Minecraft Story Mode review – Telling tales about Telltale

Minecraft Story Mode wallpaperSo, a Telltale Game… Excellent! I get to tell you that Telltale have made another game along the formula of “a point-and-click, character-based, interactive-story with rapid decisions made during dialogue, minor puzzle-solving, and several major decisions made over the course of the game which will have supposedly far-reaching consequences within the scope of the game?” *Gasping inhale* I get to repeat all of that, tell you my few niggles about the game and then recommend it to you… Again…

EXCEPT this isn’t the case. While the game does stick to the forumla, I can rather gleefully inform you that Minecraft Story Mode, is utterly fucking DREADFUL! Oooh, I’ve been looking forward to this happening!

First off, I’d like to say that a possible defence of Telltale here is that they have chosen some fiendishly difficult subject matter for a story-based adventure game. Minecraft is, as I’m sure we know, a game which is as focused on narrative as much as Undertale was focused on being a modern military shooter. In essence: it’s not. Minecraft is and always has been entirely about the gameplay alone, and there is NO fucking story to it. None whatsoever. It’s a game about choosing a building project and then spending 1000 hours of playtime before realising that your original project is so dwarfed by your current build you cannot even imagine those humble beginnings any more. Even its combat (which, incidentally I have not even tried out since the relatively recent Combat Update) and end-game Enderdragon are all really just sideshows to the building and mining and crafting.

So, in defence of Telltale, trying to pin a story on Minecraft is about as impossible as trying to not shoot the brown people in CoD, it’s just not gonna happen. So, with that in mind, one can IMMEDIATELY fucking discount that as an argument for why the game sucks. Minecraft is hugely popular and Telltale were hoping they could siphon some of peoples hard-earned sheckles into their own wallets if they just screamed “look MINECRAFT” often enough. So they made their bed, shat in it, and now have to fucking lie in it. They made this game to get money, and that probably worked, but god-fucking damnit do they deserve every bad review they get for it.

So, very first complaint, right off the bat; from the very second you start the game as it trundles through its cliched prologue (which, by the way, could have be written by a four year-old), it just feels absolutely soulless. You get told about how The Order of the Stone (literally <Insert Minecraft-Related Team Name Here>) killed the Enderdragon and thus became the super popular and wonderful heroes of the world of Minecraftia (or something), and made everything good for everyone for all time. UNTIL NOW…

Then cut to your character Jesse, who you can choose from a number of male or female character models at the start (ooo, I smell a selling point!), sitting in his treehouse with his pet-pig (Animal Sidekick Type: #17, Silent-but-Looks-at-Camera-with-Silly-Face-for-Funnies; Subcategory: Spiderpig) and his friends Axel (dumb but fun) and Olivia (smart and less fun, until you get to know her, guys!) who are discussing how they are all losers (fucking hell, really?) but if they win the building competition at EnderCon this year (fucking hell, REALLY?) then they will become cool and popular and probably get their rectangular dicks sucked.

Hahahahahah! The Pig made a human face guys! Hahahahha! I bet nobody has ever laughed this hard before at ANYTHING!
Hahahahahah! The Pig made a human face guys! Hahahahha! I bet nobody has ever laughed this hard before at ANYTHING!

I basically just cringed my way through the introduction, not seeing any resemblance to the intelligent and excellent writing of the Telltale Games I’ve enjoyed previously. I told myself it would get better, the characters would come into their own and grow on me. Even Spiderpig would become funny instead of ridiculous, there would be in-jokes, and I’d leave the end of the game satisfied that despite the wobbly start things only went uphill from there.

They fucking don’t!

I’ve said before that I actually quite liked the graphics from Minecraft. Even though they’re basically awful, they have their own charm which just makes it a rather pleasant game to play. I also liked them in Story Mode. I felt like they perfectly captured the cute and friendly, blocky feel of Minecraft, mostly relying on in-game devices and technology for the game’s “moving parts” and only occasionally stepping outside the bounds of what is possible in Minecraft for a few extra bits and pieces which did just seem to fit in perfectly well with the setting. Plus, because Minecraft graphics are the computer-rendering version of “Easy-Mode”, Telltale were actually able to put some depth into their design and not just have everything with murky and foggy backgrounds.

That said, it is occasionally frustrating how liberal the developers were with Minecraft mechanics. For example, in one episode they demonstrate a rudimentry cobblestone generator but then have Jesse “mine” the cobblestone with his fists. The former is a real mechanic, the latter is not. You need a bloody pickaxe, Telltale! The other thing which just frustrates me is that the places your characters wander around in are often actually not what I would have described as the most incredible of builds. It seems to me that if you make a game set in Minecraft then you go out of your way to design huge and awesome builds as opposed to things which look like I could build them (it’s all animated as well! They didn’t even have to do the building!).

While admittedly there ARE a few cool locales, they still just don't feel quite as awesome as they could considering it's all animated.
While admittedly there ARE a few cool locations, they still just don’t feel quite as awesome as they could considering it’s all animated.

Then one comes to the characters and it’s just wince-worthy. Every character is capable of more or less two expressions “shock” (included in shock are: surprise, anger, sadness, worry, contemplation of one’s place in the world etc) and “overly-smug, ridiculously punchable grin” (which actually basically sums up how the characters seem to be feeling whenever the make that expression: “please fucking smack me”). Again, this actually kind of comes down to the choice of setting. With the pixel-based graphic design and a very limited number of “pixels” on every character’s face (as in Minecraft itself) it would be very difficult to get any kind of depth into those expressions. So, again, I feel like it’s possible they did the best they could with what they had to work with, but that still doesn’t excuse the fact that they still look basically rubbish. I’ll admit that it did slowly grow a little on me, but after 10+ hours of gameplay that feels a little more like Stockholm syndrome than good design.

Aaugh, god. Is it not just hateful?
Aaugh, god. Is it not just hateful?

It’s not just their looks either though, unfortunately. Honestly, every character comes across as fairly one-dimensional and exceptionally bland and uninteresting. As always, Telltale try to infuse drama and discord into the characters, with feuds and disagreements popping up all the time. However, unlike in their other games, there’s so little subtlety to it. For example, in one scene you can choose to let a member of your group take the lead (or take the lead yourself and demonstrate a classic “lack of trust”), which I did. Said group member was very grateful that I let him do this, and we were both ambling along, all chummy and friendly. Then immediately following this, in the VERY next scene, this same character basically has a go at me and the rest of the group (for a fucking stupid reason as well). It just left me feeling like it made absolutely no difference what I said or what I did, there was always going to be this pointless excuse for a bit of drama.

It’s another aspect that Telltale failed to maintain here. Normally their games absolutely hinge on the crucial ability to hide the fact that most of one’s decisions do NOT have the weight the game insists they do. This has been noted about previous games of course, but the point with other Telltale games is that the choices and story meld together to hide the fact that your decisions do not really change the outcome of what happens. In Minecraft Story Mode, this is not the case in the slightest.

Not only does it actually feel like choices are fewer and further between (throughout the first few episodes I recall maybe one “major” decision per episode) but that the choices are genuinely pointless. Like, almost without even the threat of consequences half of the time. And that doesn’t even take into account the occasional bullshit decision (common to all Telltale games and games of this style) where you are essentially given a choice between two people when in real life a normal person would tell them both to sit down, shut up and wait their turns.

The story itself I guess isn’t actually terrible. I mean, it isn’t quite as awful as the introduction, so perhaps that is why it felt like a step up, but also because Telltale could kind of showcase the wackiness that is Minecraft. It allowed for a few fun ideas and locales while Jesse and Co. search for the McGuffin (which in this case is the absolutely useless Order of the Stone). It’s still a very simple narrative really, no major twists and turns, but at least it wasn’t exactly bad! In fact it came dangerously close to reeling me in around the 4th episode, a few times.

Thematically though, the game is a mess. Tales from the Borderlands might actually be one of my favourite of Telltale’s (despite having had arguments on this subject before) because it took the wacky world of Borderlands and then made a simply very funny game. It had a few serious and poignant moments (of course it did, it’s by Telltale) but the rest of the time it was just actually hilarious. Minecraft then, by simple extension of being wackier and more ridiculous than Borderlands, ought to have been basically more of the same. It should have dialed the silliness up to 11, and I mean 4th wall breaks constantly as they point out how certain mechanics just make no physical sense. But instead, it sort of meanders back and forth over that.

Occasionally it would try and be silly, but it never makes a proper go for it and the rest of the time instead dips back into the drama, action and sentimental nature of other Telltale games, which are just completely out-of-place in a game like this. The end of the first major arc (the end of episode 4) provides a PRIME example of this, in what is probably supposed to be the single biggest tug at the heartstrings in the entire game, but it just ended up being fucking ridiculous.

Far too often the choices just strike me as bland and uninteresting, the sort of options Telltale feels they have to have.
Far too often the choices just strike me as bland and uninteresting, the sort of options Telltale feels they have to have.

And you know, as if it’s not bad enough that the story is dreadful, the characters unlikable and the decision-making pointless, it also feels simply badly done at times. In a few sections you are allowed to wander around small enclosed areas using WASD, but for some utterly bizarre reason the directions seem only rarely to actually correspond to that direction on screen. “Oh you want to walk forward, directly away from the camera? No, that’s W and D, obviously… Why would it just be W?” Plus, from episode 5 onwards, it feels almost like after the completion of the game and the addition of the subtitles, they had to rush the recordings of the voice-actors. Literally dozens of times the recordings do NOT match the subtitles, and bizarrely it actually seems like the subtitles provide more necessary information. Things which should not have been left out of the voice recordings along the lines of one character revealing important information to another. It’s just baffling. And as someone who usually utterly depends upon subtitles, let me add, really bloody annoying too. Were it not for the clarity of the voice acting (which, I have to admit, is fairly good) it would have left me completely unable to follow certain conversations.

Now, it should be clear from previous reviews that I LOVE Telltale Games. I’ve played just about every one of their games since the first Walking Dead and pretty much wholeheartedly recommended each and every one (even ones which have been more broadly disliked by critics and fans). Minecraft Story Mode is the very first exception to this. I do not only wholeheartedly recommend your “everyday” gamers avoid it, but frankly I recommend both fans of Telltale AND Minecraft avoid it as well.

There is ONE thing, just one, which gives me the tiniest amount of pause. As a game primarily based around Minecraft (y’know, instead of a good story, interesting characters etc, etc) it feels like there is a possibility this is a game more aimed at a younger audience. By which I mean aimed at children. But honestly, that’s not exactly something which rates particularly highly on my list of “things to look for in games” so I won’t really be counting it.

I also should mention, as well as the base game, I have been playing the Adventure Pass DLC for the game (of which at the time of writing, only the first of the three episodes have been released) but there is really absolutely no improvement here. In fact the first episode (Episode 6 overall) just seems to continue to be the soulless screaming of “MINECRAFT!” over and over as it features 5 supposedly “well-known” Minecraft Youtubers. I say supposedly simply because I’ll have to take Telltale’s word for that… I’d never heard of any of them. So with this in mind, there will not be a separate review for the DLC as I personally maintain that it is ALSO entirely not worth your time.

Ah. Yes. Vivid and unusual hair colours... I begin to think I understand why I hadn't heard of them before...
Ah. Yes. Vivid and unusual hair colours… I begin to think I understand why I hadn’t heard of them before…

Incidentally, thus far Telltale have always enjoyed their sequel-bating. They’ll finish a game but leave it pretty open to following games. The ending of Story Mode (I.e. the end of Episode 5) is a direct set-up for the Adventure Pass DLC. And actually the Adventure Pass DLC seems to almost be considered part of the main game in that you can access the missions from the main menu (or at least the option to buy them). And that also just seems to be taking the biscuit when it comes to money-grubbing. It feels very much like they are literally insisting that to actually finish the game you have to buy and play the DLC as well… Instead of the DLC just being some neat additions to fit in around/after the main game, it feels essential. Which is pretty poor practice for DLC if you ask me (and that’s me restraining myself).

Final point before the rating, the one thing that is really just a shame is that the set-up for the Adventure Pass is actually significantly more interesting with a lot more potential than the majority of the story for the base-game. I kind of feel like they should have compressed the base-game a little and started the Adventuring stuff a good bit sooner. Just one more nail in a coffin that honestly started to be more nails than coffin about halfway-through Episode 1.

Rating: E-

Transparency Disclaimer: We received a review code for Minecraft: Story Mode from Telltale.

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