The journey of a thousand bricks begins with just one pixel is a terrible variation of a classic saying, but believe me when I say it’s apt in this case. Telltale Games has done a lot over the years in the gaming world, and every movement has been a unique step. Firstly, they revitalized some truly classic point and click series to bring them into the modern world. Secondly, they helped some franchises realize there is a market for silly but complex storytelling for offbeat tales. Finally, they’ve given birth to their own genre of game, which is somewhere between a choose-your-own-adventure and a cinematic experience. Many will liken them to “Western Visual Novels,” but I wholly disagree. The spark and interest that Telltale has injected into their works goes well beyond the fan worship that visual novel brands find, because I feel Telltale has the ability to bring interest and attention from people who are outside of the target market audience. This vein of thinking and craftsmanship is, I feel, what helped them decide their first port to the Nintendo Switch, Minecraft Story Mode.
It might seem bizarre, but try and follow along as we move into how this particular story unfolds. Everything does take place in the world of Minecraft which, as it turns out, has a lot of areas and potential focal points for storytelling. You take on the role of Jesse, a young man (or woman) who dreams of becoming a great hero or master craftsman. Initially, Jesse and his/her group of friends just want to build something really cool to claim the grand prize at Endercon, an annual crafting convention. However, through a twist of fate and connections, Jesse is drawn into a plot that explodes into a horrific monster and you are then tasked with finding the lost heroes of yore to save the world. It actually gets much, much more complicated than that, especially in the expanded chapters that come after the “main story,” but I wanted to set the stage as best I can to show that the general plotline is something quite identifiable. People who don’t play Minecraft can easily come to understand some of the basic tropes and ideas that are flying around, and, even relatively unfamiliar things, like griefers and Wraiths, are figured out pretty quickly through context and encounters.
The Nintendo Switch version of Minecraft Story Mode is the complete set, which means it encapsulates eight chapters of gameplay, plot and decisions. The first five were the initial series, with the last three being part of the Adventure Pass DLC, which, for all intensive purposes, is considered in this review. The way these Telltale episodes work is that, theoretically, you can play any of the chapters independently, but you’ll potentially be HORRIBLY lost as to what is going on, where you are and what you’re supposed to do. The best bet is to start at the beginning, take a break around episode four, enjoy episode five and then really consider if you’re invested enough to enjoy episodes six through eight. Each chapter should take a couple hours to complete, but completion is really a weird idea to try and grapple with. When I mentioned earlier that Telltale let’s you choose your path, it really can affect things in a massive way. At the end of chapter one, you make a quick decision that completely changes the dynamic of the next two chapters, and taking a different choice gives you a totally different feel and atmosphere, not to mention reveals different elements and aspects about the characters you’re with. I’ll get to this more in a moment, but the point is that the game is incredibly well shaped and designed to make it seem like your choice was the best and only choice, regardless of what you do.
Speaking of the characters, the voicework on Minecraft Story Mode is absolutely spot on. Besides giving as much depth and interest as you can develop through characters made entirely of blocks, Telltale hasn’t skimped on getting excellent voice talent for this entirely spoken game. There are veteran game voice actors like Ashley Johnson and Dave Fennoy, but the appearance of comedians with voice experience was a pleasant surprise. Patton Oswalt, Brain Posehn and John Hodgman are who I immediately identified, but there’s a huge amount of quality voice work strewn about the entirety of the game. It’s almost worth playing twice just to hear the same ideas espoused by Remy the Rat or Padme from Clone Wars. Telltale understands that part of what makes some games pop is hearing how the characters could or should sound, and they do a huge amount of leg work to audition and get the very best matches for whom they feel best deliver the story.
Now, to the nuts and bolts of everything. Minecraft Story Mode depends on three primary functions: PnC, decision making and quicktime events. There are periods of time where you can walk around a bit and talk/interact with different things, but, outside of episode one, I felt these became pretty brief and linear. The way some areas are designed look massive and engaging, but you quickly find that it’s like a wooden town in an Old West movie: just for show. You can rarely move more than on the set path that the game would like to you move, and a lot of the items you find will be given to you with a specific purpose or you’ll find along the way…with a specific purpose. There is some pointing and clicking that still happens, but helpful boxes will indicate where you should be targeting, and, by the way, I highly recommend leaving this option on. Since the world looks expansive but isn’t, you potentially can spend a lot of time swinging your cursor around, trying and overshooting where you need to click next if you don’t have the standard visuals enabled. They’re on by default, so, please, don’t go toggling things off. This part of the game also translated worst to the Switch, in my opinion. The JoyCons have motion control in them, why wouldn’t Telltale let you move it around in the air to select targets? Pushing on the joysticks felt a little finicky and unnatural. I understand that Telltale has had plenty of success porting these titles to other consoles, and I don’t mean to get all special attention about these things, but this could have been a solid move for the Switch that, sadly, was passed over. Still, not a world ending instance.
Decision making and dialogue response is critical to advancing the plot of the game in one way or another. Through your choices, Jesse decides who they will partner up with best, which plan of action to follow, when is the best time to move and, in one scenario, who may live or die. The autosave feature means that you can’t bookmark and go back easily. Once you’ve decided something, you have to live with it at least till the end of the episode, probably till the end of the game. You almost always have the option to say nothing, at which point the game will simply move on without you, although, in several instances, silence is a choice, and has consequences. The AI remember the things you say (there’ll be a notification that appears saying as such) and it will shape how they interact with you and can close or open additional choices and dialogue in the future. At the end of each episode, there’s even bar charts that indicate the most popular decisions for some crucial choices and shows you where you fall and fared. I felt so bad when I realized that I didn’t high five Reuben (my pet pig, voiced by the legendary Dee Bradley Baker), and I didn’t even realize that had been a choice!
The quicktime events make up the other half of the progression of the game. Since this is a world saving epic and you’ll encounter many, many monsters (all Minecraft centric), you end up in many situations where you need to duck, dive, shoot, swing and basically stay alive. The quicktime events are very reminiscent of the classic Dragon’s Lair, in that several instances hinge on you doing the correct button or straight up dying. Some are more forgiving, and Jesse will either just take damage and look a fool or his friends will step in and complete the event for him. This is also the first time I really had to look at my JoyCons, as I didn’t realize the Y and X buttons were in completely different areas than I thought they’d be. That’s not on Telltale, that’s on me. How did I get those two buttons mixed up in my mind? Did I just totally forget how a SNES controller was laid out? In any case, quicktime events can get annoying, but Minecraft Story Mode did a solid job of giving me a small bit of warning before I needed to start pitching and rolling to avoid being destroyed by the Wither Storm.
There’s also a bit of crafting a la Minecraft shoehorned in here, but that’s exactly what it felt like, something shoved in with a bit of protest. Despite it being a huge, key part of the regular game, I think that Story Mode would almost benefit more from it not being present. The times it gets used are few and far between (Episode One, again, biggest proponent of crafting) and they are essential to the story when they happen. Still, they break up the flow of how the game is progressing. You’re finding out about deep secrets and exploring fantastical worlds, and suddenly you need to work on a grid to arrange things to make new things. It’s not nearly as complex as the crafting of regular Minecraft (I think six recipes in total get made) but it’s not engaging enough that I feel the newcomer would go “Huh, I gotta get more of this, I wonder if there’s an entire game based around this particular element?”
And of course the game is blocky. IT’S MINECRAFT. If this had come out looking all hip and CGI like Pixar had banged it out over a three day bender, there would have been riots in the streets. Minecraft Story Mode does an excellent job of balancing the classic cubic look of the worlds people know and love while adding more detail and finesse to make the characters engaging and emotive. Axel is a big, doofy character who is my favorite throughout the entire series, and he can convey a lot through his unibrow and expressions, plus the classically dulcet tones of Posehn. When you get to The End, an area that I had heard of but never visited myself in the core Minecraft game, I was kind of creeped out and awed by how shadowy and foreboding everything appeared. The graphics are actually one of the positive things I can say about the Adventure Pass chapters, as the mansion of the White Pumpkin, I would argue, looks better than Soren’s mansion. Although the sequence when traveling to Ivor’s secret base really shows the range of what the game can delivery, so I’d argue that might be the best looking thing. Either way, Story Mode wears its heart on its sleeve as far as graphics go. You won’t suddenly find mod patches to make this thing look different (not that you could patch a Switch game, anyways). If you don’t like how Minecraft looks, you’re wasting your time here.
So, the big question: how is it? I was serious in my summation of the earlier “how to play” of Minecraft Story Mode. The first four episodes are highly addictive and, as far as I’m concerned, the main plot. Episode five is a huge entry and basically a standalone story unto itself, but only worth playing once, whereas I took several runs at the first four episodes to see what happened with different decisions. I was a bit annoyed at Episode Two, because I had to play it twice in order to get everything out of it. Basically, at the end of Episode One, you decided who you want to go and visit first and, while you’re doing that, the other NPC does the second quest for you. What the hell, you couldn’t wait for me? So then I needed to back up, do Episode One again, then make a different decision for Episode Two. If it wasn’t so interesting and enjoyable, it would be genuinely exhausting.
The Adventure Pass episodes are polarizing for many, and I can see why. On the one hand, Episode Six stars YouTubers as characters and feels incredibly hokey, and, were it not for properly setting up Episode Seven, is quite forgettable. On the other hand, there is a natural continuity that is extended to the very end of Episode Eight, and I didn’t feel like it was hastily slapped together DLC. It really came across like a continuation of what was happening to Jesse and the gang, and Episode Eight gives a more satisfying ending than Episode Five did. Five felt like it just wanted to set up more chapters, whereas, if I never played again after Eight, the questions I had were answered and everything was wrapped up. It was a satisfying read. It took me two full days of playing (so that I could properly rest and hydrate) and it was rewarding overall.
The only rub with Minecraft Story Mode is how much you, the player, get engaged with the characters and storyline. Telltale has put a massive amount of work into this, working hand in hand with Mojang, to ensure a great game that only gets better if you’re interested in going back and seeing how things could have been different. In that aspect, it’s natural that this game is the third largest in my library (behind Mario Kart and Disgaea) and is easily worth the price tag, since it’s technically eight games in one. On the other, if you are bored by the plotline, or dislike Jesse, or generally don’t like Minecraft, you’re left holding a huge amount of muck that you don’t necessarily want to deal with. Having said that, I don’t know how you could not like this game. Episode one is a massive hook of entertainment, action and great homages. The subsequent chapters can be a bit dramatic, but there’s enough eccentricity injected to keep things from getting too dark and lively (although the ending of Episode Four broke my heart).
It’s damn impressive the level of maturity and connection that has been put into Minecraft Story Mode, and I think this was an incredibly wise move of Telltale to make this their first title onto the Switch. It’s fresh, it’s fun, it’s got a ton of gameplay and it helps highlight the new season two that is ongoing on Steam. I would really like to see some effort into motion controls for the future, but, if they cannot or will not, I’ll still eagerly buy up their next entry. I deeply appreciate what Telltale Games does with their artistry and, truth be told, I’m already excited over what they could bring next to the Nintendo Switch.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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