whole mess—of placing special towers that can variously improve the amounts of resources you can carry, the numbers of golems you can have in your army, the ability to have your alleys gather new resource types, and even the ability to gather other tower types—would have been far better as a skill tree in the menus. Then it would be clear, visibly understandable, and much better communicated to players.
But communication is Legends’ greatest failure. There’s just so much that’s so peculiarly missing here, not least when it comes to the game’s map. It allows you to fast travel between discovered villages, and also shows the location of different biomes, mount types, potential allies (the Skeletons, Creepers, etc), and the Piglin encampments. Hover over many of these and one of the characters will—after a weirdly long delay—tell you some information. Perhaps this Piglin camp is planning to create a new site tonight, or that this village is intended for attack by the Piglins and needs your help defending itself.
But what it absolutely doesn’t tell you, neither in the pop-up text nor the voice over, is whether a Piglin camp is possible to attack. To find that out, you have to run vast distances across the terrain to reach its borders, where either a (splendid) cutscene will play introducing that battle, or a text box will pop up saying you’re not yet ready to attack it. Again, get close enough and its difficulty level will appear on screen—1 to 4—giving you an idea of the challenge ahead. But that information isn’t on the map, either before or after you’ve learned it elsewhere. Why not? This is such basic stuff. The amount of time I wasted running toward battles I couldn’t play is galling, and could so easily have been prevented.
And when Minecraft Legends does give you valuable on-screen information, it’s often obfuscated and unexplained. I eventually work out which unlabeled number represents how many characters I currently have following me anywhere, and which represents how many of my total possible golems currently exist in the world. The two can’t usefully be matched up, because the former contains any random animals you might have picked up on your travels, given the only way to select units around you is to hit X, and grab the attention of anyone in a very small circle. Which means, yes, there’s literally no way to call your units to you when exploring or battling without going up to their immediate vicinity and hitting X. Instruct them to attack that structure over there, and they’ll rush off to do so, and then when it’s done, stand there. Forever. You have to run to them, and meticulously select them all, to issue another instruction. Which is bewildering.
It gets significantly worse because of the atrocious pathfinding. Most of the Piglin bases are on raised platforms, requiring you to build ramps for your troops to ascend between the rocky plateaus. But none of them can cope with the narrow paths and enemy structures that bounce them off the platform, meaning you constantly lose your units to the ground below. Down there, rather than make their way back to you, they’ll instead just stand there, uselessly, not even defending themselves from attacks. If you’re five platforms up, trying to fight an enormous Piglin elephant-thing, while attempting to destroy enemy towers that are raining fire on you, at the same time as thirty Piglins are fighting you from all sides, you are forced to jump all the way down, gather your stragglers, guide them all the way back up to the battle, and then watch them idiotically walk off the sides again. Over and over and over.
Lose your troops entirely, as you often will, and you need to run away from the battle site to the nearest spawners you’ve placed to generate some fighters. In a traditional RTS game, this would involve zooming out from your godlike view of the map, clicking on facilities that generate new units, then commanding them to head toward your fight. But in Legends, it involves riding your purple tiger away from the hundreds of enemies all attacking you, bounding across the terrain to your nearest spawners (only possible to place on non-enemy terrain, hence the journey), create new ones, then manically gather them to follow you because they’ll just stand there if you don’t get every single one within your tiny X-circle, then run with them all back to the battle, up all your ramps again, into the fray, likely to see half of them immediately killed by a massive fireball, and the other half throw themselves off the sides to get lost in the ground below.
How Minecraft Legends Buries Its Fun
I’ve described the above at such meticulous lengths, because that’s the majority of the experience of playing Minecraft Legends. It’s about painstakingly guiding these gormless troops via punishingly poor interaction into distant battles, over and over until you’ve finally whittled away at things enough to destroy the central portal. And all the time, you can see the fun you should be having, the solid family-friendly game that hides beneath all this clumsy crap, but you can never quite touch it.
Everything is so opaque. New structures are added with no fanfare, no notice, and are only discovered when you remember that there’s an in-game book-thing that lets you rearrange your UI. As the game progresses, you end up with the farcical issue of having about 15 different structures you want to have access to at any time, but a UI that only lets you select eight of them at a time. You’re supposed to endlessly juggle them about, which would be massively annoying if it weren’t for the next huge issue: you can’t sodding pause.
Because the game has been designed with co-op or combative multiplayer in mind, the single-player campaign that it presents as its main mode is forced to be an always-online experience. So when you hit pause to answer the front door, or deal with the kids, Minecraft Legends just carries on playing almost invisibly behind the apparent pause menu, killing your troops, and advancing time so the Piglin bases expand unchecked, villages are attacked, and allies lose faith in your support. The same is true when you’re opening the ‘book’ to try to rearrange your UI, so you can build the attacking structure you need to defend a village, but have your units wiped out while forced to fight with these menus. Idiotic.
An 8-Year-Old’s Review Of Minecraft Legends
All these frustrations aside, the game beneath them sadly all also falls short. Once you’ve defended a bunch of villages, and attacked a bunch of Piglin bases, it very quickly becomes apparent that you’ve seen all it has to offer. And unlike Dungeons, where replaying the same dungeons lets you make progress in your armor, equipment, etc, there’s nothing like that in Minecraft Legends. You get access to more golem types and more structures, but once they’re all in place there’s no carrot remaining to motivate continued play.
Of course, this is all based on the single-player game—my many hours with it were spent before release, and as such, before there was anyone else to cooperate or compete with. However, given the mad mess of awful unit controls, dreadful pathfinding and AI, and a lack of variety in what you get to do, I struggle to see how things could be dramatically improved by subjecting someone else. And it’s crucially important to note that unlike Dungeons, there’s no couch co-op here, and never will be, which is disastrous.
However, and this is a very significant however, I’m not the only one in my house who played Minecraft Legends. I was accompanied for much of my time by my 8-year-old son, currently on his school vacations, and he’s spent a good deal of time playing it for himself. His view is different. In fact, I commissioned him to write about them (paying him from my fee for this review, I stress). His view, from a much more relaxed approach to playing, just muddling about and not focused on attempting to make strong progress, was far more positive. Here’s Toby’s review:
I much prefer Minecraft Legends than normal Minecraft, but Legends has bad things about it too. Like for instance, I much prefer animals in normal Minecraft than in Legends, though I do quite like the Piglins, so mixed feelings. I prefer mining in normal Minecraft and I prefer how you level up and beat the game in normal Minecraft. Minecraft Legends brings fights to another level. The Piglin bases are fun to fight, challenging and not too challenging. Also, defending villages is super fun because of building defenses and attacking the mobs. I prefer building in normal Minecraft but that’s no big deal. So overall, I think that Minecraft Legends is great and I really like it. THE END!!!
So there you have it. As I said at the beginning, a 45-year-old games journalist’s views on Minecraft Legends are close to irrelevant. It’s going to be on Game Pass (along with the grimly inevitable in-app purchases for skins and cosmetic nonsense). It seamlessly transfers between your PC and your Xbox (we played the game on both, picking up downstairs where we left off upstairs), meaning it’ll be there on the couch or on your laptop. And perhaps most significantly, it’s going to be in every toy store, supermarket, and bus stop for the foreseeable future.
That it’s not a very good game, and one that desperately needed a lot more development before this seemingly premature release, will matter almost not at all. It’s stunningly pretty, it lets you make friends with the Creepers, and the cutscenes are brilliant. And it matches those new pyjamas. Should they ever finish Minecraft Legends, allowing you to instantly gather your spawned troops from anywhere, fixing the atrocious UI, giving your units some vestiges of pathfinding, and hugely increasing the mission variation, I think it could be a great place.