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.Continued on the next page...