Minecraft: Story Mode review
At first it seemed like an odd couple, with the fabulously popular open-world construction game and the talented writers at Telltale Games joining forces for Minecraft: Story Mode. Originally created by Markus Persson and further developed by Mojang before being released in 2011, Minecraft’s emphasis on exploring, crafting and building was basically narrative-free until Story Mode came along. But as it turns out, opposites do attract, as the episodic series brings Minecraft’s trademark color-saturated, angular gameworld to life with Telltale’s fast-paced, choice-driven dialog, Quick Time Events, and all-too-frequent combat sequences, along with a very light smattering of crafting tasks and traditional puzzles.
If you enjoyed Telltale’s earlier games but have been avoiding their later work because of its more mature and/or violent themes, Minecraft: Story Mode is your chance to finally see their new story-driven approach over puzzle-solving adventuring. This is a very family-friendly game, the only exceptions being the occasional use of mild expletives and some cartoon-style fighting. With the release of the fifth episode, it’s technically accurate to say that the “season” is now complete. However, it’s more informative to say that the main story arc really finished in the penultimate episode, with Episode 5: Order Up! taking the ragtag band of unlikely heroes in a new direction, anticipating three further downloadable chapters scheduled to launch later this year.
But before discussing how the series ends, let’s go back six months to where it all began. Episode 1: The Order of the Stone opens with the historical saga of four members of the fabled Order who once fought the Ender Dragon and then faded into obscurity. Flashing forward to modern day, a young team of builders is preparing for the upcoming competition. There’s Olivia the technically-inclined geek, Axel the diamond in the rough, Jesse the player character – bursting with enthusiasm – and Reuben, Jesse’s pig. Whether Jesse is male or female is up to you, as before you begin playing you choose the protagonist’s gender and appearance. While this does involve a different voice actor for the male and female Jesses, it does not alter events in the game. (Just get used to Axel calling you “dude” even when you’re the female Jesse.)
At the Endercon competition the gang runs into Gabriel, a famous warrior from the Order, plus the sinister know-it-all Ivor, who is bent on besmirching Gabriel’s reputation. When Endercon is suddenly disrupted by the birth of the ravening Wither Storm, it’s Jesse and pals who decide to reunite the Order of the Stone, hoping that these legendary heroes will have the smarts, tools, and audacity to stop the Storm. Surprises are in store as they locate the members of the Order, each sequestered in his or her own astonishingly-crafted town or citadel. Every new encounter expands upon the theme of heroism – what it takes to become a hero, what celebrity does to a person’s character, and how to deal with those who inevitably fall short.
If you haven’t previously dabbled in Minecraft, it’s important to know that the gameworld is constructed of tiny, unpolished cubes. The block-based locales start out modest with settings like a columned stage, a treehouse, and a basement full of artifacts. Later on, they expand to monumental structures in fantastical scenes, like an underground park with flowering plants and streams, caverns of rocks and lava, multi-level fortresses and temples, a canyon bridge with zombies at one end and creepers at the other, and a golden city amongst the clouds. The vision and creativity evidenced by these marvelous environments alone is worth the price of admission. Minecraft familiarity will add some context to the Story Mode experience; having already encountered the monsters that haunt these places, you will have an idea of what they are capable of, for instance. But it is not at all necessary to play the original game in order to enjoy this new series.
Like the gameworld, the characters in Minecraft: Story Mode are formed out of small, colorful bricks. They look somewhat like Lego figures, though less shiny-plasticky and more pixelated, like 1980s adventure characters blown up into high-res widescreen 3D. Individual faces are distinguishable by different skin and hair color, eyebrow shapes, hats and scarves. Facial expressions are basic but effective. The game is played from a third-person perspective, and body animation is reasonably smooth, given that the characters are made from blocks stuck together with a few joints. Adding significantly to the characters’ distinct personalities are the professional voice-overs, both from Telltale regulars and familiar Hollywood talent like Corey Feldman, Paul Reubens, and Patton Oswalt as the male lead.
The interplay between characters ranges from comfortable camaraderie (including silly jokes), to nasty asides on the part of adversaries, to tense disagreements and varied reactions in the face of stress, danger, and decision-making angst. Dialogs are lively and reveal much about personalities and motives. Sometimes I chuckled, sometimes I groaned, and sometimes I held my breath. New companions join the team, including Petra, a scavenger with piratical leanings, and Lukas, the leader of a rival gang. These temporary allies create conflicts and ambiguities that run their course one way or (if you play through again and make different choices) another.
Though the story becomes increasingly serious, the game still contains winsome bits of humor. In particular, Episode 3: The Last Place You Look takes on a comedic gloss with the addition of the most elusive Order member, who has a gift for satiric understatement. His recorded experiments with the freaky, often-enraged Endermen are well worth listening to. The story reaches a climax at the end of Episode 4: A Block and a Hard Place, with the revelation of how the original Order of the Stone fractured and fell apart. My reaction to this piece of history was, sadly, a blank stare and a big “huh”? At first I wondered if I had understood it correctly. The second time through, I looked carefully for the characters’ motivations and was able to accept it as at least semi-plausible.
Well-integrated cutscenes combine with gameplay scenarios to provide news of ongoing threats, discoveries about the environment, explanatory chats that provide background, and stints of plummeting, galloping, and fast-paced building. Distinctive ambient sounds – the zing of Endermen as they teleport, growls of zombies, the whisper of eerie voices, explosions, and Reuben’s squeals – contribute to the atmosphere. Similarly, the background music, consisting of drawn-out electronic tones and vibrations, violins softly mourning, and a touch of instrumental rock n’ roll during intense skirmishes adds greatly to the mix. There’s even a moment where a character bursts into a vaudevillian song.
Dialog choices are abundant; during group conversations they pop up every couple of minutes. You have a few seconds to read three lines of text options and choose amongst them as to what your character will say (you can also opt to say nothing). The frequency of these timed choices keeps you on your toes and feeling utterly involved. It also increases the pace considerably when compared to the lengthy passages often found in traditional adventure game dialog trees.
Certain conversational choices are salutary and don’t impact much. Occasionally, however, text pops up to alert you that the character you are talking to “will remember that.” I was never able to tell if this made a relevant difference, because there are so many dialog choices that it’s impossible to track their long-term effects, even on a second playthrough using different choices. I eventually came to the conclusion that the differing conversational options are simply a device for keeping you engaged, rather than impacting outcomes in any significant way.
Weighty decisions usually involve choosing one of two presented actions, often during moments of danger or drama. You may have to decide to go into a situation alone or with help. Or you may need to select which weapon to use or which companion to rescue. You will contemplate telling a falsehood instead of the truth, standing up to authority or running away, and electing to steal a cake or go hungry. (You pilfer all kinds of loot in this game, but the cake has consequences.)
Sometimes you know the decision is key even as you scramble to make it. But other times vital judgments are required without any indication of their importance. For instance, you have no way of knowing in advance that a certain choice will increase the threat from enemies or cause a companion to live or die. Your decision at the end of the first installment about which Order member to pursue completely changes the location and gameplay for the first half of Episode 2: Assembly Required. And there are outcomes you wish you could change, but can’t. On my second playthrough, I was relentlessly aloof and obnoxious to one character, hoping that this would stop his over-the-top altruism in the final battle with the Wither Storm. Unfortunately, this tactic didn’t succeed.
At game’s end, a final screen lists the most important choices posited over the course of the story, and lets you know the percentage of other players who made the same decisions. Though some of the numbers were balanced, I did manage a few picks that weren’t typical of other players. When crafting an enchanted weapon, for instance, I was one of the only 2.1% of players who chose a shovel instead of more boring options like a sword or an ax. Jesse has a sword for pretty much the entire game – why not try a gardening tool for a change?
Non-decision-based gameplay consists of short bursts of free exploration, crafting, Quick Time Events and combat. At various junctures (slightly more frequently than in Telltale's other recent offerings) you'll get the opportunity to do some standard adventuring, roaming around self-contained environments, interacting with hotspots and picking up an item or two. You can also engage in optional dialog with your companions at such times. When you enter a new locale, I recommend talking to your team first before clicking to pick things up or using anything in the environment. If you choose to interact with stuff first, it may cramp your ability to fully converse with everyone.
There's nothing complicated about these exploratory sequences, and there are options for how visibly you want hotspots highlighted by default. Crafting tasks surface occasionally, in which you simply combine items carried in inventory at a crafting table to produce a tool that will help bypass upcoming obstacles. Explicit recipes are provided for each item you craft, eliminating the need for any thought, though you don't have to refer to them if you'd rather approach crafting more like a conventional inventory puzzle.
The QTEs employ rapid button-tapping, dodging obstacles via on-screen prompts, or grabbing onto something at just the right moment. Combat requires swinging a sword or using a bow and arrow as fireballs or zombie fists or potions are repeatedly aimed at you. It’s possible to die during these sequences, but the game takes you back to the point immediately before you expire. In the beginning, these encounters are reasonably challenging but not intensely so. Later on combat ramps up in terms of difficulty, and since my reflexes are not particularly quick, I regularly confronted the “you have died” screen.
The game contains far more action sequences than puzzles. In the ten hours that it took me to finish the five episodes, I needed to decide something quickly, tap ferociously, or wipe out an enemy every few minutes or so. By the end of the series, I groaned whenever Jesse once again drew a sword, or when arrow icons and button prompts popped up on-screen. These sequences – despite the differences in adversaries and situations – became tediously same-ish. My spirits lifted whenever I encountered a puzzle, though there are only four that require observation and analysis, plus two mazes. Now, mazes are not my favorite form of gameplay. But at least they are different than button mashing. Or they ought to be. Sadly, in the middle of one maze, I was forced to fight a witch, and each time I died the game sent me back to an earlier part of the maze, adding insult to injury.
I played Minecraft: Story Mode twice – once on the PlayStation 4 and (selecting different choices) once on the iPad. Though the story, characters, and challenges are the same, the platforms granted a somewhat diverse experience. Playing on the PS4 was more immersive in terms of exploring the environments. Each locale seemed huge, with complex subtleties in color, requiring many steps to get through them. On the other hand, this game’s stylized blocky graphics perfectly suit the iPad’s small screen.
The interface on the iPad is simplified. All interactions are handled via tapping and swiping, in contrast to the console mechanics, which seem grooved to ensure that you manipulate as many controller doohickeys as possible. (The PC version has gamepad support as well, along with a keyboard option.) For example, in the handheld version you don’t have to aim the crosshairs and then press a button; instead you just tap. The only iPad hitch is that navigating a maze via swiping proves to be surprisingly awkward. The tablet’s dialog choices are displayed against a solid backdrop rather than a transparent banner-strip that merges with the backgrounds. The result is that the iPad’s choice-driven texts are easier to scan – a significant advantage when you have to read quickly. The game uses autosave only, and each platform contains four slots for saving the progress of individual playthroughs.
Where most series finales represent a conclusion, Minecraft: Story Mode goes in the other direction. Episode 5: Order Up! takes place sometime after the events at the end of A Block and a Hard Place have settled and life has returned to (relative) normal. A new companion from earlier in the game has now officially joined the team, and they are all traveling far and wide in search of adventure and loot. It’s a self-contained story that takes place in an unexpected location – Sky City – and introduces intriguing characters, including the Founder, who regulates all crafting and building, and Milo, an innkeeper with an underground secret. Order Up! finishes satisfactorily, but does leave a teaser for the next expansion chapter that has already been announced.
It’s exciting to see a new Telltale series exploding from Minecraft’s creative roots and generating so many likeable yet intriguingly flawed characters. Though the combat and other timed sequences get tiresome by the end, the abundant, lovingly crafted landscapes are spectacular and, despite their rarity, the traditional puzzles at least provide variety. The clever dialogs, tense plot shifts, and many choices required make replaying revelatory and rewarding. Here’s hoping that Episodes 6 through 8 will slant the mix more toward puzzling and less toward Quick Timing, while continuing to develop the series’ delightful geeks, forthright champions, and brilliant, sassy atmosphere.