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.