Minecraft is as big a franchise as they come, but it’s not universally loved.
Sometimes, the impact of a single franchise instalment is so powerful that it exerts a supernovean gravitational pull towards its own centre, dragging in those who were on the periphery or in some cases, not even interested at all. Take the inexorable rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example.
The likes of Captain America and the Hulk have always been fairly popular, but did you ever in your wildest dreams really believe there’d be an Ant Man movie with a Wasp-centric sequel, or a Black Panther film in the works? On paper, Guardians of the Galaxy is ludicrous – a 1980s-music-scored space opera with a talking raccoon and Vin Diesel playing a tough-as-nails tree… OK, maybe that last bit makes sense – but you probably see where I’m going with this. The charismatic draw of the Avengers, in large part due to the popularity of the Iron Man franchise and Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark, has allowed these sorts of ensemble pieces and off-beat-but-great-in-their-own-right stories to flourish.
Under other circumstances though, sometimes it simply doesn’t come off, and I fear Minecraft Story Mode could be one of these occasions. That’s not to say it isn’t a good game or is entirely without merit – we’ll get to that – and you may well enjoy it simply as another Telltale Games experience, but if there was any ambition to bring players to Minecraft through Minecraft Story Mode then I think it’s a hard sell.
Full disclosure: I’m just not into Minecraft. I understand it and I get the appeal of it to others, and I don’t dislike it per se, but I simply have no motivation to play personally. You can read some examples of my spectacular apathy towards it here and here.
You may think that makes me a terrible choice to review Minecraft Story Mode, and you’re entitled to that opinion Dear Reader, but I think it makes me the ideal person. If Minecraft Story Mode is ever going to transcend its own building blocks and draw disinterested gamers into its universe, I’m exactly the kind of guy it needs to persuade; I am the very definition of ambivalence, but I would very much like to be persuaded otherwise.
So what is good about Minecraft Story Mode?
First off, I can’t speak highly enough of the voice talent on display here in Minecraft Story Mode. There aren’t enough superlatives in the world to describe just how good the cast – including Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Ashley Johnson and Dave Fennoy – is in this game.
Those of us who remember the painfully wooden, prostrate voice-overs associated with games in the nineties genuinely never had any hope or belief that they could even be half-decent, never mind as good as they have become. With that in mind, here’s hoping that everyone gets behind the proposed strike action among the amazing world of video game voice talent, and the fantastic crew of versatile and unsung heroes of the gaming world get the respect they rightfully deserve.
The way that Minecraft Story Mode feels to play is also a welcome shot of familiarity for fans of Telltale Games. The studio have been refining their secret sauce for years, transcending the oft staid and prosaic nature of the point-and-click adventure with a sprinkle of high action and cinema-slick polish, but it hasn’t always been so accomplished. Some of the action sequences in The Walking Dead: Season One were a mite clunky to control, while the combat sequences in the The Walking Dead: Season Two were dramatically improved – even in the 18 months between the two seasons – and given another two years to refine it, they’re really pretty great by the advent of Minecraft Story mode.
Physical combat with melee weapons is particularly tightened in Minecraft Story mode, and now feels more like fencing than tee-ball, with the ability to switch targets and sashay towards (and away from) enemies bringing a real sense of dynamism to button-mashing fight sequences. Ranged or targeted sections are still a little hit or miss, but that’s often the difference between playing with a joypad vs. a keyboard and mouse on PC. I retried a section I failed with joypad again with a mouse and nailed it first time, so I figure that’s more the control medium’s fault than Telltale’s.
QTEs are QTEs, and while they’re a little more welcome as an upward tempo change in an adventure title – like Minecraft Story Mode or Until Dawn – than they are dragging down the action as they do in the Tomb Raider reboot, they’re still just pressing buttons to on-screen prompts, like PaRappa The Rapper without the hilariously bizarre lyrics.
In defence of Minecraft Story Mode’s Quick-Time Events though, they manage to capture some of the essense and intricacies of the original game; it wouldn’t be a Minecraft game without beating a tree to pieces with your bare fists to collect wood for building. In that respect, the presentation is spot on.
What’s not so good about Minecraft Story Mode?
And before the Minecraft faithful start getting shouty at me, I do know that if it didn’t look like Minecraft then it would be entirely wrong, but I still feel its a wasted opportunity. There are cute touches, like the blocky on-screen menus and the thematically appropriate architecture of the town – plus Reuben the cuboid pig is adorable, and literally the best thing about the game – but compared to the rest of Telltale’s lineup it just feels too basic. I genuinely can’t feel any dread when a wither storm threatens to devour Minecraft Story Mode’s world, because it just looks naff. Sorry!
What’s even more frustrating, then, is the system requirements for PC and Mac.
It recommends a 512MB dedicated graphics card, which doesn’t seem so onerous, but it also specifies that it is “Not Recommended for Intel integrated graphics” and they are not kidding. Most games will make some sort of a fist of it and run at a reduced resolution or detail level on older/lower-spec hardware, but I literally could not get it running on a lightweight laptop with integrated graphics.
For a game that I wasn’t all that interested in but was trying to casually give a chance to win me over with charm and cuteness, the fact I had to run it from my big rig at the desk – rather than being able to slouch on the couch or potter around on the train – pissed me off no end.
Actually, thinking on it I really hate the presentation, because it shouldn’t look this basic yet still refuse to run on lower-end graphics chips. I understand why the real-deal Minecraft takes a bigger rig to run – because it’s calculating huge volumes of change in an ever-shifting open world – but Minecraft Story Mode is all scripted, all set pieces, and just doesn’t look like the requirements are justified.
And finally, I’ve got one last point that I’m not going to dwell on because – as I said earlier – I’m not a Minecraft fan, but I don’t get the lore. At all.
I know about punching trees for wood and that stone swords are better than wooden ones, and that creepers and zombies are pretty horrible beasts, and that economically speaking everyone wants a diamond, and that’s fine; it all fits perfectly in Minecraft Story Mode and it’s really rather sweet.
However I don’t know if EnderCon is a thing, or the Order of the Stone is canonical, or the wither storm, or the Nether, or… and if that’s all real Minecraft lore then it’s fine; it totally deserves its place in the game – uninspiring a story as it may be – but if that’s all been created just for Minecraft Story Mode? Then, I would be incredibly disappointed. With the assumption of free reign I would have expected so much more from Telltale Games, and I feel great characters – and the wonderful delivery by an amazing cast – is being entirely wasted.
At best, it’s the most they could achieve with dodgy raw materials, and at worst it’s simply phoning it in. A large chunk of Steam reviews seem to think it’s the latter, and – particularly to my external perspective – it feels like a real waste.