Minecraft: Story Mode review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Win, Mac, Wii U, PS Vita, iOS, Android, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Telltale Games
Developer Telltale Games
Release Date Oct 13, 2015

Minecraft: Story Mode pays tribute to the past as it tells a story aimed at the next generation.

The latest episodic adventure series from Telltale Games spins a grand adventure in the universe of Minecraft, Mojang's ever-popular sandbox game. It's a head-scratching concept: Minecraft has never had a story, of any kind; it's always been about making your own fun and coming up with your own stories through play. However, Telltale makes the concept work by putting narrative first. I didn't have much familiarity with Minecraft going into Story Mode, but I got wrapped up in my hero's journey all the same.

The player character, Jesse, can be male or female

Minecraft: Story Mode is a much more family-oriented experience than anything in recent memory from Telltale, with the writers building in plenty of goofy moments to lighten the story's world-in-peril stakes. Story Mode feels like a pastiche of beloved '80s films: the kids-going-on-an-unsupervised-adventure setup of The Goonies; the self-discovery of Stand by Me; the us-against-the-world feel of The Breakfast Club. There's also a dollop of Lord of the Rings in the game's opening episode, "The Order of the Stone" — namely, ordinary people getting caught up in cataclysmic events, complete with a "Breaking of the Fellowship"-esque sequence at the end.

That's a smart move that opened up Minecraft: Story Mode to me as someone who isn't exactly a Minecraft fan. Story Mode is kid-friendly but not dumbed down, touching on topics like bullying, historical cover-ups and growing older.

Your party is led by the player character, Jesse, who can be male or female, depending on your choice. Jesse and their friends — loyal meathead Axel and smart, self-confident Olivia, plus Jesse's pet pig, Reuben — are a talented team of builders hoping to topple the perennial champs at the Minecraft convention EnderCon.

But a series of unfortunate events at EnderCon unleashes a Wither, a terrifying monster that threatens to consume everything in existence. Jesse and company realize they must enlist the help of the Order of the Stone, a group of four fabled heroes. And so the gang sets out on the trail of the legendary adventurers.

The combination of Minecraft: Story Mode's influences and its family-friendly nature makes the plot fairly predictable. Rather than the out-of-nowhere twists — e.g., deaths — common in Telltale's more mature fare, the story turns here are often foreshadowed or outright telegraphed by dialogue and visual cues.

I didn't mind the genre tropes because there were enough plot developments to keep me interested. As Jesse, I spent enough time with my friends to really get to know them, even in the sub-two-hour runtime of "The Order of the Stone." I began to care about those characters because I had built relationships with them.

On the other hand, playing Telltale's adventure games can be frustrating when you're not just selecting dialogue prompts, and that's as true as ever in Minecraft: Story Mode. The few instances of timing-based combat in the game are uniformly awful, with sluggish controls that made me spam the attack button in desperation.

minecraft story mode ep 1 tall screen 1

A successful new twist on Telltale's usual gameplay comes straight from Story Mode's source, as Telltale has implemented a simplified version of Minecraft's recipe-based crafting system. The streamlined system is easy to pick up, and Telltale even tied it into the story: The crafting can function as its own instance of player choice, a nice touch.

Story Mode doesn't just play like Minecraft in certain parts; it looks scarily like the base game, albeit with some storytelling-oriented concessions. The people in Story Mode emote through facial animations, and they move with a bit more fluidity and grace than the characters in Minecraft. This makes the world of Story Mode feel recognizably Minecraftian while allowing for a greater emotional connection to Telltale's characters. And a visit to an imposing structure late in the episode reminded me just how beautiful Minecraft creations can be, giant pixels be damned.

The audio side is noteworthy, too. Minecraft: Story Mode's voice cast brings Telltale's solid story to greater heights, including Patton Oswalt as the meek, uncertain male Jesse and Ashley Johnson as the badass Petra. But the unquestionable highlight is Paul Reubens, who turns in a performance worthy of a sneering villain from a Scooby-Doo cartoon as the primary antagonist, Ivor.

Wrap Up:

Story Mode doesn't cast aside Telltale conventions, but it successfully brings story to Minecraft

Minecraft: Story Mode doesn't deviate from the well-established Telltale formula much, keeping both what works (the storytelling) and what often doesn't work (combat). Even so, it accomplishes something impressive. I was skeptical of Telltale's ability to tell a story in the Minecraft universe that would be interesting to people who weren't already fans of the game, but so far, the studio is pulling it off with aplomb.

Minecraft: Story Mode was reviewed using pre-release debug PlayStation 4 code provided by Telltale Games at an event in New York on Oct. 5. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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