Minecraft is a game that needs no introduction. If you haven't heard of it, your kids have. This blocky building simulator channels everything that was fun about playing with Lego, and then runs it through an 8-bit filter. However, for all the fun you can have surviving and building in Minecraft, there's never been much of a storyline — until now.
Telltale Games — the company responsible for episodic, story-driven adaptations like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands — worked with Minecraft developer Mojang to create something quite different from what Minecraft fans are used to. Minecraft: Story Mode transports a lot of the Minecraft aesthetics and gameplay staples into a point-and-click adventure game while introducing the player to a cast of amiable characters.
The five-part series costs $5 per episode, or $25 for all of them (to be released over the course of a few months), and is available on PS3, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, Android and iOS.
Those looking for a traditional Minecraft experience should be warned that Story Mode is not exactly that. While you will, indeed, collect resources, do battle with zombielike creepers, craft durable weapons and build mighty structures, it's not really the focus of gameplay. Instead, like most Telltale games, Story Mode focuses on dialogue, puzzle solving and the occasional action set piece.
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You'll take control of Jesse, a male or female avatar in the Minecraft world who, along with his or her best pals and pet pig Reuben, sets out to build something spectacular for an annual competition. From there, Jesse's quest will lead through verdant fields, creepy forests, unexplored dungeons and ominous towers. You'll spend plenty of time walking across these geometric landscapes and talking with the denizens therein.
Dialogue is the single most substantial part of Story Mode, and it's all quite fun. As Jesse, you usually get four possible responses to any question that comes your way (or you could just stay silent), and characters remember how you treat them. You'll also occasionally be asked to make big choices — what to build, where to go, whether a character stays or goes — that have lasting effects on how the story plays out.
Apart from dialogue exchanges, the gameplay mostly comes in the form of solving simple puzzles (including one very clever one involving a fishing rod and a loose arrow) and following quick button prompts during action sequences, such as fighting off zombies or running from a fairground that's under attack. These sections prevent the game from being one long string of dialogue, but the expectation is that you're in this mostly for the characters, not the gameplay.
If you know the Telltale formula, there's nothing too new here, but there's also nothing that desperately needs changing. The gameplay works fine, but think of it as a point-and-click adventure rather than a sprawling building simulator.
Much as Minecraft has a Survival Mode, a Creative Mode and an Adventure Mode, Telltale views Story Mode as just one more way to experience the game's intriguing world. You play as Jesse, an aspiring adventurer, and you can choose Jesse's gender and appearance, giving the game an air of customization.
Long before Jesse's story begins (an excitable narrator informs us), four heroes saved the world from a fearsome monster, then went their separate ways. Jesse idolizes the heroes. When the opportunity to meet Gabriel, a warrior of legend, arises, Jesse simply has to win an annual construction contest to get Gabriel's attention.
Things don't go as planned, but to say more would be telling. The story in Minecraft: Story Mode is, at least so far, very much a standard fantasy tale, complete with archetypal heroes, intrigue, betrayal, friendship, unexpected bravery and just a little bit of magic. It's probably not going to throw too many curveballs your way if you've read Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire or any other well-known fantasy saga.
Where the game excels, though, is in its cast of characters. In the quest, Jesse teams up with the clever Olivia, the hotheaded Axel, the suave Lukas, the enterprising Petra and, of course, the stubborn-but-trusty pig Reuben. Every character is memorable, and the game does an excellent job of rotating them in and out of the spotlight, so the player is crystal clear where each character stands with Jesse by the end of the episode.
Graphics and Art
Story Mode does a great job of capturing the colorful world of Minecraft and the rectangular characters that dwell within. The game mirrors its Minecraft inspiration almost to a T, and there's very little in Story Mode that you wouldn't see in the main game. (A Wither, a powerful enemy creature in the main Minecraft game, gets a fairly substantial upgrade in Story Mode, however — you'll know it when you see it.)
It's also amazing just how expressive the characters can be, since their gestures and faces are simple by default. Minecraft: Story Mode is a perfect example of how a visually appealing art style can be more impressive than all the high-resolution, realistic polygons in the digital world.
Music and Sound
The music in Minecraft: Story Mode is good background noise but nothing that you'll be humming for weeks afterward. Likewise, most of the sound effects come right from Minecraft, and will sound either charmingly retro or completely incongruous with the higher-res voice acting, depending on your tastes.
The voice acting, however, is where the audio really shines. Story Mode features a veritable who's who of voice actors, including Patton Oswalt (King of Queens) or Cat Taber (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) as Jesse, along with Billy West (Futurama), Dee Bradley Baker (American Dad!), Ashley Johnson (Ben 10), Scott Porter (Friday Night Lights) and Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman himself) as the villain, Ivor.
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Each actor gives a spirited and memorable performance. Although the script can be a bit generic at times, it's hard not to get invested in the characters, who spend equal amounts of time cooperating and getting on each other's nerves. Telltale games usually feature stellar voice acting, and it's reassuring to know that Minecraft: Story Mode didn't slouch just because of its lighter tone.
I went into Story Mode knowing almost nothing about Minecraft. While I can't say I'm dying to start up my own account on the main game, I'm definitely interested in learning more about Jesse and his or her friends. I also feel I understand just a little bit better why this world has charmed and delighted so many digital builders.
While Minecraft: Story Mode still has a ways to go before it can be up there with the Telltale greats, it's off to a very promising start. With a few more unpredictable twists in the story and more opportunities to incorporate traditional Minecraft gameplay, Story Mode will be exactly what it set out to be: a story-driven take on a setting that, up until now, has resisted any kind of narrative.