Considering Minecraft has made over a billion dollars and has an incredible number of fans you could make the case that Minecraft: Story Mode is Telltale's biggest undertaking yet. Have they risen to the challenge, or is their winning formula starting to show its age?
In Minecraft: Story Mode you play as Jesse who, along with your friends, Axel and Olivia, desperately want to win the EnderCon building competition. Your adventure starts on the morning of EnderCon and the three of you, and Jesse's pet pig Reuben, set off with high hopes of victory. Little do they know this is just the start of an epic adventure that will take them all over the world (including the Nether and The End), meet legendary adventurers and come face to face with their fears.
If you've played one of the above Telltale games you'll know what to expect from Minecraft: Story Mode, but for those of you that haven't the gameplay comprises of making narrative choices that affect the storyline (like the old Choose Your Own adventure books), negotiating QTE-lite events and solving (very gentle) puzzles.
As far as narrative choices go, at various points in a conversation you choose from one of four responses. Most of the time you're either encouraging or discouraging a friend, but sometimes choices are more meaningful. An example of this is early in the game where you get to pick a team name for your group at EnderCon. When talking with your friends important choices are accompanied by an update at the top of the screen telling you they will remember that - these presumably have long-term ramifications on your relationship with that character.
As mentioned above the puzzle sections in the game won't slow many people down. They come in various forms, such as flicking switches in a particular order to light up six cubes, or simply finding switches or objects around the environment. One cool feature is the inclusion of a Minecraft crafting table; a 3x3 grid where you must place ingredients in the correct spot to make the desired object. These are intuitive enough, but if you're struggling you can also press L1 to check out the recipe (that is, be shown the answer).
Episode one, The Order of the Stone, sets the scene by introducing you to the gang, some Minecraft-isms like the importance of building, and some interesting new characters. Before the episode ends you'll meet at least one villain, hero and monster, and have a big decision to make.
The first half of Episode two, Assembly Required, is completely different depending on the decision you made at the end of episode one. Interestingly one of the quests is mundane, while the other is fun, making episode two hit and miss depending on which adventure you get. The second half of the episode is the same no matter how it starts, and ends with the morale of the group at a low ebb.
Historically I've had two major problems with Telltale Games - their poor endings and the inability to affect the story in a meaningful way. We won't know about the ending for a while, but the inability to affect the story is present here too. The fact episode two plays out differently depending on your choice at the end of episode one is a major step in the right direction, but just about everywhere else it feels like your decisions don't matter.
A small example is at one point you get the option to search alone or as a group. These seem different but they play out exactly the same because if you opt to search as a group your teammates split up from you at the beginning of the next scene. Or the time you have to choose between setting out at night or waiting for morning. If you wait til morning your characters mention how nice it is to be out in the sun, but in a flash night descends, making your decision irrelevant.
There are a few continuity issues as well. Things like responses not properly matching your comment (e.g. "Are you hurt?" follwed by "I'm not crying"), occasional hiccups regarding Jesse's sex, like the time my girl Jesse was referred to as a "guy", or when my girl Jesse fell into some water and male Jesse's voice screamed. There were also a couple of jarring instances where a character was behind Jesse as I went through a door, but were then waiting for me on the other side. I came across one spelling error ("Don't touch anyhing"), and was surprised how amateur it made the game feel. It's a very small, easy to overlook mistake, but you just don't see it in many games.
Telltale are getting better and better at adopting the style of the source material in every facet of the game, and that's true of the visuals here, with Minecraft's block-style visuals faithfully recreated right down to text on menus and loading screens. Interestingly, despite the seemingly simply visuals, there is still plenty of clipping and visible borders on blocks, which is distracting when that block is part of a character's face.
Minecraft: Story Mode seems like a match made in heaven combining one of the most popular games ever made, with a formula Telltale Games has been perfecting for years. It succeeds in a couple of ways - it does the Minecraft setting well, and there are some in-jokes fans will appreciate. However the script and gameplay both feel like missed opportunities as they fail to generate laughs, offer genuinely meaningful decisions, or in any way advance the genre. Perhaps my expectations were too high because through three episodes Minecraft: Story Mode is certainly playable. However it's also completely unexceptional and hard to recommend to any other than die hard Minecraft fans, or young kids around 6-10 years old.
Review By: Mike Allison