Age of Minecraft
Minecraft the game and Minecraft the franchise are two different, yet equally fascinating beasts.
Minecraft needs no explanation. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you already have an opinion on it. But its many spinoffs haven’t necessarily stayed true to more than Minecraft’s overall aesthetic. Minecraft: Story Mode gave us a Telltale narrative adventure when that was the rage, and Minecraft Dungeons asked “What if Minecraft was Diablo?” Minecraft Legends is the newest game in this extended Minecraftian Universe, this time introducing the blocky world to the strategy genre.
Some may take umbrage with these Minecraft spinoffs, but I’m in favor of them. I never got invested in Minecraft proper; I just wasn’t in the right time and place at the height of its popularity. That said, mixing new genres with the Minecraft DNA is the perfect way to get people like me invested in the franchise. Coming in with a mostly blank slate, I genuinely didn’t know what to expect from Minecraft Legends. Fortunately, my time with the game has left me with a greater appreciation for both Minecraft and the strategy genre. It’s just Minecraft Legends itself that I’m on the fence about.
Minecraft Legends (PC [reviewed] Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Switch, PS4, PS5)
Developer: Mojang Studios, Blackbird Interactive
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Release: April 18, 2023
Minecraft Legends is a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game. The developers have shied away from this label, likely for reasons that should become clear during this review. That said, I can’t think of a better descriptor for what Minecraft Legends is at its core. You collect resources, build settlements, and rally small armies of disposable troops to launch attacks on enemies. If you’re familiar with the gameplay loop of other RTS titles, you’ll have a step up coming into Minecraft Legends.
The difference is that Minecraft Legends attempts to make this PC-specific genre click in a console environment. It’s not the first game to attempt such a feat (mention Brutal Legend in the comments for free internet points), but this nonetheless gives Minecraft Legends a distinct identity. To achieve this, you directly control a player avatar that not only issues all commands but participates directly in battle. The result is right in the middle of Pikmin and Age of Empires, with a dash of Minecraft’s core gameplay.
It’s a sound mixture of ideas, and I really like the approach Minecraft Legends takes here. The controls take an hour to get the hang of, but the basics are easy to grasp in a handful of minutes. Additionally, if you’re familiar with Minecraft, two of the three main pillars of the game will come naturally. In fact, before we get into the game modes Minecraft Legends puts in front of you, we have to review these core mechanics in isolation.
The mining is good
It’s a bit silly to say out loud, but the mining and crafting in Minecraft Legends are its strongest elements.
Just like Minecraft proper, you want to find stacks of resources stemming from distinctly colored blocks. However, rather than smacking them yourself with a pickaxe, you issue orders to gather specific materials in an area. This will summon an Allay, a dedicated fairy-like unit whose sole existence is to gather things for you. If you’ve played other RTS games, this isn’t terribly different than sending a unit to indefinitely chop down trees. That said, ordering Allays around is instantaneous and oddly satisfying. I’d often be en route to an objective and see materials I’d need on the ground, so I’d bark a command at an Allay without even bothering to stop.
There’s a nice element of strategy here. You can order an Allay to collect a literal mountain of rocks for you, but that will tie up one of your limited number of gatherers for several minutes. Meanwhile, if you don’t order Allays around, you’re missing opportunities to earn stacks of valuable resources. Whether you should hold Allays or use them all for passive resource gains makes for a natural risk/reward system, which fits well within Minecraft Legends. It’s an elegant mechanic that the game absolutely nails.
The crafting is good
Similarly, using your materials to craft buildings is also satisfying. When fending off enemies, Minecraft Legends closely resembles a Tower Defense game. You’ll have to protect your home base with a series of walls, arrow towers, and other buildings that will augment or heal your existing foundation. Like mining, crafting in Minecraft Legends uses its own pool of Allays. Issue an order for something to be built in one spot, and an Allay will build it brick by brick.
It’s a great system, as it performs well in different contexts. In times of peace, erecting your settlement is fast and easy. You’ll spend a limited amount of time on minutia and focus solely on where you want things built. Similarly, when you’re under attack, you can frantically order Allays to patch walls and work on other constructions while you’re mid-combat. This adds a fun, frantic element to the defensive gameplay. When your units are struggling to fend off an army, it’s satisfying to slap four arrow towers around your army to provide some extra firepower.
There aren’t many building types in Minecraft Legends, but I don’t see this as a negative. This is more of a Smash Bros. take on the RTS genre, so it doesn’t necessarily need the complexity that other titles have. Additionally, there’s still room for advanced strategies and player creativity with the tools provided. There do seem to be some balance issues, but I imagine Mojang and Blackbird Interactive will tweak things as time goes on. Unfortunately, Minecraft Legends has greater issues than its balancing.
Going on the attack is… well…
The third pillar of Minecraft Legends is its attack phase. When you’re ready to take down your opponent, you’ll gather a small squad of units around you and charge headlong into battle. On paper, this looks nice. You have a concise selection of units to pick, ranging from healers to stun-focused melee fighters. Additionally, you can summon classic Minecraft monsters like Skeletons, Creepers, and Zombies to fight alongside you. Even with no attachment to Minecraft, I enjoyed joining forces with former enemies to take bigger baddies down.
Once you’re engaged in combat, your best course of strategy is to…well, kind of hang out. Unlike the Allays—which are conducive to multitasking—your best course of action with your army is to hold down your one attack button. Wiggle around to take out the extra small fry, and hopefully, your army will eventually win. This really slows the action down, as that satisfaction from making snap strategic decisions largely disappears here. You do have to decide when to keep charging and when to retreat, but overall, there really isn’t much engagement here.
Even if your forces can comfortably overwhelm whatever they’re fighting, you still need to be physically present to collect the rewards they drop before they fade away. There are limited options to break up the tedium. Specifically, you can build a catapult that works very well if you’re on the offensive. Still, this is one area where Minecraft Legends leans way too hard on simplicity.
Am I herding cats?
Additionally, your army’s AI is imprecise. If you issue an order to attack a specific structure, your troops will generally rush it from wherever they’re standing. This is bad if you, say, built a ramp to help your group cross a chasm, only to watch 20% of your forces just fall off the side instead. Even when they do obey, they often act in particularly baffling ways. Healing units, for example, usually won’t charge into battle if no one needs healing. This might sound smart, but when your front line starts immediately taking damage, they have no intuition to enter the fray and start supporting.
There were so many times when I ran around just to see where my units wandered off to. Even after ordering my team to specifically charge a building or settlement, I had to corral stragglers stuck fighting losing battles by themselves nearby. This gets even worse if you have a mixture of melee and ranged attackers on your team since it is all too easy to miss units when you want to regroup and charge forward.
This isn’t necessarily game-breaking. After all, in a competitive environment, all players are dealing with their respective AIs. I just never felt as in control as I’d like to be for a strategy game. You eventually get a feel for how your army moves, and you can strategically maneuver in ways to help them charge in the direction you want them to. That said, I can’t help but feel this shouldn’t have been a part of the game to begin with.
Minecraft Legends has three primary modes. All of them feature this same core gameplay, but with their own unique twist. Unfortunately, the adventure you are funneled into first is by far the weakest of the options.
Campaign Mode thrusts you into a larger map that tasks you with defeating armies of enemy Piglins. Minecraft Legends doesn’t need a more complicated story than that, but this threadbare plot is oddly expressed through many elaborate cutscenes. This sounds weird to complain about, but to avoid spoilers, I can’t imagine anyone getting anything out of this. I understand the story is aimed at kids, but more on that later. Regardless, I’m not expecting Shakespeare out of Minecraft, but this isn’t even Shark Tale.
If this were my only gripe with Campaign Mode, I’d be okay with it. The problem is the campaign takes Minecraft Legends’ core systems intended for games lasting one hour and stretches it to over ten. There are flourishes thrown in here, but you’ll see almost everything worth experiencing shortly after it begins. The one bright spot is village defense missions, which work well because they play to the game’s strongest elements. The rest of the story throws you against Piglin waves and bases you’ve already seen, just in bigger and more tedious numbers.
Every campaign features a procedurally generated world, which I can’t help but consider a misstep. On one hand, I get that this is a more “Minecraft-y” approach. It also, in theory, makes the game replayable, especially since it supports four-player co-op. That said, when hour three looks virtually identical to hour six, procedural generation doesn’t make the campaign look better. It just exposes how little there is to begin with.
It’s not a tutorial
The bizarre part is the campaign doesn’t even make for a good tutorial. At best, it’s an open-ended playground for you to experiment with Minecraft Legends’ gameplay. But it doesn’t really teach you anything aside from the exceedingly obvious. Even a game as old as Age of Empires 2 threw you into different scenarios that tested your mastery of different aspects of the game. If you strictly judge the campaign against other co-op-focused experiences, it still feels lacking in the end.
In fact, I’d argue the campaign is borderline unnecessary. In a few minutes of PvP practice, I was amazed at how quickly I grasped the gameplay compared to my hours in a solo adventure. There’s also a “Lost Legends” mode, which will dish out concentrated PvE missions every month. I tried the one Lost Legend available, and though I was defeated handily solo, I had way more fun here than in the campaign. If there were more missions like these in the game, I’d easily recommend Minecraft Legends as a co-op game.
PvP is where it’s at
Speaking of PvP, that’s really the main draw of Minecraft Legends. In a competitive environment, the game feels better and makes more sense. While the campaign is tedious, even mundane tasks in Versus mode have urgency when you’re racing against other players. Additionally, upgrades come much quicker in multiplayer, creating a satisfying sense of progression.
I wish I could speak on this more specifically, as my PvP experience was limited leading up to this review. I can say that for an ideal experience, you’ll want at least two teams of two. The early game is slow in 1v1, but more players allow you to delegate responsibilities and make progress much faster. Additionally, because the mechanics ride a fine line of depth and accessibility, Minecraft Legends makes for casual, competitive fun. I can understand that local multiplayer wasn’t on the table for Minecraft Legends, but if it was, I could see this being a fun party game.
Do note that Minecraft Legends doesn’t have a persistent progression system for multiplayer. You won’t level up or earn extra goodies by playing PvP. I don’t hold this against the game. A game should be fun regardless of any breadcrumbs it throws your way. However, if that’s important to you, it’s worth the note regardless.
Let’s talk microtransactions
One thing I do unfortunately have to discuss is the existence of microtransactions in Minecraft Legends. They toe the line of what some may consider acceptable, but they are here all the same.
Minecraft Legends appears to use the Minecoins currency from Minecraft Bedrock Edition. During my review period, only a pack of player skins was available. However, Lost Legends also had a tab in the marketplace, indicating that there will be microtransactions related to those too (hopefully just content DLC). But assuming only skins will be purchasable, I still dislike the existence of paid skins in Minecraft Legends particularly. By default, only ten (admittedly distinct) skins are available at launch, with a note to check the marketplace for more. Even if they release more skins for free (one is even available as a reward for the current Lost Legend mission), you’re still funneled into a storefront where you’ll be tempted to buy cosmetic items.
Minecraft Legends isn’t the most offensive example of microtransaction slinging, but this inherently makes the game less safe for kids. Considering the main story clearly targets children, this bothers me a lot. I personally know people less literate in video games who have struggled with their kids begging for cosmetics in Minecraft. Perhaps parents are to blame, but the problem wouldn’t exist if the temptation wasn’t there in the first place.
Make of this what you will, but microtransactions alone would prevent me from recommending Minecraft Legends for a young child. I’m sure the argument is that microtransactions will fund the continued release of Lost Legends episodes. Still, you should know that they’re there.
So who is Minecraft Legends for?
Ultimately, Minecraft Legends is a bit hard to evaluate. Everything from its game modes to its core systems is uneven, littered with many highs and notable lows. The parts of it that draw specifically from Minecraft proper come off well, while its more RTS-adjacent moments are lacking. Additionally, I can’t recommend playing this solo at all. The foundation is good enough, but it needs company to sustain it.
Your enjoyment of Minecraft Legends will come down to three questions. 1: Are you in love with Minecraft and its extended universe? 2: Are you hankering for an RTS-style game playable on a console? 3: Do you have a minimum of three friends who are eager to play this game too? If you answered yes to at least two of those questions, you’ll have a good time with Minecraft Legends. For everyone else, Minecraft Legends offers a fairly unique experience and not much more. Just don’t expect to get any mileage out of the campaign.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]