It may seem like a somewhat risky move to make a Minecraft game that strips out Mojang's signature gameplay loops of digging, building and crafting endlessly in an infinite open world, but Minecraft Dungeons' shift to a Diablo-esque focus on looting and hack-and-slash combat against the many mobs that roam its blocky lands pays off handsomely here in a chilled out take on the action-RPG formula. It's a perfect introduction for newcomers to the genre, as well as an excellent kid-friendly title.
To make the comparison to Diablo here is obvious, and correct in as much as you'll blast your way through various isometric dungeons whilst hoovering up loot and battling hordes of baddies, but really that's where the main similarities come to an end. This is a much more relaxed and easy-going affair than its most obvious inspirations, enemies aren't nearly so brutal, levels are easy to navigate, the expected action-RPG skill trees and character classes are ditched for a much more streamlined system of enchantments and artifacts, and on default difficulty, you'll have very little trouble blasting through the nine levels on offer here in a day or thereabouts.
The story, such as it is, sees you - and up to three pals in online or local co-op - hack, slash and loot your way across nine different Minecraft biomes in order to put a stop to the nefarious plans of the Arch-Illager. A once peaceful villager, the Arch-Illager has been shunned by his kin and sets off to seek refuge in the overworld, instead finding nothing but hatred, hostility and the Orb of Dominance, a magical McGuffin which sees him twisted and warped into the big bad leader of an army of mobs hellbent on turning the land into their own personal war machine.
The nine missions you'll blast through here, each one charging you with dismantling some aspect of the Arch-Illager's evil empire, do an excellent job of recreating the world of Minecraft in a level of detail which we haven't previously seen. The Creeper Woods where you begin your adventure is a delightfully dark and atmospheric forest of foes illuminated by the warm yellow glow of fungi lights, while Pumpkin Pastures is a dazzling explosion of burnt orange and red, a rich autumnal scene filled with the ruins of once thriving villages and great wooden boats now infested by the Arch-Illager's goons. All of the various areas of Minecraft are well-represented here and are at their very best a little later in the game when they start to introduce fun environmental obstacles to the hack-and-slash mix. The Redstone Mines, for example, has runaway carts that you'll need to keep an eye out for as you battle its denizens, and there are also plenty of hidden nooks and crannies full of treasure chests and secret crypts to find and explore as you make your way across the game's delightful map. Between missions you'll return to a camp where you can take in the views, practice your moves on zombie dummies and trade the emeralds you've hoovered up in combat for random weapon and armour drops from the local blacksmith.
The familiar mob enemies of Minecraft also fit perfectly well into this entirely new style of game with the mix of creepers, spiders, zombies, chicken jockeys and skeletons providing a nice balance of ranged attackers, and up-close and personal foes. Skeletons fire off arrows from a distance, creepers rush in for explosive attacks, and mages and necromancers lurk in the background of battles, boosting the health and defences of their comrades, demanding that you deal with them first before mopping up the rank and file. There are some excellent boss battles that round off levels here too, spectacular encounters that, alongside the regular enemy combat and a handful of miniboss battles, ensure you'll need to get to grips with your primary hack-and-slash weapon attack as well as knowing when to rely on ranged arrow attacks or deploy one of the many artefact powers you'll find and equip as you make your way through the game.
As we mentioned, the usual skill trees and character classes have been dropped here in favour of a streamlined system of enchantments and artefacts that imbue your character with all manner of devastating attacks, defensive boons and so on. As well as your primary weapon, bow and arrow and armour, you have three inventory slots that can be filled with any mixture of artefacts that you'll loot from chests and enemies in battle. There are lightning rods and harvesters that do AOE damage, totems of shielding that give you temporary defensive barriers, death cap mushrooms that send you on a crazed frenzy of overpowered attacks, and many more to ensure there's always some new way to kit out your character. It may not be the toughest game out there - although the unlockable harder difficulties do up the ante - but constantly switching up your powers and weapons gives the core combat an addictive quality that keeps you ploughing ahead to see what legendary weapon or beefed up piece of armour you'll find next.
On top of the artefacts system, you'll unlock enchantment points as you level up which can be fed into your equipped weapons and armour giving you access to up to three perks per item. You might, for example, choose to equip your bow with a chain reaction perk that allows you to fire off extra arrows per shot, have your soul robe armour send you into a frenzied attack state when you drop below half health, or give your daggers, swords and axes all manner of elemental attacks. In tandem with the artefact system, this really opens the combat up and gives you plenty of choice and variety in how you choose to engage with the Arch-Illager's armies. Enchantments can also be quickly and easily reassigned to new items by simply breaking down whatever item they're currently attached to. It's a neat and user-friendly system that means you don't have to worry about throwing your precious points away on some item that you'll only use until you find something better five minutes later. On the whole, the core combat here feels great, with a punchy selection of cool weapons and powers that illuminate the entire screen to get to grips with.
Overall then, Minecraft Dungeons does an excellent job of recreating this world that we all know and love in the action-RPG genre, and in a manner that does away with many of the intricacies of its inspirations, making for a slightly straightforward challenge but one that's extremely newcomer and kid-friendly and is a blast to play through with a couple of friends in tow. There's no everlasting endgame that's going to satisfy hardcore dungeon crawlers here, and the default difficulty can be blown through in a day, but the addictive combat, randomly generated levels, flexible character build system, delightful graphics and strong mix of enemy types keep this one feeling fresh right up to your final encounter with the Arch-Illager in his evil lair.
Minecraft Dungeons does an excellent job of taking the blocky world and characters that we all know and love from Minecraft and transplanting them into a light and breezy, kid-friendly action-RPG. The streamlined systems of character building and upgrading here are delightfully easy to engage with, levels are beautifully realised, and randomly generated slices of the overworld and the various mobs and bosses you come up against provide a fun challenge for up to four players to get stuck into. It may not be the most dark or difficult action RPG out there, but for newcomers to the genre, young kids or massive Minecraft fans, this one is an easy recommendation.