Minecraft Dungeons common epithet of ‘Diablo for kids’ may sound like a jibe, but it is a description that comes with a lot of merit. Building a co-operative action role-playing game for all the family is not an easy task at it seems, meshing hack and slash fantasy brawling and the constant improvement that comes from loads of lovely loot with an accessible kid-friendly veneer. In this, Minecraft Dungeons is a clear success.
It has a headstart, of course; my 7-year old son is already aware of Minecraft’s blocky creepers and mobs splashed across many of his t-shirts. That familiarity is a boon and developer Mojang’s penchant for castles, mystical temples and pixelated battleaxes makes Gauntlet style dungeon-crawling an easy fit. Its story is simple; a lone villager has been corrupted by wicked magic and has sent villainous monsters into the world. Your job is to track down this ‘Arch-Illager’ and bring an end to his reign of terror. Largely by smacking zombies around a bit and getting nice new gear as reward.
Its combat is delightfully simple, stabbing the A button wields your melee weapon, while the right trigger fires off an arrow. It’s all you need to start with, the game easing you into its core loop which proves itself to be intuitive and satisfying. Minecraft Dungeons’ smartest trick from then on is assuming its audience is new to the wiles of loot, layering on complexity in a measured way to keep things interesting. Soon you will be unlocking axes and spears with special buffs, crossbows that fire off a clutch of arrows in an expanding fan and a sweeping collection of magical ‘artifacts’ assigned to the face buttons that add to your repertoire.
If this is all sounding a little gritty for a family-friendly jaunt, then fear not, it is wrapped in blocky charm while artifacts will often have a Minecraftian twist. You can summon llamas to help you in battle or, my personal favourite, load up firework arrows that explode across the screen in a whoosh of sound and colour. There is still an edge to it --the appearance of dark ghoul the EnderMan always brings a frightening frisson (even for grown-ups)-- but it feels like an apt introduction.
It certainly worked for my son, who would excitedly ask to dip into our own adventure. While still in the early years of his gaming career, he is beginning to develop a taste for more complexity. He settled into the combat easily and it didn’t take long before he was expertly switching in his Level 26 Heartsbane sword and adding enchantments (gained by levelling up) to his Grim Armour. That feedback loop, key to any good dungeon crawler, is present here no matter your age. Reserved drops keep things on an even keel between players. And while I would have liked to have seen a trading system to further mix up arsenals, the progression was fun and satisfying.
We had a blast, swashbuckling our way through the games blocky levels that span darkened forests, boobytrapped temples and looming castles. It doesn’t take long to zip through the story --only a handful of hours at full tilt-- but missions have secrets to uncover and alternate paths to take to unlock new levels. An accessible difficulty slider also allows you to tailor the challenge, but in time-honoured tradition, the harder you go, the better loot you will find.
MInecraft Dungeons relative brevity (which does grate a little given the speed at which its first DLC appeared) and focus on accessibility makes it tough to recommend to dungeon-crawling veterans. But for those new to fantasy RPGs, Minecraft’s ‘Diablo for kids’ is a splendid introduction.