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Considering the massive popularity of Minecraft, we’re almost surprised  developer Mojang and corporate overlord Microsoft don’t exploit it more ruthlessly. Sure, there is plenty of Minecraft merchandise, but the core construction sandbox is pretty much it when it comes to games. The only exceptions are experimental one-offs such as the augmented reality game Minecraft Earth and the narrative-driven Minecraft: Story Mode from Telltale. However, Minecraft is about to get arguably its most ambitious spin-off yet with Minecraft Dungeons, an action-RPG that trades the fun of building with the fun of collecting loot. Based on our time with closed beta for this upcoming PC game, the transition seems pretty smooth.

Diablo, With Blocks

Minecraft Dungeons makes the bold prediction that kids would enjoy Diablo’s loot gathering, dungeon crawling, and other action-RPG antics. They just need a game without all the violence and Satanism of Blizzard’s classic franchise. Instead, the game takes place in the Minecraft universe as players travel the land fighting monsters, saving villagers, and confronting the evil Arch-Illager.

Playing the first three levels included in this beta— a tutorial, the Creeper Woods, and Pumpkin Pastures areas— I was surprised how well the core tenets of Minecraft shifted over into this new framework. Minecraft already has a whole menagerie of monsters to draw from. Sniping Creepers from afar before they blow up in my face is second nature. Although they have consistent objectives, exploring the randomly generated dungeons feel like watching some omniscient child creator rebuild their own Minecraft world over and over again. Even the loot is an organic extension of Minecraft’s survival and resource-management mechanics.

Craft Your Destiny

However, Minecraft Dungeons isn’t about building stuff. It’s about smashing stuff, specifically monsters. To do so, you’ll need to craft a hero to complement your playstyle. Instead of choosing a class (or buying from auction houses with real money) character abilities are solely determined by the gear collected in the game. This gear includes a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, a piece of armor, and three additional artifacts each with their own effects governed by cooldowns. Artifacts include additional weapons like exploding bottle rockets, spells like a charm that makes monsters love you, or temporary buffs like a mushroom that boosts your speed. 

Managing loot is a straightforward system with potential for a lot with depth once you start to dig into it. As you level up, you earn points that augment powers unique to specific gear or techniques. I unlocked the ability to shock nearby enemies with lightning whenever I performed an evasive roll. These powers can either enhance strengths or mitigate weakness. For example, I gave up my fast sickles and bow for a powerful, but slow, greatsword and a stronger bow with lower ammo capacity. However, I unlocked a skill for my sword that let me perform two quick slashes in a row and a skill for my arrow that randomly rewarded me with extra arrows. You can break down old equipment for money and skill points, so you’re encouraged to keep experimenting, even on the battlefield. Just know that opening the menu doesn’t pause the action. 

The creative possibilities of Minecraft Dungeon’s loot system all stacking on top of each other made it more engaging to me than, say, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’s shallow, kid-friendly approach to a blockbuster action-RPG. I really want to dive deeper into it. Still, these games ultimately boil down to spamming mouse click attacks against increasingly ridiculous mobs of enemies. I was occasionally annoyed fighting mini-bosses like Enderman and his minions alone. Unsurprisingly, this is a lot more tolerable with friends. I doubt the action will change that dramatically by the end of the reportedly five-hour campaign. 

Fun For All Ages (and Specs)

Minecraft Dungeons maintains the franchise’s trademark blocky visual style that lets it run smoothly on a variety of hardware, from the beefiest rig down to an educational Raspberry Pi. After all, little kids love this game and they don’t have the deepest pockets. The developers tout new Unreal Engine 4-powered graphical effects designed to spice up the Minecraft look. Particle effects in particular add to the chaos as you mow down enemy hordes with your plethora of powers. Simple doesn’t have to look plain.

Fortunately, these new tricks don’t stop the game from performing well on lower-end machines. I pulled our my five-year-old HP Envy, with a Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M graphics card, for testing and it had no problem running the game at a consistent frame rate. Microsoft itself currently doesn’t list any system requirements beyond Windows 10 and a x64 architecture, so the final release will probably be pretty flexible. 

Dig It

I played the Minecraft Dungeons beta on my PC. While other recent Microsoft PC games such as Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and Ori and the Will of the Wisps have made their way over to Steam, Minecraft Dungeons is only available through its own Windows launch, just like the original Minecraft. However, the game is also coming to consoles, again just like the original Minecraft. When Minecraft Dungeons launches on May 26, you can play it on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Not that Minecraft is starving for attention, but we’re excited to see a spin-off with as much potential as Minecraft Dungeons hit as many platforms as possible. 

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