Minecraft: Story Mode – Episode 1: The Order of the Stone Review

End with a Portal

Minecraft Story Mode screen 4

The Verdict

Minecraft: Story Mode’s first episode gives a clear baseline for seeing where the plot is headed, but the questions it leaves are predominantly on a gameplay front — not the sort you want staying with players. Will the point-and-click elements take greater hold over story sequences that currently dominate? Will quick-time events continue to be a predictable response for every point of conflict? Will player actions feel more and more pointless than they already do? On the matter of how enticing the episode is at building interest in the one to follow, Episode 1 does its job…but not expertly. It’s very tame in the gameplay department, and players will find it a shallow experience as a direct result of the contrived design choices. It’s enough to put the entire project in jeopardy, ultimately making this introduction a fragile start for the five-part series.

The Positives:

  • This is not a project that only takes the name of its source material and discards the rest. References to the Minecraft universe are constant and go as far as hearing familiar sound effects (e.g., unlocking chests, opening doors). Animation work is similarly in sync and portrays well what Minecraft would be like with talking humans. Besides establishing the game's setting, these touches build a measure of respect for Telltale’s openness in drawing from existing elements.
  • Gone is the menu system for crafting materials. Instead, at certain intervals in the game, you’ll place items from a sidebar onto a Crafting Table with a 3×3 grid. Where the items are placed will determine the weapon you create, and you’re often given alternative options when you do need to construct something in order to advance.
  • Players have some choice over their character’s appearance, and regardless of your hero’s chosen gender, they will go by "Jesse." Clever choice — and a cost-effective one.
  • The characters featured in this episode, primary and minor, all appear to serve a purpose. In particular, the dynamic between Jesse (you), Axel and Olivia (Reuben, too, if you count morale-boosting mascots) serves as a good glue for the adventure. This is a frequent focus for the script and the choices you’re asked to make on occasion (i.e., side with one friend and not the other, go it alone or have them come along). Couple this with friction from lone wolf Petra and would-be leader Lukas, and there’s enough motivation to keep players questioning which path they want to follow over the course of the adventure. Admittedly, Episode 1 offers only tastes, but it’s evident that these will become stronger pull factors going forward.
  • The script has its comical moments (including an unusually clever line that you might miss the first time) and is accompanied by great voice acting that, while lacking in subtlety, does a sufficient job of applying appropriate emphasis to lines when need be. Seeing how characters respond to certain behaviours or expressions — like getting punched in the face — brings amusement, even though there’s not much of a momentum to speak of.
  • There’s a nice gameplay nod at about the mid-way point where you get to deflect fire spewed by Ghasts, which makes sense to have as an event in the context of the Minecraft universe.
  • At the end of the episode, your decisions at important junctions are compared with the paths taken by the rest of the community. There’s a strange sense of victory that comes from knowing you took a route that diverged from the majority.
  • Multiple save files allow you to concurrently pursue more than one route at once without needing to first see one to the end.
  • In addition to being able to play using the GamePad screen, Off-TV Play allows you to swap button controls for touch-screen play if desired.

Minecraft Story Mode screen 2

The Negatives:

  • Minecraft: Story Mode is designed as a point-and-click adventure game, so it’s more than a little concerning that exploration scenes come secondary to the much more frequent story sequences. What’s worse is that entire sections can be bypassed without ever needing to interact with the environment.
  • Quick-time events show up a lot of the time, sometimes with the goal of interruption but always forced. Asking the player to press/push Up for a team huddle is a bit much, and it’s these unnecessary moments of mindless input that bring the game down. Although not acting on some prompts will mean having to restart a story sequence, in a lot of cases, it won’t even matter if you choose not to press anything, at which point it becomes a question of “why bother?"
  • Combat sequences may as well be a glorified quick-time events as well. They’re stylized like fencing matches, but without the strategy (press a button when the enemy gets close) and the competition of a smart opponent (they only move forward).
  • Although the script does move things along, the writing is bumpy in places. As mentioned before, you do have the ability to ignore certain interactions, and the side effect of this is a script that doesn’t always add up. For example, someone will make reference to an event that they technically shouldn’t even know about. Elsewhere, other problems surface. One character ends up doing something that isn’t entirely sensible and when you call them on it, they say it’s something they need to do. Why? Because the writers said so? There’s no discernible reason for it. It’s true that this could be explained in future episodes, but viewed as a self-contained story, there isn’t enough character setup for them to be making these sorts of plays.
  • While the game conveys the idea of a non-linear structure where your decisions will impact how the story is told, this isn’t true across the board. Choosing a response because you think it will avoid a future problem or provoke an opposite reaction to the one the game is leading you to, ultimately proves inconsequential. There is a set path that you will follow no matter what, so at best, the choices you make may impact a character’s attitude towards or treatment of you down the road. If you’re hoping to see immediate payoffs for your actions, you’ll be disappointed.
  • The experience is very short with less than two hours worth of content, and there’s a sense of emptiness after completing the episode, like you didn’t really make much ground other than prepare for Episode 2 at the conclusion.

Minecraft Story Mode screen 3

Minecraft Story Mode screen 1

See the world of Minecraft as a studio and it makes sense how Minecraft: Story Mode came to be. Really, all the ingredients are there for a fictional yarn: actors, settings and props. It was simply a matter of someone putting them together for a purpose that would live outside the sandbox world. Applying these elements towards an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure title is a creatively sound mash-up, as it still preserves the idea of shaping your own experience. There are unofficial adaptations in book form that borrow from the Minecraft lore for fictional tales of a different sort, yet this particular initiative, with its multi-path storyline concept, has Mojang’s backing.

Telltale Games is known for being conscious storytellers; for always being on the pulse of the stories they tell, down to the smaller details. Few fit the bill better for a project like this, with an existing community disposed to knee-jerk reactions against unceremonious treatments. If Episode 1 is a sign of things to come, expectations of the license getting its due have yet to be fulfilled.