Huge corporate takeovers are seldom welcomed by grassroots communities. Stories of exploitation and mismanagement are not hard to find, and the community surrounding Mojang's Minecraft may have feared the worst when Microsoft acquired the studio and the brand back in 2014.
The reality has proved to be very different. The game has certainly grown in popularity and commercial heft since that $2 billion deal, but for the most part the values of the Minecraft brand have been preserved. Microsoft has been more concerned with promoting the IP as a tool for education than with making spin-off games like Telltale's Story Mode. When you consider the dizzying size of the audience, Mojang's time as an arm of a monolithic corporation has been the model of restraint.
The last year has brought a subtle change in gear, however. Minecraft Earth is an attempt to capitalise on the interest in location-based AR games started by Pokémon Go. It launched in Early Access in October 2019, with a full release planned for some point in the future. Minecraft Dungeons, meanwhile, is an even greater departure -- a head-on collision with classic action-RPGs like Diablo and Torchlight, and one that has neither vehement detractors nor passionate fans among the critics.
"Looks are really the only thing that could be considered truly Minecraft-like in Dungeons"
At the time of writing, Minecraft Dungeons had a Metacritic score of 74 on Xbox One and 70 on PC. Out of 51 reviews across those two platforms, only five scored above 80 or below 60, with the most common score by a comfortable margin being seven out of ten. The critics, it seems, are happy enough with Minecraft Dungeons, but few love it or hate it in any great measure.
In fact, according to VGC's Chris Scullion, Dungeons is notable for how little it embodies Minecraft's values beyond the surface.
"It's a fairly safe dungeon crawler with no real unique features beyond the obvious cubist art style that obviously had to be in there in order to be an actual Minecraft game," Scullion wrote
"It's a good job it is, frankly, because its looks are really the only thing that could be considered truly Minecraft-like in Dungeons. With no mining or crafting to speak of, there's a case to be made that this game could have easily been reskinned to look like any other Microsoft property -- Gears of War, Banjo Kazooie, what have you -- and nothing would have been lost along the way."
If the resemblance to Minecraft is only on the surface, that surface is by common agreement both expertly polished and crammed with pleasing details. The general level of craft is strong throughout, in fact, with Dungeons' simplified combat system showing as much care as the visual style.
As GamesRadar's Alex Avard noted: "The moment to moment kinesthetics of Minecraft Dungeons' gameplay mechanics feel stellar to use. There's a general sense of rigour and fluidity underscoring combat, ensuring every swing of the blade and thrum of the bow is precise and satisfying in its feedback, all anchored by a silky smooth framerate, easy-to-use control scheme, and high threshold of technical polish that never once lets up.
"The moment to moment kinesthetics of Dungeons' gameplay mechanics feel stellar to use"
"Minecraft Dungeons looks and sounds the part, too, presenting itself as a natural extension of the Minecraft universe in a way that could only have been achieved by Mojang itself, which understands its megalithic IP better than anyone. Creepers self-combust, animals drop health-restoring meat, and lava pools bubble and fizz with menace, as the campaign's map of distinct levels mix familiar sights with dazzling new environments that expand upon the voxel universe you know and love."
Exactly what any one player will get from Dungeons' streamlined take on the action-RPG might well depend on what they were expecting going in. The unofficial pitch tossed around by the media has been "Minecraft meets Diablo," but that paints a picture that Mojang was arguably never trying to match. VG247's Jeremy Peel, for example, describes a "quaint and backwards-looking" game when compared to the innovations in the genre over the last five to ten years.
Whether a comparison to the achievements of Borderlands and Destiny makes sense or not, though, Peel's assessment that Dungeons lacks much staying power rings true. Several reviews note Mojang's plans to add substantial new content in the future, but right here and now this appears to be a slight package in a category noted for replay value.
"Despite the simplification of character builds, it was joyful to watch my children learning the basics"
"Strapped to my back next to the Hammer of Gravity is a Scatter Crossbow," Peel wrote. "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."
That may well depend on the kind of player. It could be argued -- by Mojang and Microsoft, more than likely -- that the ranks of games critics do not closely resemble the audience at which Minecraft Dungeons is most directly pitched. This isn't a matter of gender, but age -- as PCGamesN's Ben Maxwell pointed out.
"But while it's certainly a laugh, I don't think Mojang's intended market is me and my Siege mates. Rather, Dungeons seems squarely targeted at the yoofs who gorge on Minecraft streamer content and love the idea of dungeon crawling, but maybe aren't ready for the complexities of Diablo just yet. This theory is lent credence when I spend a couple of joyful hours playing it with my six-year-old son. He's obsessed with Minecraft, and delighted that we're getting to play the game early and experience Mojang's blocky world in a new way.
"The highly adjustable difficulty, recharging health potions, fairytale-esque story narration that bookends each level, and, well, repetition all feel perfectly pitched in this context."
Indeed, Maxwell advised his readers to add a point to his seven out of ten score if the player falls into that category. That sentiment is echoed in Ben Kuchera's review for Polygon, in which he also made the experience of playing with his children a central pillar of his critique. More than just distilling the pleasures of the action-RPG for a younger audience, Kuchera argues Minecraft Dungeons as a gateway to the deeper experiences from which it draws.
"Minecraft Dungeons isn't simple, exactly -- it's just easy to learn and play," he wrote. "But that's always been the secret to the rare, enjoyable family-friendly games from huge studios: It's not a matter of making things easy, but ensuring that they are elegant. And this game is, above everything else, elegant.
"Despite all the simplification of character builds, it was joyful to watch my children learning the basics of dungeon-crawlers, like strategies about crowd control and area-of-effect attacks. I don't often have the chance to play games for the whole family that also give me an excuse to explain 'kiting' to my children, but here we are. This is the best kind of elegance. The design doesn't just make for a fun game; it prepares players for more complex ideas from other games in the genre."