Review – Minecraft: Story Mode – Episode One

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When it was first announced, I had the same reaction to Minecraft: Story Mode a lot of people had. I was cynical that Telltale could give a game with no story that is based heavily on player creativity something that’d keep me engaged for an entire series. I love The Wolf Among Us and have enjoyed what I have played of Tales of the Borderlands, but I just couldn’t see how they could manage something as absolutely huge as Minecraft.

Well at last the first episode has come out, and I can safely say all of my concerns have been well and truly unneeded. Coming out of episode one, the first episode proves that Telltale have a really in-depth understanding of what made their previous series so successful, and they have continued to improve and refine on what they’ve made before.

Let’s be completely honest: the engine Telltale use for their games is a bit creaky. The animations, in particular, haven’t always been of the highest quality – especially the lip-syncing. When applied to realistic characters like Bigby Wolf or Clementine, they can look janky and unpolished, but it fits perfectly in the low-res world of Minecraft. Telltale have managed to use one of their most consistent criticisms as a strength in the presentation of Story Mode, and that is something to be applauded.

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However, it’s not as though Telltale hasn’t made any refinements on their core mechanics since their previous series either. The biggest thing Story Mode introduces is the addition of real-time combat. At certain points in the game, you’re given free control of the player character. You’re able to move backwards and forwards, select targets, and swing your sword whenever you like.

The first time this happened, I felt strangely overwhelmed by the relative amount of freedom Telltale had just given me, and I struggled with the controls slightly. Once I was acclimatised to it, I realised it’s simulating more or less exactly how combat in Minecraft works: just swing your sword and hope for the best.

There is something special about how Telltale utilised its combat in Story Mode. Had they tried to introduce this sort of combat into something like Game of Thrones, it would’ve felt clunky. But when the combat in Minecraft is already so simplistic, it felt like a nice addition that helped tie Story Mode into its source material even more. In a similar way, the game includes small puzzles that require you to craft items in the exact same way as is done in Minecraft. This recreation of mechanics is a cool way of showing Story Mode is more than just an unrelated story using Minecraft as a canvas.

Building an interesting and believable world based on Minecraft must have been incredibly difficult. Bar some weird afterthought of an ending that no one ever sees, Minecraft has virtually no pre-established lore. If Telltale had added too much backstory, it would’ve felt like they were ignoring the source material, and too little would’ve been difficult to keep interesting for five episodes. It was potentially an incredibly difficult position to be in, but it’s safe to say what Telltale have done with such an IP is incredibly impressive.

As it is, there’s a lovely balance struck between the game undeniably being about Minecraft, while still also telling its own story. There isn’t a single Minecraft Steve in sight. Appearances from staples like Creepers are very few and far between, but Story Mode maintains that core feeling of exploration and creativity which so many people found appealing with Minecraft.

The characters’ creations and the world itself for the most part strictly adhere to Minecraft’s own logic. Items and blocks interact with each other in Story Mode in the same way they would in Minecraft, and the recipes for crafting items remains unchanged. It was strange just how familiar Story Mode felt to me because of my time playing Minecraft, despite Story Mode being something we’ve never seen done with the IP before, but that familiarity in and of itself is impressive.

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The first episode introduces us to Jesse, the character we control, and their (you can choose the gender and appearance of Jesse, which is neat) friends. The gang aren’t known for being the best builders in the world, but after winning a building competition are swept up into a battle to save the entire Minecraft world. Not only that, but a team of legendary builders must be found if there is any chance of succeeding. To solve the few light puzzles in Story Mode, Jesse and the team just master building structures and crafting items.

It’s apparent the decisions I’ve made now will actually have major ramifications over the course of the series. My bad decisions have already impacted on Jesse’s friends in some bad ways, and very minor decisions I made at the start of the episode didn’t have any impact until right at the end.

Not only that, but episode two seems to mark a major branching path with wildly different content depending on the decisions you made in episode one. Story Mode seems to be the point which Telltale have balanced both long-term and short-term effects, and I am looking forward to seeing how this carries across multiple episodes.

The writing in this first episode can feel a bit hit-or-miss at times though. With Minecraft being so incredibly popular with children, it was to be expected that Story Mode would be a much more child-friendly affair than The Wolf Among Us or The Walking Dead. The problem is that premise sometimes feels like it’s verging too close to LEGO Movie territory. At the end of episode one, there’s  still not enough change to convince me it won’t just go down a similar route LEGO Movie did.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the differences between LEGO and Minecraft mean Story Mode is a lot more based in a single world than LEGO’s insistence on forcing Batman into everything just because. It works well for the most part, but can feel contrived and retreading already explored territory at times.

Premise aside, some of the characters are also fairly one-dimensional. Axel is immediately defined as the asshole friend who we’re meant to like for some reason, while we’re meant to initially dislike Lukas, despite him being nothing but nice to the player character at the start of the game. Story Mode has a habit of just assuming we’re on board with certain characterisations, instead of convincing us through the dialogue to come to our own conclusion about them.

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This is only episode one though, and despite these concerns I do think this will be a great series. The episode is incredibly well paced, with a decent balance between exploration and action.  Characters like Jesse and Petra are likeable enough to make up for some of the less well-written ones (and all of them are expertly voiced), and despite being a family-friendly game it still managed to get a few laughs out of me.

Overall, I’m impressed with Minecraft: Story Mode. It’s the first time I’ve felt like Telltale were comfortable with their own format; the Telltale gameplay we’re used to is well polished, and the new mechanics added fit in well with both the toolset they’ve established in their previous games and with the Minecraft IP in general. Very little in Story Mode felt out of place to me.

There were some stumbling blocks in the first episode in regards to the writing itself, but they’re things that I feel that will sort themselves out over the course of the series. Pnce we get to know the cast a bit better, those problems should clear up.

Story Mode is something very special, and if you’ve ever enjoyed Minecraft, you owe it to yourself to play the first episode.

Disclosure: I was given a review key by Telltale. I also used to work with the current community manager of Telltale during my time at Indie Haven. We have not worked together since he took on his new role, and our connection had zero impact on my thoughts on the game.

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