Minecraft Dungeons review: Compelling combat, relentlessly rewarding, deceptively difficult

Minecraft Dungeons casts off the Diablo "clone" status and sits among the best action RPGs of the gen.

Minecraft Dungeons 20 05 2020 14 05
(Image: © Windows Central)

Minecraft Dungeons is a game that I didn't know I wanted. When it was first announced a few years ago, I wondered if it was going to be another simple spin-off like Minecraft Story Mode, or something akin to Left 4 Dead. Instead, we've ended up with something that defies all of my early skepticism and truly delivers.

Minecraft Dungeons is an action RPG through and through, borrowing the isometric camera view and combat flow pioneered by the likes of Diablo. There's no grinding materials or building here. Minecraft Dungeons is all about satisfying combat in a gorgeous blocky world, built atop advanced visual features and physics, all on the Unreal Engine.

My expectations ran high since playing the recent beta, and although the PC client has a few quirks, the game is relentlessly rewarding, with massive potential for on-going support.

This is Minecraft Dungeons, which is easily one of the best games Microsoft has put out in the past decade.

Minecraft Dungeons: Visuals, music, story, and performance

Minecraft's unique art style is one if it's signature features, and the teams at Double Eleven and Mojang managed to blend the pixel-style 3D designs with some advanced visual features and physics owing to Unreal Engine and other modern tech. The game simply looks great and runs incredibly well on my RTX 2060 Razer Blade 15, on maximum visuals with sixty frames per second.

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CategoryMinecraft Dungeons
TitleMinecraft Dungeons
DeveloperMojang Studios, Double Eleven
PublisherXbox Game Studios
GenreAction RPG
Minimum RequirementsWindows 10 (64-bit)
Game Size2.69GB
Players1-4 players, local and online co-op
Launch Price$20

While Minecraft Dungeons isn't rocking ray-tracing or anything on that sort of level, it does have some impressive lighting effects and moody atmospherics, which really come into their own in some of the game's cavernous dungeons like the claustrophobic Redstone Mines. Shimmering Redstone crystals dot the walls, while minecarts weave around threatening to knock you over, all while waves upon waves of Skeletons and Creepers try to hunt you down.

The game has a wide variety of biomes to choose from as you progress and unlock the game's levels. The Desert Temple level is crammed with traps, winding corridors, and sandy Husks, and the Soggy Swamp is the ideal locale for swarms of giant slimes trying to ingest your juicy flesh. Just don't accidentally dodge roll into the muck, or you might not live to tell the tale.

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

Some of the more evocative visuals come from the game's bosses and mini-bosses. I don't want to spoil too much, but some of the boss battles are quite large with complex mechanics and visuals to match.

Thought the Endermen were creepy in regular Minecraft? Dungeons takes it to a new level.

The Corrupted Cauldron boss was a particular favorite, spewing Slime mobs across the whole area while expelling plumes of purple fire in melee range. Mobs like the Endermen also come with screen-distorting spell effects, complete with intense and dynamic combat music to match. Thought the Endermen were creepy in regular Minecraft? Dungeons takes it to a new level.

The music especially is a big point of praise in Minecraft Dungeons, with each area, boss, and mini-boss getting a unique and dynamic theme. During more dire battles, the intensity of the music ramps up to match, with a broad and varied score that is truly one of 2020's greats.

The soundtrack weaves in nicely with the game's story beats too, which, while few in number, are quite charming and entertaining when you do encounter them. The evil "Arch-Illager" claimed an artifact of immense power, granting him broad magical powers. Intent on getting revenge against regular villagers who cast him aside, your adventure mainly hinges on dismantling the Arch-Illager's war machines, supply lines, and ultimately, the Arch-Illager himself.

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

The plot is light-hearted and is geared towards youngsters, but what's there is entertaining enough in that typical Minecraft style. I honestly wish there was a bit more of it, but Mojang was upfront about the fact story really isn't Minecraft Dungeons' focus. That's its gameplay, which we'll get to in a minute.

Performance-wise Minecraft Dungeons is typically solid, but I did encounter a few issues during my time through the review period that I hope gets fixed before launch on May 26. Running the game in a borderless fullscreen window mode seems to upset Desktop Window Manager (dwm.exe), introducing strange CPU and GPU spikes. This might be more of an issue with the Microsoft Store "Modern Apps" APIs, since running it in a regular window or in fullscreen mode doesn't cause the issue.

Additionally, the game seems to have a bug where you get occasionally disconnected when completing a mission from an online session. Thankfully you don't lose any loot when this occurs, and the client does have an instant "Reconnect" button if you're playing with friends, but it's a little bit annoying how frequently this occurred. Neither issue is game-breaking, though, and will probably be fixed sooner rather than later.

Minecraft Dungeons: Gameplay, mechanics, and longevity

The meat of Minecraft Dungeons is its gameplay. And like a juicy stack of freshly cooked pork chops, Minecraft Dungeons delivers a delectable spread of satisfying grind and deceptively tough higher-level content. Minecraft Dungeons really does seem to nail the "easy to play, hard to master" design mantra Diablo III fans are no doubt familiar with, as its dizzying collection of intersecting enchants, enemies, and combat styles is something I'm sure I'll be dissecting for months to come.

Minecraft Dungeons follows many of the gameplay traditions set about by its base game, revolving around "enchantments" as its primary source of character progression. There are also tons of different types of armor sets, weapons, and artifact abilities to unlock and use, which overlap in their mechanics in surprising ways.

I truly feel like I've barely scratched the surface on the types of playstyles I could create.

There are no set character classes in the game as a result of this. Your playstyle is determined wholly by your personal loadout, with specific areas hiding different types of loot, displayed on the world map. If you're trying to set up a "caster" wizard-type of playstyle, you'll want to hunt down some of the game's "Soul" leeching weapons, armor, and abilities, which grant you a perishable resource for some of the game's more magic-oriented abilities. Some of these items are more likely to drop in specific areas, and the higher-level difficulty you select, the more powerful versions you'll acquire. As of writing, I've completed the base game and am grinding my way through the next difficulty tier, trying to pull together different gear parts to make something that looks similar to a wizard, using a Corrupted Beacon laser beam as my core spell, with a Soul-siphoning dagger and crossbow as my support weapons.

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

Designing your character build and working to obtain the correct pieces is where I expect much of the game's longevity will come from for most players since the story mode itself can probably be finished in roughly 4-6 hours. After completing the story, much like Diablo, the game opens up with more complex mechanics in existing areas, more deadly enemies with unique affixes, granting them scarily powerful abilities. The rewards are far more potent, too, with armor and artifacts that can only be acquired through higher-level boss runs and dungeon dives, mimicking the gameplay loop of games like Monster Hunter World, with character build design freedom to match.

I truly feel like I've barely scratched the surface on the types of playstyles I could create, with heavy armor and two-handed weapons, ranged builds, pet-oriented builds, healer builds, shamanistic totemic builds, and many more possibilities swirling in my head as I look at my inventory of plunder. The gear is undoubtedly one aspect of Minecraft Dungeons that Mojang thoroughly nailed.

Minecraft Dungeons 20 05 2020 14 24 (Image credit: Windows Central)

Minecraft Dungeons 20 05 2020 14 08 (Image credit: Windows Central)

Source: Windows Central

Another aspect Mojang thoroughly nailed is the combat, because it simply feels sublime. Tossing a TNT crate into a swarm of mobs, seeing them ragdoll across the map into pitfalls and other hazards is a joy to behold every single time, with weapons that feel weighty and impactful across the board. Whether you're slamming a two-handed hammer into the floor, squishing Creepers before they explode, or nailing them with a hail of arrows from your trusty crossbow, there's something for literally everybody to enjoy here. The variety of mob types and affix modifiers keeps repeated dungeon runs for loot feeling fresh. Ensuring the combat feels good is utterly crucial in a game like this, and Mojang hit a home run.

Ensuring the combat feels good is utterly crucial in a game like this, and Mojang hit a home run.

The only feedback I would give Mojang pertains to the "Soul" draining mechanic found on some items and gear. If you build a character that is designed around Soul spending as a primary attack, boss battles become incredibly, ridiculously tough, because you can't get additional "Souls" from killing enemies to power your abilities. I'm not sure if the later stages of the endgame has any unique armor or weapons or modifiers that allow for passive Soul-regeneration (and it may well be the case), but initially, the mechanic feels a little odd.

Update: I actually just found a unique dagger that gives you Souls on-hit, rather than on-kill, rendering this point a bit moot. There's also a unique armor set specifically designed for Soul-generation, making this type of playstyle far more viable.

Some character builds will naturally be better at certain things over others, with some that orient more around team-play over soloing, and that's fine. Still, the Soul mechanic feels clunky in its current implementation. I'm sure other things may need tweaking down the line, but for the most part, all of the weapons and armor types feel well-balanced.

Another thing that bugs me is that Microsoft, once again, couldn't resist adding loot boxes to the game. Yes, you can't buy them with real money, but the layers of randomness could end up being frustrating for people hunting down specific items and gear.

Dungeons offer specific rewards in the completion chest at the end, giving you a degree of control over what you get, at least, but the enchants are totally random. I'm already getting flashbacks to decoration-hunting in Monster Hunter World, where even after 700 hours of playtime, I haven't found a specific gem I want for my build.

As pertains to progression, you can deconstruct your weapons into Emeralds and then spend them at vendors in your camp to acquire new ones, if your items are getting obsolete. It's a little annoying, though, if you've found a really cool weapon you enjoy using, only to have to ditch it for something else for the raw power to progress. That's pretty typical of the genre, though. Minecraft Dungeons throws so much loot at you that you're bound to find something you like to use, and the combat is so fun that the journey is relentlessly enjoyable.

Should you buy Minecraft Dungeons?

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

Minecraft Dungeons is just $20, which in my mind is an incredibly high-value proposition given its multiplayer capabilities and piles of loot to sift through and obtain. If you're only in it for the story completion, you may be a bit disappointed, given its length.

If you're a fan of action RPGs, I dare say Minecraft Dungeons will end up being your next addition.

Minecraft Dungeons simply takes cues from Diablo and other similar games revolving around loot and combat, rather than plot immersion. This disregards the fact it's also on Xbox Game Pass, free for anyone with a sub.

It's hard to say what the post-launch support will look like, but Mojang is already planning to ship additional content in the form of new adventures and areas, alongside a cross-play update allowing players from Xbox, PC, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 4 to group up and play together.

I've already sunk several hours into the game as I dive deeper into the endgame difficulty tiers, getting wrecked by empowered Slimes with additional armor and flame trails just makes me want more powerful loot even more. That familiar, satisfying addiction that comes with loot-oriented games like this has already gripped me, owing to the game's persistently fulfilling combat. If you're a fan of action RPGs, I dare say Minecraft Dungeons will end up being your next addition too.

We reviewed Minecraft Dungeons using a copy provided by Microsoft, on a Windows 10 PC.

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!