Marriage is a tricky, tricky act, isn't it? Quite often those joined in holy matrimony don't really fit well together, and even when they do, compromises must abound if there is to be any kind of happiness in their new union. And when the marriage is of two very different people, the challenges are even greater. If you've played Minecraft (either the mobile or the PC version) and any of the Telltale games, then you already know why I started my review of Minecraft: Story Mode [$4.99] with these metaphors. When Telltale told the world that it would apply its narrative-based formula on Minecraft, the game that's now synonymous with sandbox, many gamers wondered whether Telltale could pull it off and whether Minecraft players would bother with a developer that put their beloved open-world game in a narrative straight-jacket, possibly chopping off any parts that refused to obey the narrative techniques that Telltale has used in its other series.
What many didn't consider was how Minecraft‘s Survival mode is often not an aimless wondering into an open world but, rather, a choose-your-own-adventure game written onto a blocky, endless world rather than the pages of a book. When you are dropped into the desolate (or very lightly inhabited) world at the start of every Minecraft Survival game, you make your own story by struggling to get shelter, gradually improve your living quarters, strive for better armor, better tools, and then set your own goals like “today I'm heading east to see what's beyond that hill” or “tomorrow I'm spelunking in the hope of finding diamonds.” The experiences that come out of these little “missions” you set for yourself are nothing but stories, which is why this game has become so huge. Exploring a sandbox world really is like writing your own story.
So, I wasn't surprised to discover that Telltale's experiment works well and the blend that is Minecraft: Story Mode (almost an oxymoron in itself for many) is very fun and delivers a very entertaining experience that should satisfy even the skeptics among you. Sure, the options you'll have in this version of the Minecraft universe pale before the freedom you have in other versions of the game, but it was still a lot of fun to experience someone's else's story in a universe where I often write my own stories. Minecraft: Story Mode oozes with the charm of its blocky inspiration while not allowing the original inspiration to restrain the narrative possibilities. Do keep in mind that Telltale still has some problems handling action scenes (although there's an improvement from older Telltale games), and the interactivity is more limited than in other series. Still, I think Telltale has another winning series in its hands with Minecraft: Story Mode.
The game has numerous little touches that will definitely make long-time Minecraft players enjoy the game a bit more than the rest. Minecraft‘s distinct aesthetic carries over to Minecraft: Story Mode from as early as the opening screen and also in all the menus and even the fonts Telltale used. Those familiar with all the Minecraft Let's Plays will enjoy how the opening screen sometimes plays out like a group building project in time-lapse, probably an ode to the many similar Let's Plays that made the game as popular as it is now. The game even has short crafting moments, which I thought was a clever touch and another moment where the sandbox and the story-driven game meet.
The game's music direction also tried to capture some of the magic of the original soundtrack, and while it sometimes almost gets it right, there are some jarring moments where instead of emphasizing the tension of a moment, it becomes a slightly irritating, repetitive soundtrack. The voice-overs, though, are top-notch with the likes of Patton Oswalt and the others delivering their lines convincingly and with a child-like tone that helps sell the game's “teenage” timbre. The sound effects, including the famous wood-punching sound, are pretty spot-on too. Overall, the art and sound direction help transport the players into the Minecraft universe. Anyone who's ever played any of the other versions of the game will probably get a smile on his or her face on more than one occasion; I did, quite often too. So, while overall the transition from sandbox to story-driven game works well, what about the first episode of the series, The Order of the Stone? How was the story, the characters, and the choices? In short, Episode 1 is a lot of fun and definitely worth playing but has a few issues. Now let's talk about the episode in a bit more detail.
Episode 1: “The Order of the Stone”
I'll try and avoid spoilers as much as I can, but keep in mind that you'll probably be able to figure out the general plot of the first episode if you read this review. If you've watched movies like The Goonies back in the 80s and 90s, then you know what you are getting yourself into with The Order of the Stone. You play as Jesse (and you can be either male or female), the leader of a gang of misfits that has decided to blow everyone's mind at the yearly Endercon, a clever reference to Minecon. I've seen some reviewers complain that we aren't given any backstory on our characters and the world they inhabit, but I actually felt that this is appropriate to the Minecraft universe. After all, we have no idea how Steve ended up in the world of Minecraft in the other games of the franchise, so I was perfectly happy making up Jesse's own backstory as I went along. Still, don't mistake the lack of a backstory for any lack of pre-existing tension; the stakes are high in The Order of The Stone even before the world-is-ending plot begins.
Jesse and his group aren't the most original characters – you have the big, strong, but slightly slow guy, the nerdy one, and so on, but what I did appreciate was the group's diversity; you have strong male and female characters, and one of the most bad-ass characters in the story is female, which I felt was appropriate because Minecraft is a game with both male and female fans. Unlike in Telltale's The Game of Thrones, you only play as one character in the first episode, but again, that made perfect sense in the context of the Minecraft universe where you are simply Steve.
The whole Endercon plotline is smart as it once more crosses the beams of the real Minecraft fandom and the game-world. The first-ever Minecon was a huge moment in the evolution of Minecraft and the moment that helped people who weren't playing the game realize how huge the Minecraft community was. So, by starting the story with Endercon, Telltale points to Minecraft‘s growth and legacy while at the same time offering the best pressure-cooker of a situation for the story to take place. And, as you would expect, the stakes only get higher in the story, turning from the often-used “losers vs bullies” to “misfits vs world-ending threat.” You know, the usual 80s and 90s movie fare.
While I don't want to spoil how the story unfolds at Endercon and beyond, I will say that overall the narrative thread makes sense without it being too predictable. I could see most of the twists coming, but since this is a game meant from ten and up, I wasn't expecting the plot to surprise me too much. Still, the plot of the first episode was interesting enough to keep me going. While it did have the “losers save the world” backbone, it did enough to let the archetypes evolve and give players a story that is memorable enough to keep us waiting for the next episodes. The characters are predictable but fun, the enemies aren't completely flat, and overall the story is entertaining.
What I didn't enjoy as much is how Minecraft: Story Mode has fewer choices than other Telltale games (which aren't known for their great degree of interactivity to begin with). For instance, you'll pick one response to a question and then the conversation will continue for a couple of minutes without you having the ability to respond again. Because of the relatively-limited interactivity at quite a few moments in the game, you'll often feel that you are watching characters interacting at length with each other without being a participant. Telltale's decision to give players less “agency” than in other series might have to do with the expectation that the average age of this series' players will be quite a bit lower than series like The Walking Dead. No matter what the reasoning behind the decision was, I think most players will have more than a few moments when they'll want to participate in the conversation but won't be able to.
Even with these limitations, the journey through the wonderfully-realized world of Minecraft is a pleasant one with plenty of variety in the landscapes and, as you've seen in the trailer, even a journey to hell (Nether) and back. The journey includes the usual assortment of quick-time events and even a few fights. While Telltale continues to improve those mechanics, you still get more than a few clunky action moments that use weird camera angles. I did enjoy fighting the various mobs though; you actually get to move and swing your sword in Minecraft: Story Mode. Most of the quick-time events were at reasonable moments in the story, but one issue that I did have was the hit boxes are occasionally so small that I literally didn't see them, let alone tap them in time. Also, you'll notice that many of the quick-time events are on the easy side when compared to other series, probably because of the expectation that younger players will play this game.
With all that said, you'll enjoy The Order of the Stone since it has a solid and entertaining story and plenty of meaningful decisions that ensure quite different playthroughs. While I wish I had even more options to make (even small ones), I did feel that I had a say in where the story went, so as far as I'm concerned, Telltale's mission was a success. If you like Minecraft, this episode will feel like revisiting an old friend. If you've never played Minecraft before, this series stands perfectly fine on its own, offering a fun world to explore and discover and an entertaining plot that should keep you coming back for more. So yes, I'm definitely coming back for more Minecraft: Story Mode.
Editor's Note: Look for this review to be added to and the score (potentially) adjusted as new episodes are released.