Adventure Gamers Awards
I must confess: I’m not a Minecraft guy. I know it’s a huge online phenomenon, but I never joined, never played, wasn’t interested, and couldn’t tell a ghast from an enderman if they were standing right in front of me. So admittedly, I’m not the ideal demographic for Minecraft: Story Mode. I am, however, a lifelong Lego fan, and I totally get the childlike fascination with imaginative worlds made from building blocks. I’m also – although far from unconditionally – a Telltale gamer, having followed all of the developer’s many titles to date. So in that regard, I’m probably the right person to review the second season from a Minecraft outsider’s perspective. After playing through the full five episodes, I can confirm that it’s more of the same choice-driven, cinematic-but-barely-interactive storytelling we’ve come to expect. Unfortunately, it’s every bit as bland and underwhelming as its eight-part predecessor, re-establishing Story Mode as my least-favourite Telltale series by far.
The tale picks up sometime after the events of the first game (which my AG colleague Becky enjoyed more than I did). As so often happens, life after a grand adventure isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Having triumphantly returned as conquering heroes, now the five friends have dispersed, mundane tasks beckon, and feelings of disillusionment set in. Players once again control either male or female Jesse (your choice, though if there was a way to switch between them when I started a second game, I couldn’t find it), who is now the leader of Beacontown. Axel the lunk and Olivia the geek have gone off on their own, while former rival Lukas is writing a book in solitude and a disappointingly mopey Petra is off seeking other thrills but not very happy about it. Boooooo-riiiing… what this world needs is another crisis!
And another crisis it gets – eventually, anyway. After a dawdling start through town during preparation for a Founding Day celebration, Jesse and Petra shake off the hero rust with a little zombie-bashing in the mines in search of a treasure-sniffing llama, only to come across a gauntlet that creepily calls out to Jesse. Ignoring this blatantly obvious red flag, Jesse grabs the glove, which promptly fuses itself to his/her arm. The good news is, the gauntlet allows for super-charged punches and special device activation; the bad news is, it won’t come off and the ground opens up to swallow the protagonists down a giant chasm they term the “Heckmouth” – so probably more bad than good, on average. To make a meandering first episode’s long story short, Jesse and Petra proceed to escape, confront the conniving mayor of the neighbouring city, make friends with a rugged explorer whose glory days are behind him, and head out in search of an artifact that can seal the abyss permanently. The only thing standing in their way is “the Admin”, a nearly omnipotent builder legends say can create entire worlds at will.
Turns out the Admin is a rather large obstacle, of course. I mean, REALLY large, in the form of a giant statue that wreaks havoc down upon Beacontown. At least, that’s one of his forms. Strike one down and he’ll pop up in another, like a smart-alecky Brit-accented snowman or a flying humanoid with fiery red hair and a cheesy soul patch. Across the five episodes, you’ll encounter the Admin a number of times, each in an increasingly dangerous (if not as overtly menacing) way. Unlike the first season’s mindless Wither Storm, the Admin doesn’t crave destruction for its own sake. Instead, he’s an immature, egomaniacal tyrant who wants to be liked and goes about flexing his limitless power in all the wrong ways. What he really needs is a hug, but it’s not going to be nearly that easy.
As with the first season, the second shapes up as a series of adventures to far-off places, introducing a new area per episode. From lava-strewn caves to a submerged sea temple, trap-laden ice palace, floating towers, subterranean cities, and even a labyrinthine high-security prison, Jesse and an ever-changing small roster of pals encounter one trial after another. The Admin thinks he’s testing our hero’s suitability to assist him, believing this to be the highest honour one can bestow. Jesse just wants the damn glove off her hand and for her people back home to be left alone in peace. Inevitably, conflict ensues, time and time again. But not just with the big baddie, as interpersonal relationships within the group are continually strained along the way, and painful choices will have to be made. This premise is fine, but at no point did it ever surprise me, even when it seemed to be angling for a “gotcha!” twist or two. Some of the names and places have been changed, but mainly it just comes across like more of the same as its predecessor, and the stakes feel significantly smaller this time around, if only because it takes so long to establish them.
Thank goodness for those new names. One of my big problems with season one was just how utterly forgettable the main cast proved to be. Sure, a few had the odd notable quirk, but for the most part they were pure vanilla, leaving it to the fringe players to impart a little oddball variety. This is true once again; the two main holdovers (the plucky, optimistic Jesse and the rebellious hothead Petra) are sincere but generally dull, dragged down further by repetitive whiny exchanges about drifting apart. (I loved that one such conversation occurred while crossing swords with enemies, but it soon becomes overkill.) Fortunately, in place of the three missing friends are more interesting newcomers, from the bespectacled hyper intern Radar to the gruff treasure hunter Jack (who’s secretly suppressing PTSD-like symptoms from his last adventure) to Stella, the arrogant, power-hungry “rival” of Jesse’s for the Admin’s attention. Radar can be a bit grating, but his character arc is the richest of the lot, though you may have a say in how that plays out.
For me the real stars of this season, however, are a pair of characters who never say a word. Rather than Reuben the pig, this time the (occasional) animal companion is Lluna the spitting llama, whose indignant huffs never failed to delight me. You can choose to befriend or snub her, but if you pick the latter for any reason besides intellectual curiosity (as I did the second time I played), it’s possible you have no soul. The other loveable mute is Jack’s pal Nurm, a particularly large-nosed, uni-browed gent who can only “hmph” out his thoughts. It sounds ridiculously limiting, but as with Lluna, I got a kick out of every nasal Nurm utterance while always understanding the tone of what he was trying to communicate.
Perhaps these two shine brighter than the others precisely because they have so little to say, where the rest of the group really never shuts up. As with all modern Telltale games, the second season of Minecraft: Story Mode is essentially one big yak-fest, and the script really isn’t up the task. I only chuckled once or twice at the odd amusing line of dialogue, as most of the time I just dutifully followed along until it was time to contribute. Player participation boils down primarily to making timed choices that determine how the story proceeds, whether in practice or merely perception. Some are trivial and lead to cosmetic changes at best, while others have real consequence to varying degrees.
As always, I cared more about whether I felt the weight of my decisions than how they actually influenced events. Unfortunately, the majority of conversational choices felt fairly binary and easy to choose for me, and when they didn’t, my indecision stemmed more from indifference than turmoil. Encourage Radar to show some backbone, or more actively seek to protect him? Meh. Win a friendly race at all costs or not? Whatever. Who to join in a mine cart ride into trouble when it’s time for the group to split up? Who cares, when you know you’ll all end up together again. Charge in swords a-swinging or try a diplomatic approach? Neither is destined to work, as proven mere minutes later. That’s not to say that none of your choices matter. Some clearly do, but only once or twice did I genuinely grapple with a difficult choice. Even then, my answer was easily reached – I just didn’t like either option and knew there’d be suffering both ways.
Normally I don’t replay games – particularly those (like Telltale’s) that commit the unpardonable sin of refusing to let players skip through the same conversations and cutscenes – but since I had to with this season anyway, I decided I’d try to role-play Jesse a bit differently the second time through. As the hero-in-residence, I naturally picked the more heroic approach whenever possible originally, which felt right and typically steered the character in a reasonable direction. Returning to the game, I decided to be a weaker, more selfish, and far less animal-loving protagonist. This proved to be largely a waste of time. It did open up a couple new gameplay sections I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, but instead of committing to a storyline for a genuine antihero, the game cops out. Other than a few sideways glances from disapproving onlookers, the only tangible consequence of my darker Jesse was making me feel dirty all over, a problem exacerbated by a few well-deserved llama loogies.
As per the Telltale formula, in between the gabbing and decision-making are some very occasional exploration segments, including a few obstacles that look like actual pattern puzzles if you squint hard enough. A trivia contest shows some promise, though the solutions are close at hand. You’ll collect a few inventory objects to craft new items at designated tables, but even less thought is required for these. Necessary materials are always nearby, sometimes handed directly to you, and crafting involves nothing more than following an explicit recipe. Several times you are required to construct something on a floor grid using blocks, but the controls (either keyboard/mouse or gamepad) are unwieldy for doing so, and I found the exercise thoroughly tedious. Perhaps Telltale sensed as much, as you can pretty much decide your work is complete at any point and it’ll ultimately be deemed a success. Though you can create your own designs, simply stacking dull-coloured boxes on top of one another prevents this from being nearly as fun as freely building things with miscellaneous Lego pieces.
Then there are the action sequences, which are certainly more involved than a traditional adventure game but incredibly basic by any other standard. You’ll tap a few buttons in Quick Time chases, fire arrows at pop-up shooting gallery targets, and whack any number of spiders, creeper-thingies, cycloptic laser fish, and several species of stone golems, among others. Garden variety enemies are easily dispatched, but there are several “boss fight” encounters to contend with as well. These require such feats of derring-do as dodge-rolling from clumsy attacks or rebounding fire/snow balls with your sword. Usually the goal is to get within range to deal close-up damage, but the biggest challenge comes from the severe limitation on character movement during these sequences. They aren’t very hard, but aren’t very fun either, at least after the first couple times.
Often a slick visual package can help gloss over a lack of gameplay, but here it’s part of the problem. I’ll stop short of calling the graphics “ugly”, but you’ll notice I said it anyway to plant the idea in your head. I’m anything but a graphics snob, and have no problem at all with retro designs. But as with the first, the second season of Minecraft: Story Mode looks like a low-res 1992 game blown up into high-def 3D, and the result is not flattering. The actual architecture can be stunning, depicting beautiful outdoor vistas of towering cities, snow-capped mountains, and underwater canyons. But much of the time you’ll be indoors and in tight, where the muddy textures and simple sets do the game no favours. This is especially true of the characters, who tend to take up significant portions of the screen and look like what they are: moving blocks of 3D pixels.
I can’t blame Telltale for being true to the subject matter, obviously. I get that this is how Minecraft itself looks. But there’s good reason for a massive online game to limit resources, and far less so for a character-driven interactive story that depends on its presentation to complement its narrative. I believe that’s part of the reason I don’t care much about Jesse and Petra after two games, the way I do for Clementine, Bigby Wolf, or Rhys and Fiona in Telltale’s other series. There are still lots of commendable cinematic moments, like fireworks exploding over the city at night, a winged Jesse soaring through the sky, navigating a zero-gravity trap room, and a funny heist-planning montage. In general, however, I found this game’s graphics to be a detriment to my enjoyment, not a benefit.
Even the sound doesn’t seem as good. The voice work is excellent, as always, including a number of Telltale mainstays and Hollywood talents, but long before the first episode ended I suspected that usual composer Jared Emerson-Johnson was not involved, and indeed he isn’t. The music is perfectly adequate, offering a wildly eclectic range of tunes and styles, from driving synth pieces to discordant mood-setters to suspenseful, almost Carpenter-esque ‘80s guitar. Perhaps this variety is also characteristic of Minecraft in general, but it’s so erratic that my underlying impression was that the score lacked any real cohesion here. It’s more like a mix tape matched to Story Mode set pieces.
I’m being hard on this game, I know, but not because its eight or so hours of play time are bad, just that they could have been so much more. Even accepting the dearth of actual gameplay (which I do though many quite fairly do not), this is B-side quality from Telltale. The crude graphics inherent to Minecraft do not serve a story focus well, while much of the narrative itself feels like been-there-done-that hero fare. The attempt to inject interpersonal conflict falls flat, mainly because decisions feel forced or irrelevant as often as not, and I had a hard time generating much enthusiasm for the main characters themselves. Adding more boss fights seems to be this game’s main “innovation”, and I’m really not sure who that’s supposed to appeal to. They’re too simple for action gamers and a little too intense (or at least too frequent) for hardcore adventure gamers. Kids may like them, but get restless during some of the long-winded stretches of inactivity. Overall, perhaps the diehard Minecraft fans will gobble this up, but for those simply looking for a fun fantasy romp, the second season of Story Mode doesn’t come within spitting distance of Telltale’s best.