The odds are that, even if you haven't played it yourself, you've at least heard of Minecraft. The brick-based free-form creation game has become nothing short of a phenomenon, shifting some 70 million units across various consoles since 2011. It's also spawned crazy amounts of merchandise, from clothes and toys to books to it's own LEGO range - and it was only really a matter of time before the spin off games started coming. But given the notoriously open-ended, free-to-do-what-you-want nature of the original game, you probably wouldn't have been expecting the spin-off to be a game like this.
Minecraft: Story Mode is a story-driven adventure that takes you through the pixelated Minecraft world. Developed by the folks at Telltale, famous for their takes on distinctly more 'adult' games like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones, Story Mode takes its inspiration from the Minecraft world, and adds a whole cast of characters, lore, and a cracking story. It's a bit of a daunting task, but if anyone can do it, Telltale can.
Much like Telltale's more recent games, Minecraft Story Mode relies heavily on the decisions you make to create a unique path through the branching story. At various points during conversations between characters, you'll have the option to interject at the press of a button to change how things play out - whether it's attempting to diffuse an argument between team mates, deciding on a team name or choosing which friend you want to pair up with for the next episode. Some seem to have relatively little effect on things, while others act as things your friends will remember in subsequent episodes, and some actually take you down a different path or branch, with the story taking you to different places to do different things depending on the choices you make. Decisions are time-limited too, giving you a few seconds to pick what you want to say or do, meaning you can't over think things too much either, and have to respond with your heart, not head.
Also time-limited, Minecraft Story Mode makes fairly heavy use of 'QTE' sections, where a picture of the corresponding button pops up on screen, and you need to press it before it's too late - whether it's to dodge an incoming stream of arrows, quickly build a treehouse shelter or to flip a switch as you're hurtling past. With a set amount of time to react, the odds are you'll fumble a button press or two during your time with the game, but Minecraft doesn't seem to mind too much - unless you miss pretty much every one in a section, at which point you'll die, only to be brought back to life just before the section you screwed up, with seemingly no ill effects whatsoever.
Drawing on the Minecraft influence, you're now able to craft certain items during your adventure, using the bits and pieces you pick up during the story mode. Accessible via crafting tables found around the world, you simply need to arrange your stones, bits of string and wooden sticks on the 3x3 grid following the recipe to make swords, bows and arrows and bouncy slime blocks, all of which will come into their own during your adventure. Whether it's firing an arrow to disable a trap's pressure pad or mixing up a bouncy slime block to break into a chicken coop and create a diversion, crafting plays a big part of Minecraft's point and click style puzzles.
As with other Telltale games, the way Story Mode's being released is a little… unusual, really. Splitting their games up into bite sized chunks and released episodically, each new entry in the series builds on the last to make a coherent story over a period of several months. Players can either buy each two or three hour episode as it comes out, or plump up front for a slightly cheaper 'season pass', which gets you access to each and every episode as and when it comes out. For the first time, this season pass is also available on a disc, which comes pre-loaded with the first episode, and allows you to download the remaining episodes as and when they come out. It's a formula that obviously works pretty well for Telltale, having gone from strength to strength in recent years, but it does pose a bit of a problem for reviewing the things. So, for this one, we've decided to break the review up into chunks, giving you a quick round-up of each episode as and when it comes out. As such, this review is something of a work in progress, and will get more and more complete as the remaining Minecraft: Story Mode episodes release.
Episode 1: The Order of the Stone
Kicking off the Minecraft adventure, episode one introduces all the main characters - the protagonist Jesse, her friends and co-builders, Olivia and Axel, and her pet pig, Reuben. Gearing up to enter the annual Ender Con building contest, where the prize is none other than a meeting with the legendary warrior Gabriel, the team are mostly trying to build up their hopes, without letting their past failures get to them too much. But come the day of the contest, things quickly take a turn for the worse, as a jaded hero of the past returns, and unleashes a vicious Wither monster, threatening the entire Minecraft world. And so it falls to Jesse and co, in cahoots with the brave Nether-adventurer Petra and Lucas, an alright guy from a rival team of builders, to track down the four heroes of legend and send the beast back from whence it came, before its too late.
That said, episode one isn't all serious business. In fact, a fair chunk of our time was spent searching the nearby forest for our runaway pet pig, Reuben, whose dragon costume had inadvertently caught fire during the Ender Con building contest. Obviously. In fact, the process we had to go through to find our poor singed piggy is a pretty good example of how things go in Minecraft: Story Mode. First we had to find and follow the pig tracks on the ground, before asking a herd of pigs if they'd seen him, picking up a carrot as bait before making our way over to the smouldering remains of his costume, at which point it's probably safe to say we were starting to get a bit worried about our piggy. Even worse, when we eventually found him hiding in some grass, we were jumped by Minecraft zombies, having to fight them off with a few well-timed flails of our sword with the L2 button. And despite our valiant efforts, he still ended up with a black eye.
Episode 2: Assembly Required
At the end of the previous episode, you're given a choice of legendary hero to head for - Ellegaard the Red Stone Engineer, or Magnus the Rogue. Not wanting to leave Axel and Lucas alone together for too long (as with Lucas having come from another team, these two keep bickering), we went for the latter, calling at the aptly named Boom Town to begin our search. The only problem is, the inhabitants of this rather explosive village don't take well to 'noobs' invading their territory, and in no time at all we found ourselves caught in a cross-town chase, dodging explosives, leaping over rooftops and throwing eggs at miscreants with the help of a few well placed button mashing QTEs. They started it.
But things didn't end there - no sooner had we tracked down the legendary Magnus than we found ourselves locked in a 'grief off' with the rogue himself, fighting for the illustrious title of the 'King of Boom Town'. Essentially, each of us had to build the obligatory Minecraft towers, and basically lob stuff at each other until we knocked the other to the ground or demolished their tower - whichever came first. Egged on by our pig pal Reuben, we decided to make our tower out of pink wool, in the shape of a pig, which, admittedly, wasn't the best choice when you're facing off against someone with a penchant for dynamite, but still. We kind of still felt bad for our piggy friend getting set on fire in episode one, so figured this might cheer him up a little.
Via a load of QTE press-the-button-that-appears-on-screen events, we hurled eggs at Magnus, dodged TNT crates and almost fell off our mostly-destroyed pork pedestal. He certainly put up a heck of a fight, and things were pretty touch and go for a while - and not just because we made the mistake of trying to eat some toast while playing (in real life - sadly, there's no "eat toast" button in game...) and fumbled a few of the timed events, but we got there in the end. All hail the new King of Boom Town, Jesse!
However, no sooner had we been crowned king than the dreaded wither monster turns up and devours our new kingdom. Not wanting to be Wither dinner, we hotfooted it back to base with Magnus in tow, and prepare for the fightback...
Episode 3: The Last Place You Look
A rather high octane and 'combat' heavy episode, this one sees our gang hot on the trail of the final member of The Order of the Stone, the legendary builder Soren. But it's a bit of a perilous journey, taking us to the deepest, darkest depths of the Minecraft world - into The End. What can best be described as a creepy abyssal hell filled with deadly Endermen, it's not really the most welcoming of places. Just don't make eye contact with those shadowy figures and you'll be fine.
Eagle eyes Lukas spots a figure, who we can only assume is the Soren we're chasing after, climbing up a staircase some way away. Heads down our troop legs it over there, taking care not to meet a single Enderman's eyes, lest we end up in a fight we probably won't win, and from there, we climb. And climb. And climb some more. Turns out Soren really loves his stairs. At the top, a ladder leads to a trap door which leads to… a lush green land of trees, blue skies and bubbling brooks. A stark contrast to the dark, dank End below, it only gets weirder when we discover the whole landscape has been constructed out of wool.
Ever the super sleuth, we deduce that this is merely a front and it's actually hiding Soren's super secret lair, as suggested by the conveniently placed switches on a couple of the trees. With skills that rival that of Sherlock Holmes, we stroll from one end of our woolly wilderness to the other, flipping each of the switches in turn, first by Petra, then behind Lukas, then to the right of Olivia and Axel, stopping to high-five our pet pig Reuben along the way. Flipping each one lights up part of a cloud-like structure on the wall, and once the whole thing glows, simply slap your square hand onto the button and BAM! There it is! And onward we trot, into our final hero's house, hopefully one step closer to taking down that evil Wither Storm - and one step further away from the dreaded Ender monsters. Or so we thought.
Episode 4: A Block and a Hard Place
Following a run in with the Wither Storm at the end of the last episode, which has now been split into three parts for triple the trouble, we now find ourselves on the run once more. Hot footing it as far away from the hungry, world-devouring monster as we could, with an amnesiac legendary warrior Gabriel in tow and an injured Petra, things aren't exactly looking that great. That is, until we come across a pack of horses amidst the Wither-related chaos, and slinging Gabriel over the back of our steed, it's very much a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for our little group.
With various other Minecraft enemies, from Creepers to Zombies to Spiders, all after a piece of the protagonist's party, it's QTE time! Moving your horse left and right you need to dodge enemies and debris, taking down any that look at you funny with a swipe of your sword on X - and then come the Wither Storm's tractor beams, ready to suck you up to your doom at one wrong turn. We know this for a fact, as our slightly wild analogue stick controls saw us veering slightly too far into the purple beams of death - fortunately Minecraft Story Mode is pretty forgiving and simply plops you back at the start of the sequence if you make a mistake.
Not wanting to make it too easy for us, and not content simply to hoover us up with it's beams, the Wither Storm adds some tentacles to the mix too - so not only are you having to shift left and right to avoid the lights, but you need to press various buttons on the controller too as they pop up to leap over it's flailing tentacles too, and head onwards towards… a sheer drop. With nowhere to run, and no bridge to cross, it all started looking pretty bleak, but then help arrived in a rather unlikely form - the Endermen, who we got all too familiar with in the previous episode, who manage to slow down the storm for long enough for us to build, and make, our escape. And so we live to craft another day!
Episode 5: Order Up!
With the Wither Storm now out of the picture, our heroes embark on their latest quest, kick-starting their adventures as the new Order of the Stone - and what better way to begin than with a good old treasure hunt? After stylishly dispatching a number of enemies in the temple grounds through a number of well-timed button presses, our band of heroes find themselves at a bit of a dead end and faced with a bit of a puzzle to proceed. On three of the temple walls stood some lava channels, with the flow of lava to each stemmed by some magical Minecraft lava-stopping blocks (technical term) - and these blocks could be opened and closed by a switch on the wall. It sounds simple enough on the surface, but was a made a touch more complex by the fact that half the lava channels refused to open when you pulled the switches.
Our team mates, big burly Axel and the sword-fighting Petra were about as much use as a pair of chocolate teapots when it came to solving the puzzle - and even our friendly neighbourhood engineer, Olivia, seemed stumped too. Thankfully, we've played more than a handful of these kind of games and solved it quicker than you can say you-need-to-pull-the-lava-switches-in-the-right-order. Ever the observant adventurer, we quickly spotted a number of different coloured bricks built into the walls on either side of the lava channels, which, totally coincidentally, corresponded to the numbers one to four, and also happened to correspond to the correct order you needed to pull each of the switches. Who'd have thunk it?!
And so we descended into the lava-y depths of the temple, down the staircase that appeared in the centre of the room when the floor opened up. As luck would have it, our four adventurers stumbled on four treasure chests, one for each of us - ours had a cake, which we gave to the incredibly excited Axel, and a glowing set of flint and steel. Little did we know back then that that mysteriously enchanted flint and steel would see us taking a portal to another dimension, confronting an old frenemy and mark the beginning of a whole new Minecraft-y adventure...
The first episode may have been a bit of a slow start, spending more time setting up the story and characters than doing any meaningful plot development, but it's certainly set the scene for a grand adventure to come. With plenty of choices to be made - and, most importantly, humour to keep the story going - this is a great extension to the Minecraft formula, and a fantastic way of bringing their story-driven decision-based to a whole new generation, lured in by the familiar Minecraft world.