Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: PC (Version Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, iOS, Android, PS Vita, Wii U
Release Dates: October 13, 2015 (PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360), October 15, 2015 (Android, iOS)
This review of Minecraft: Story Mode will remain spoiler-free, outside of a story synopsis for each episode.
The first piece of dialogue in Minecraft: Story Mode is aimed at our protagonist, Jesse. “Would you rather fight a hundred chicken-sized zombies, or ten zombie-sized chickens?” Olivia asks her friend. It is a variant on the Reddit-popularized question often asked in “Ask Me Anything” threads, often proposed to celebrities promoting their upcoming projects.
It was with that opening question that I realized that Telltale Games, creators of episodic adventure titles for The Walking Dead, Fables, Games of Thrones and The Borderlands series’, did not make this game for me. They made it for the children who are most interested in the creativity and the freedom of expression that Minecraft’s gameplay provides. Suddenly pushing that crafting mechanic behind the barrier of linear storytelling makes an odd choice, leading to a disappointing opening chapter for a game subtitled as the “story mode” companion piece.
That’s not to say that Telltale Games aren’t adapting from their standard formula. Episode 1 of Minecraft: Story Mode, “The Order of the Stone,” breaks off into character creation by letting players choose between six avatars, three of which are either female or male. It’s a shame that Telltale couldn’t get a named actor like Patton Oswalt to voice the female Jesse. However, Cat Taber (Mission Vao in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) as the female protagonist is no slouch. That said, considering the standup comedian voicing him is a personal Top 5, each episode-by-episode review will be using the male protagonist.
Minecraft: Story Mode takes place in real locations within the Minecraft mythos, including The Nether and beyond. For now, Jesse rolls with a tight-knit crew. Olivia is a voice of reason, often a foil for the protag to bounce off ideas. Axel is a huge man with a bigger heart, often thinking about good of the immediate group. They are accompanied by Reuben, a pig who carries almost a human-like understanding of interaction and will follow Jesse to the ends of the earth.
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The story starts off with this ragtag group preparing for an upcoming crafting tournament at the fictional “EnderCon,” a gathering of fans who follow The Order of the Stone. This order of four ventured into the Nether to slay the Ender Dragon, bringing peace to the citizens for years to come, and those that create the most impressive crafted monument to their success gets to meet up with The Order’s famed swordsman, Gabriel. Unfortunately, a scorned follower brings about a three-headed wither monster to the proceedings, threatening life as we know it. Jesse is tasked with finding the remaining members of The Order, bring them together and take down the monster.
“Charm” is the operative word for what Minecraft: Story Mode strives to embody. Everything about the way this narrative carries itself aims to produce a chuckle-worthy tale while setting the stage for a grand adventure. Where Telltale’s writing style aims for the lowest denominator with its meme references and banal, familiar flow of dialogue, the voice cast’s exemplary talent shines through as the game’s saving grace. With the exception of Ashley Johnson as Petra, each character’s voice is backed by a vibrant voice, responsive to each situation presented to the characters. Interaction doesn’t feel put on; it flows naturally.
The choices you are forced to make are often low-stake and more commonly presented in a way that overtly favors one more than the other.
Something that I found more pervasive than the Minecraft low-fi visual style is the backing score. To match the style of ambient music known to appear at times throughout the creative game, Story Mode combines electronica with modern MIDI instrumentation to match and set the story’s pacing. The tracks give an appropriately gamey vibe, setting a precedent for the game that separates itself from Telltale’s darker, more adult titles.
It’s an important touch, as this graphic adventure title offers more of an action input with its gameplay than we’ve seen before from Telltale. On multiple occasions, Jesse brings out a sword to combat enemies in Minecraft: Story Mode. In a 2.5D plane, you can move backward and forwards to take swings at enemies, either to take them down or reflect projectiles. The mechanics are surface deep, but add more interactivity for a style of game often bereft of action outside of making choices.
As much as I can find pleasure and excellence in the tertiary makings of this game, Minecraft: Story Mode tells a very weak story in a very linear fashion. The choices you are forced to make are often low-stake and more commonly presented in a way that overtly favors one more than the other. Unless you commit to play Jesse atypically from how the story presents itself, your party makes very abrupt, mean, unintelligent or selfish statements that just pour on reasons to oppose.
…The story of Episode 1 keeps you firmly on a narrative track.
The actual crafting in the story of Minecraft is trivial, if not repetitive. Whatever you choose to create for Endercon, just like a shelter for nighttime, is created by mashing a button in a QTE. Core creative choices, as a result, offer little to no payoff for the player. What items you do need to craft at crafting stations, such as a bow and arrow, come from items thrown into your inventory acquired previously by your for story convenience or from other party members tossing them to you for, once again, story convenience.
Combine this with the fact that there is little exploration in this game (even the marketplace is decidedly linear), and you have a Minecraft game that offers little player agency whatsoever. It’s mind boggling how an adventure title that lends its name to the prestigious sandbox title fundamentally misses the point. There’s no embarking into the wilderness, gathering your materials and coming up with a unique solution; the story of Episode 1 keeps you firmly on a narrative track.
What’s most frustrating, personally, is that Telltale knows how to launch a series and create an intriguing ending that will want you to prolong your interest into Episode 2. Within the paltry ninety minutes at play, “The Order of the Stone” sets up a journey into Episode 2 that is fundamentally different depending on your choices. It’s that story mechanics that has me reluctant to admonish the series outright because, although it comes from a binary place, how the story will get back on the railroad is an interesting design challenge to overcome.
A prestige presentation does not cover the blemishes of the opening episode of Minecraft: Story Mode. A loose notion of adventure, one that is light in gameplay interaction and is told through shaky, familiar story beats seems to be the standard for Telltale these days, and no amount of excellent voice acting, backing music or advances to combat QTE’s can make “The Order of the Stone” great. This launch episode’s main goal is to set the stage for Episode’s 2-5, and accomplishes its goal at the expense of sharing something unique. It projects as safe; too timid an approach for what should be a monumental project.
A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.
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