Minecraft Dungeons (Beta) Preview: Microsoft has a big win on its hands here

Minecraft Dungeons 28 03 2020 14 55
Minecraft Dungeons 28 03 2020 14 55 (Image credit: Windows Central)

Minecraft Dungeons Scene

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

I am hopelessly in love with Mojang's passion project, Minecraft Dungeons. After several hours in the fairly limited closed beta, I simply can't put it down. It takes everything you love about Minecraft's world, with enchanting music, whimsical humor, and that signature aesthetic and combines it with everything you love about Diablo, with deep action RPG customization and combat, that simply feels great.

Here's why I think Minecraft Dungeons is set to be a special entry in Microsoft's growing Xbox Game Studios portfolio, ahead of its planned May 2020 launch.

Looking good, feeling great

Minecraft Dungeons, first and foremost, looks and feels like a classic Minecraft game, right down to the aesthetics and music. Save for one crucial difference: no building. Minecraft Dungeons is one-hundred percent action RPG, with a self-proclaimed mild emphasis on story. That's not to say there isn't any story. You're an adventurer on a quest to defeat the evil Arch Illager, whose Illager hordes and Redstone monstrosities are rampaging across the land, pillaging and defiling as they go.

It simply feels great to play.

Built with Unreal Engine, Minecraft Dungeons retains the charming blocktastic aesthetic of the sandbox game we all know and love, albeit through an action RPG lens. Monsters are more varied and dynamic in their movements and attacks. Skeletons fall apart into piles of bones, rather than simply flop over dead like in the base game, for example. And spells and effects come with more spectacular profiles, giving your abilities a real sense of impact upon the world. Tossing a crate of TNT into a crowd of enemies sends them flying all over the place with glorious ragdoll physics, shattering against walls and trees. It simply feels great to play.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

The beta we've had access gives us just a small glimpse at the types of environments players can expect. We have zombie-filled spooky forests, pillaged pumpkin farmlands, and tombs crammed with enchanted skeletons.

The (rather gorgeous) full world map reveals several Minecraft staple biomes, including desert temples, mining hills, mountain peaks, and forest ruins. Mojang has also said they have two additional pieces of DLC on the way, with more planned for the future. Who knows, maybe one day we'll end up in the Nether or The End?

Getting that sweet, sweet loot

People who aren't into Minecraft often associate it with younger audiences, despite the cavernous amount of depth it has. I have already gotten the question a few times about whether Minecraft Dungeons is a "true" action RPG, akin to Diablo, or something more simplistic aimed at younger audiences. Just like Diablo, you can tailor the difficulty quite heavily, spanning from easy and accessible all the way up to reactive and challenging. Once you've beaten the main story, two more difficulty tiers unlock as well, granting access to even more powerful loot and even more challenging enemies.

Minecraft Dungeons is made up of story scenarios that are set in their layouts, but there are also many procedurally-generated random dungeons that change every time you enter them. The first we found was hidden in the Creepy Woods, known as the Creepy Crypt, and it was truly gargantuan. Exploring every part of it on maximum difficulty took the best part of forty minutes, and the rewards were incredibly compelling.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

We got a powerful bow that produced explosions on-hit, which stacked with our various enchants to produce cascading explosions and all sorts of chaos. To add to the flavor, it was hidden away in a secret room behind a secret door, adding an element of Indiana Jones to the proceedings. We've seen the random dungeons spawn different types of puzzles and other sorts of traps and obstacles as well, beyond merely battling hordes of enemies.

Speaking of enemies, even in the set story levels, it seems that the types of enemies you'll meet are randomized to a degree. On higher difficulties, you'll start seeing purple "enchanted" enemies who come with unique modifiers, granting them specific attack bonuses. The way enemy abilities can intersect and overlap makes combat feel incredibly dynamic as well, in a way even Diablo III often doesn't.

Minecraft Dungeons

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

On the maximum difficulty available to us in the beta, Creepers were just as deadly as they are in the base game left unchecked. When combined with Evil Wizard enchantments and Spider webs holding you down, Creepers went from a nuisance to incredibly dangerous in a split second.

On top of the regular enemies, Minecraft has a range of boss-type enemies that come with far more powerful abilities and more complicated attack patterns. The only one we've seen so far in the beta is the Evoker, which is a more powerful type of Wizard that can summon creepy demon Cherub-like mobs that swarm you, while also producing massive jaws out of the ground that deal tremendous amounts of damage. Dodging these attacks while maintaining your damage is as fun as it is challenging, and the rewards can be oh so sweet.

Customization and gearing

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Speaking of rewards, Minecraft Dungeons doesn't have any microtransactions or "pay-to-win" elements (thankfully). All the items you obtain are found in-game, or via randomized vendors that will let you exchange emeralds for a random artefact ability or gear piece. Artefacts make up the game's ability slots, as Minecraft Dungeons has no fixed classes, as is often the case with other similar games. Instead, you tailor your playstyle around weapon types, armor styles, and artefact skills.

If you want to make an archer, for example, you'd pick armor that increases your arrow supply and ranged damage while looking for artefacts that push melee enemies back at range. Melee attackers might want to find heavy armor and enchants that boost close-quarters combat, and so on. You may even want to make builds that revolve around special weapon types you find. The possibilities seem endless.

Related: List of abilities, weapons, and enchants in Minecraft Dungeons

When making your character, the game offers a ton of skins to choose from, although it seems like some will be tied to preorder bonuses or Xbox Game Pass perks. You can always make new characters if you want to try out something new, or simply build up multiple gear sets on an existing character, using different enchants, armor, and weapons that fit your preferred playstyle. There are quite literally dozens we've found so far at low level, with hundreds, maybe thousands of potential combinations. Who knows how many to expect in the full game.

So much promise

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Minecraft Dungeons already seems to hold so much potential and promise, even via the tiny slice of the content we experienced in the game's closed beta. The game is aiming to launch in May, after Mojang issued warnings that the current work-from-home policies hitting the world may impact the game's final release date. It's hitting PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC, complete with local and online play for up to four friends, and with cross-play on Xbox One and PC.

Minecraft Dungeons looks to live up to the rewarding, satisfying expectations set by the genre. I've rarely found myself addicted to a beta, but here we are. Considering this game is hitting every platform, complete with multiplayer, and the potential it has for post-launch updates and continuous play, I'd say Microsoft is on to a big win here.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!