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Minecraft Dungeons review: block-rocking beatdowns

Would you like to see my weapon? It’s got a long shaft, a huge purple head, and I like to call it the Hammer of Gravity.

In fact, that’s the name Mojang Studios gave it - I merely found it hovering a couple of feet above the ground, slowly rotating in a way that suggested immense, invisible power. Since then I’ve grown fond of whacking evil villagers over the head with it, like plastic moles in an old arcade.

Over time, I’ve come to understand that the hammer’s strength comes not from its enormous heft, but the crystal embedded in its centre: a gem that exerts its own gravitational pull. When I swing the hammer, nearby enemies are sucked into its path, their soft skulls falling perfectly beneath the arc of the blow.

Minecraft is a bit like that - not long or purple, but a phenomenon with its own powerful pull. Try as they might, the people and projects around it have struggled to escape its orbit. Back in its earliest days, Mojang used its riches to fund Scrolls, a digital card game that was just a little ahead of its time. And before he made himself persona non grata, Notch started work on a sandbox space sim that would feature a fully working virtual computer.

These games seemed to tug at some of the same themes as Minecraft: pushing back darkness with light, and the power of programming. They hinted at a studio identity beyond that debut game. But neither worked out. Ultimately, perhaps inevitably, Mojang simply became the Minecraft people.

Dungeons is the compromise - a new game that looks and sounds like Minecraft, but belongs to a different genre: the RPG. Its first area is called the Squid Coast, in apparent reference to Dungeons & Dragons’ Sword Coast. But if Mojang is drawing inspiration from a Baldur’s Gate game, it’s Dark Alliance. This is a dungeon crawler, a Diablo-like, rather than a choice-and-consequence BioWare game.

It’s also a bold move, since hacking and slashing has never been Minecraft’s strong suit. But here it works a treat, the floaty weightlessness of first-person swordplay replaced by isometric wallop. The shooting is even better: hold down the right trigger and you can spin your character on their heel to face a threat, then let the arrow fly; the longer you hold, the harder the hit. It might seem odd to single out auto-aim for praise, but Dungeons has mastered that particular dark art. Its helping hand pushes gently on your shoulder, respecting your intent and allowing room for skill shots.

As with its parent game, there’s a wilful simplicity to Dungeons that makes it instantly likeable. Pick up a consumable and it’s automatically used, while your standard health potion is tied to a cooldown, freeing you from fiddly inventory management or rows of hotkeys. Even when an objective asks you to find the exit, your next step is clearly marked. Just like the footsoldiers in the Arch-illager’s zombie army, you can leave your brain at the door.

Genre fans will know that comment is no criticism: action-RPGs have long streamlined away the intricacies of RPGs in pursuit of a zen-like flow state, the sort of gaming that’s perfectly accompanied by a podcast or the natterings of a remote friend. Yet the depth found in Minecraft Dungeons’ weapon upgrades is welcome.

The points you accrue by levelling are funnelled into enchantments, which imbue your gear with magical qualities. For a while I wore a set of leathers that gave me a speed boost every time I performed a dodge, making forward rolls more exciting than they’ve been since primary school. Once those points are spent, however, they can’t be peeled off and applied to another item, which leads to some tasty trade-offs. Do you ditch your axe for a higher damage equivalent, or stick with the one that knocks cash out of enemies instead? It’s to Mojang’s credit that looting is an occasion for serious tactical consideration.

That said, this is an action-RPG ideal for younger players - not least because it devotedly recreates the aesthetics of Minecraft, down to the sounds C418 composed a decade ago. The icky slurp of a nearby spider still induces shudders, and there’s something friendly and familiar about the hollow click of the wooden lever that activates a redstone door. Every part of Mojang’s levels looks like it could be built with Minecraft’s tools, and coaxes new beauty from its biomes - particularly the blocky palette of Pumpkin Pastures which, with a distant camera, takes on the quality of an autumnal mosaic. In a genre that’s traditionally struggled in the visual department, that’s a real achievement.

But the achievements end there. Minecraft Dungeons is happy to enter the action-RPG space at ground level, rather than dig down to its bedrock and change the fundamentals. That would be one thing if the genre had stopped developing with Diablo 3, but it hasn’t: Borderlands and Destiny have since spliced those old ideas with shooter and open-world conventions, changing expectations in the process. Next to that revolution, Minecraft Dungeons looks quaint and backwards-looking.

Strapped to my back next to the Hammer of Gravity is a Scatter Crossbow. Built to fire three projectiles at once, it makes the satisfying twang of a broken harp. Thanks to a strange enchantment, the arrows get bigger as they fly through the air - becoming chunky harpoons by the time they thud into the walls of the Arch-illager’s banquet halls. It’s been great fun, but after the 300th shot, I’m tiring of it.

There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, but even by the time I’d faced down the Arch-illager in his tower - no more than a handful of hours after starting - I was already sick of Redstone Golem mini-bosses, and Dungeons seemed to have exhausted its borrowed ideas. Like Diablo, this is a game designed for multiple playthroughs on increasing difficulties, but few players will feel compelled to return to a seam that’s all dried up after a single day’s exploration.

Version tested: PC with controller. A review copy was supplied by Microsoft.

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