Minecraft Dungeons hands-on: A shameless Diablo clone—and better for it

Promotional image for video game Minecraft Dungeons.
Enlarge / Gather some friends, kill some mobs, get some loot.

LOS ANGELES—The years between Diablo II and Diablo III were ripe with isometric, dungeon-action clones, all trying to feed gamers’ next-gen hunger for click-and-loot adventures. That era has long passed, but now that I’ve played Minecraft Dungeons, I wish I could go back in time and drop Mojang’s very solid Diablo-like game into that late-’00s fray.

There’s really no getting around it: this is Diablo through a Minecraft prism. The 20-person team behind this Windows 10, Xbox One, Switch, and PS4 game admits as much, calling Blizzard’s legendary series “one source of inspiration, certainly.” But after name-dropping other modern co-op games like Vermintide and Left 4 Dead, the Mojang developers at E3 2019 made one point emphatic to Ars Technica: “We want to make sure this is Minecraft.”

No classes—and it’s classy

Stop me if you’ve heard this Diablo-like sales pitch before. Players control a warrior as seen from an isometric, top-down perspective, then either click a mouse or move a joystick to explore procedurally generated dungeons. Defeat waves of enemies, contend with traps, solve simple puzzles, and pick up oodles of loot along the way. Play solo or team up with up to three other friends; the more players, the higher the difficulty.

This new game’s biggest differentiation from Diablo, in terms of mechanics, is a lack of pre-defined classes, just like in the base Minecraft game. Every single character in Minecraft Dungeons can equip any weapon, spell, and ability, then load it into one of five active ability slots. Two of those are dedicated to “primary” weapons, divided into melee options (left mouse button or A) and ranged weapons (right mouse button or RT).

The other three abilities can be, well, anything you want.

Maybe your dream-ability trio is the following: a companion dog that bites enemies’ ankles; a wide-radius laser that damages everything in its screen-filling wake; and a “temporarily swing your melee weapon faster” buff in the form of a “deathcap mushroom.” Go right ahead.

That build as described is already a sort of rogue-necromancer-wizard fusion. To make it, you simply have to find each ability in the form of an item pick-up in a dungeon, then equip it. These abilities typically have an activation cooldown, with certain magic abilities requiring an additional “souls”-energy meter (which you refill by killing the game’s “mobs”).

Additionally, the game includes a new “enchantment point” (EP) currency that replaces other loot games’ takes on “leveling up.” Instead of investing level-up points on things like skill trees or RPG-like character stats, Minecraft Dungeons lets you dump EP into your equipable weapons and armor (not the “items,” however). A peek at the inventory screen shows a diamond-shaped interface beneath each piece of gear, with one, two, or three diamonds. Each of these is subdivided into three or four possible buffs. Once you have EP to spend, pick your favorite buff within each of these diamonds, then spend 1-2 EP to equip it and further EP to increase its power.

Not a block-for-block Minecraft copy

One thing missing from this game’s list of Minecraft-style possibilities is destructible environments. Sometimes, destroying an urn or opening a treasure chest will reveal a TNT box, which automatically hovers over players’ heads and becomes a one-time-use, wide-radius attack (temporarily taking over your “ranged” weapon button until you throw it). If you get multiple TNT boxes at once, they all hover over your head in a silly-looking stack, all to be thrown simultaneously for quite the kaboom.

Sadly, these don’t blow any blocky holes into walls or floors to reveal new Minecraft Dungeons worlds (though perhaps there will be Zelda-like “blow up walls to uncover secrets” zones; we don’t know for sure just yet). The game also doesn’t appear to include a pickaxe or shovel for the sake of either clearing paths or gathering resources. The game’s aesthetic and charm may revolve around Minecraft, but Mojang has clearly drawn a line on how similar this newer game can be to the original.

Another twist you might associate with Minecraft is a newbie-friendly approach to pathing. Every dungeon begins with a clearly stated goal (in our demo, we had to find and kill a boss necromancer) while an omnipresent, on-screen pointer tells you which way to go to find the primary objective. A quick tap of a menu button brings up a semi-transparent map, should you want to explore every nook and cranny, but Mojang is emphasizing an approach to procedural map generation that emphasizes primary and optional paths in a clear way. If you’ve ever gotten frustrated by taking five wrong turns through an oversized Diablo map, this may very well appeal to you.

But it’s not all kid-gloves stuff. Every time an emergent goal appears during a dungeon crawl (find a key, solve a puzzle), the indicator stops working. You must sleuth around to find whatever you need before your primary path is cleared again. And in the case of having to grab a key, that’s its own hilarious twist: the key is a living thing with eyes, a mouth, and legs. If you get hit while holding it, the key hops out of your backpack and starts walking away (or can get scooped up by other baddies).

This funny, action-flavored twist to the old find-the-key Diablo gimmick may hint at other such twists to be revealed later. (There’s already at least one blatant copy of goofy stuff seen in other series: the “loot goblin” of old Golden Axe arcade games is here as a blocky pig that runs aways and squeals with a giant treasure chest on its back.)

Purple pain, purrrrple pain

Let's enter this dungeon.
Enlarge / Let’s enter this dungeon.

All of this is rounded out with a “dark-colorful” approach to dungeon design that bathes the series’ blocky environs and characters with dramatic lights, shadows, and particle effects. The E3 demo’s “desert dungeon” came complete with pyramid-styled chambers, a few water-bathed oases, and even a tantalizing peek through a stairwell at a detailed, monster-filled path one floor below.

We clearly have more questions about Minecraft Dungeon‘s fuller design. Randomized dungeon design, item and weapon variety, exactly how armor impacts your character build, and how to min-max a four-player squad of characters all remain to be seen when the game launches in “spring 2020.” But the beat-to-beat combat and movement already feel responsive and fluid. By the end of my playable demo, I giddily swung a pair of scythes through a wave of creepers, then rared back a few charged arrows before calling out a cute, yipping puppy. It chased down a distant foe, which bought me time to activate my laser-emitting beacon and rain purple-white pain on a creepy, approaching Enderman.

It’s the kind of solid system that is already making me eager to jump into this game with younger, Minecraft-loving members of my family. I cannot wait to use Minecraft Dungeons to bridge our gaming generational gap.

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