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Minecraft Dungeons massages all the arguments out of Diablo’s formula

This is the family-friendly hack-n-slash I didn’t know I needed

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A Minecraft Dungeons player stands in front of huge doors Image: Mojang/Xbox Game Studios via Polygon

Playing a Diablo-style hack-n-slash game with up to three small children sounds like a nightmare scenario, with players squabbling over equipment, support, and leveling. The genius of Minecraft Dungeons is that each of these potential fights have been neatly edited out of the game, or at least mitigated to such an extent than it’s a joy to play, even with children of various ages.

Granted, I’ve only played (and re-played) through the content currently available in the PC beta — which isn’t expansive — but it’s more than enough to get me onboard for the final game when it releases on May 26. The game’s design, meant to make the game playable by children of just about any age without being boring for adults weaned on more complex games, takes care of most of the inter-family arguments before they happen.

Minecraft Dungeons is a four-player co-op dungeon crawler set in the Minecraft universe, and the blocky, cute-but-intense aesthetic of the original game is maintained. Each area looks like it was built in Minecraft before being added to Dungeons, which gives the game’s environments and enemies a comfort level that’s rare in gaming. Kids who have played a lot of Minecraft will recognize this design language deep in their bones.

I often felt as though I was wandering through environments created in the original Minecraft and repurposed here, and my kids got a kick of finding all the fun little details that help Dungeons look and sound like a Minecraft game. Keeping that sense of adventure, while making sure the overall stakes feel low while the risk of danger is still high, is quite the trick. But the game never asks players to make any decisions they can’t take back. You can play with your character, but you can’t really break them.

There are so many decisions made in the game’s design that keep you working together, and not competing for resources or to create the most powerful character, that everyone naturally begins to work as a team instead of sniping about what’s fair, and what isn’t, about the game. This is an extreme rarity among multiplayer games for younger kids, as most parents will tell you.

There are no classes, for starters, so no one has to make a big decision about what they want to be at the beginning of the experience. Currency drops are shared, and each player can open supply chests once on their own, so there will always be plenty of arrows and healing items to go around. The higher quality drops are locked to particular players, so there won’t be rushes to get the best armor or weapons, nor fights about calling dibs on the next one.

Each item offers a few choices of enchantments or upgrades you can add to make that weapon or armor set more powerful. A steady supply of gear means everyone will be swapping out their items, but that doesn’t mean your current loadout is lost, along with whatever enchantments you’ve earned through leveling up.

Every item can be salvaged for currency, and salvaging anything also means that you recover every enchantment point you put into it. There are no hard choices to make about where to invest your enchantments, and very few regrets with this system. You’re free to experiment and try something else if your current build isn’t working out.

The gear system is deeper than it sounds on paper, especially when you begin to weigh enchantment options against brute strength while also collecting artifacts that give you a variety of boosts in terms of abilities. And since you’re not destroying your enchantment points when you salvage your gear, there’s never a sense of loss when managing your inventory. It’s all upside, and my children loved trying new things and seeing what worked and what didn’t once they realized the game kept them in a space safe enough to do so.

They wouldn’t lose anything they didn’t want to lose, and since enchantment points are forever there is no pain in jumping from one weapon to another just to try something new. There are no truly bad decisions you can make, and very little that can’t be undone. Your character itself is a sandbox, and that’s a powerful motivating factor in a game so focused on loot.

Messing around with the combination of weapons, both ranged and melee, along with armor, artifacts, and enchantment options for each one, reveals just how deeply you can dig into your character to create a well thought out build. Children don’t need to commit to a path when they select their initial character, and equipment and enchantments can always be salvaged and retooled. The fun is in finding new things to try without the sense that there is a “best” way to do things.

The spirit of Minecraft, the sense of free play and curiosity, is kept in Dungeons, just expressed in a very different way. Players are free to create their characters in Minecraft Dungeons in the same they were free to create their own buildings or towns in the original Minecraft.

That made playing through the beta with two of my children, both under the age of 10, such a delight. We were discussing strategy and calling out for revivals when one of us died and spending way too much time managing our inventories and loadout in the camp between levels.

Microsoft is also launching the game on everything from Xbox One and PC, its expected homes, to Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, with the possibility of cross-platform play coming after release. Like previous versions of Minecraft, Microsoft knows the audience potential of this game is too great to be kept only on its own platforms.

The only thing the kids and I are frustrated with now is the wait until the full game is released.

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