Review: Minecraft Story Mode Episodes 2 Through 4

msm234-001

The first three acts of Minecraft Story Mode build off the surprise quality of episode one, but the final act is controversial.

A copy of Minecraft Story Mode was provided for review by Telltale Games. Warning, out of necessity, this review will contain certain spoilers. Previous episode reviews can be found here: Episode One.

As with every episodic Telltale game, the intent was to review Minecraft Story Mode one episode at a time. However, as episodes two, three and four were released in quick succession, it became clear that, unlike previous Telltale games, Minecraft Story Mode did not necessarily benefit from the episodic structure. This, combined with the delay in the release of episode five (which will both be addressed in a later review) prompted Theory of Gaming staff to review, essentially, the middle of the season in one review. Therefore, instead of breaking this review down on an episode basis, all three episodes are reviewed as one.

Sticking To The Assignment

Back in 2007, my friends and I decided to brave yet another Michigan snowstorm to head to a local movie theater. After stopping at a bar to get sufficiently day drunk, we purchased tickets to Grindhouse, a two-film feature by directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. The goal of Grindhouse was to create throwbacks to the Z-level films each director grew up watching. This wasn’t supposed to be high art, but fun, non-sensical schlock.

Rodriguez delivered – his film, the first of the two, was titled Planet Terror, and it featured a woman with a machine gun for a leg. Enough said. When it was over my friends and I were excited to see just how crazy Tarantino would get in his film, Death Proof.

However, the film we watched wasn’t a crazy throwback to the goofy, gory exploitation films of the past. It took some time to sink in, but eventually we realized that we were getting a Tarantino film through and through – this was an earnest effort at making a great grindhouse film. If those two ideas seem at odds with each other, it’s because they are – grindhouse films, by definition, are not high art, and yet here we were, watching an attempt at just that. I still enjoyed Death Proof, but if Tarantino would have stuck to the original assignment, I can only think that I would have enjoyed the film even more.

My mind wandered to this same space after completing the three middle episodes of Minecraft Story Mode. Telltale Games has a reputation for making games that are bleak, depressing and grim (although they have departed from this formula before), which made their take on Minecraft so intriguing. After episode one, it seemed as if they understood this, and were instead crafting a collaboration between their take on episodic gaming and the light, friendly tone of Minecraft. But in the end, Telltale couldn’t help themselves, and instead they ignored the kid-friendly aesthetic and tone and made another depressing game. Minecraft Story Mode is their Death Proof, and I’m left wondering what could have been.

A Wide Array Of Colorful Characters

msm234-002

The characters and the voice actors are the strongest aspect, and the script features some stellar writing, too.

If there is one element that Telltale can be relied upon to deliver, it is relatable, memorable characters. This was a big selling point in episode one, and it continues to get stronger throughout the season. What came as such a pleasant surprise was how the cast of characters grew larger, yet each one stood out in their own unique way. A cast this large usually has a couple duds, or characters that could work but just aren’t given enough time to properly develop. I’m not sure how, but Telltale avoided these problems. Even the traditional whiny character who lacks confidence (in this instance a builder named Lukas) still manages to be enjoyable and fully developed.

With every new character, I expected the game to finally start to feel overwhelming, that it would become more of a burden to learn and connect to all of these eccentric crafters, builders and warriors. By the time the player is introduced to Soren, one of the original members of the heroic Order of the Stone, it doesn’t seem there is much time left to develop another new character. But Soren ends up being one my favorites, and a big reason for that is the voice acting.

The amazing voice work found in episode one only gets better as the game progresses. Comedian John Hodgman does more with Soren in just a couple hours that most voice actors do with characters over a twenty hour adventure. The ensemble cast featured in Minecraft Story Mode might be one of the strongest ever heard in the medium, rivaling those found in the Old World Blues add-on in Fallout: New Vegas, and the casts of Portal 2 and Mass Effect 2. Their chemistry and comedic timing are near perfect, and it doesn’t hurt that the script they have to work with is also stellar in its execution.

 

Telltale is also known for their quality dialogue, and the first two acts of Minecraft Story Mode feature some of their best writing yet. At multiple points the game made me laugh uncontrollably, and although some of the humor will only work on fans of Minecraft, most of it is just great comedic writing. However, as the game shifts into the final act, the jokes become a bit more cheesy and cliche for my taste. The writing still ends on a high note, but it’s clear that even Telltale has limits, and they simply couldn’t keep up with the high pace they set during the first two acts. But with such a strong cast of voice actors, it almost doesn’t matter.

To The Far Lands And Back Again

What does matter is the story of Minecraft Story Mode – the end result may be a mixed bag, but for so much of the game Telltale nails this aspect. I was amazed at how much of a story they were able to pull out of a game about mining and building items, and if that aspect blew me away in episode one, it positively melted my mind in the middle episodes. Nearly every element of Minecraft canon was implemented into the story, from visiting The End, to fighting Endermen, to navigating an item grinder and even heading out into The Far Lands. It was great to see Telltale fully embrace every aspect of Minecraft, even the unintentional accidents, such as The Far Lands, and it’s great to see that Minecraft developer Mojang is also comfortable using all of these elements as well.

msm234-003

Telltale pulled every element from the canon of Minecraft and put it into their story, showing a high level of knowledge and respect for the source material.

As great as the story can be, it eventually needs to be broken up by something that will engage the player and make the game feel like more than a long cutscene. Telltale has tried their hand at traditional gameplay before, and the results have been mixed – I actually enjoyed their previous effort, The Walking Dead: Season Two, when it didn’t feature any gameplay. However, Telltale has learned how to implement gameplay in a way that breaks up the monotony without detracting from the overall experience. The gameplay in Minecraft Story Mode, while still simplistic, is lightyears ahead of the previous Telltale games I’ve played. There are still quick-time events, but the ones featured here actually seem to mirror the action happening on the screen, and the commands are simple (press this button, move the analog stick in one direction). There are also sections where the player has to fight off enemies, and they can choose an item from their inventory to use, such as a sword or bow and arrow. The controls for these sections are straightforward, but more importantly these moments are separated from the rest of the action. When the player fights a skeleton in Minecraft Story Mode, they don’t also have to fight off other enemies attacking their friends, which means the player can just focus on the task in front of them instead of having to manage a battlefield (the shooting sequences in The Walking Dead: Season Two made this mistake, and it made that section far more frustrating than it needed to be).

This helps tremendously with the pacing, which is necessary because Minecraft Story Mode feels more like a movie than a season of a TV show. Each episode moves faster, and the story arc unfolds over the course of the entire game, whereas previous titles featured longer episodes that each contained their own story arcs. A single episode of The Walking Dead has much more pronounced highs and lows than any one episode of Minecraft Story Mode, but the latter still has a clearly defined emotional journey that unfolds over multiple episodes.

That story eventually becomes a bit dark and heavy, especially when one considers that this story takes place in a world in which building items with blocks is the single most important thing a person can do. It’s clear Telltale wanted to teach the player some basic lessons about friends, team work – all of the lessons commonly found in most children’s entertainment, and during the first two acts it works great. The game deals with tragedy and loss in a surprisingly refreshing way, and it doesn’t treat its younger audience as if they are fragile, delicate beings who cannot process these heavy emotions – Telltale respects what children and younger fans are capable of understanding and processing. This is great, but during the final act the game gets unusually dark and, surprisingly, gritty – not quite at the same level as The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, but compared to the rest of the game and the source material, there is a drastic shift, and this is where memories of Death Proof started entering my mind.

Emotional Sucker Punches

Throughout the first two acts, Minecraft Story Mode is very funny and optimistic, even when the characters are facing serious danger and even when some of them succumb to the evils of this world. It’s a balance that I am surprised Telltale was able to pull off for so long, since they are known for making games that can, to be frank, be real emotional bummers. I was pleased to see that, for a while, Telltale respected the tone and feel of Minecraft, and made a game that still featured their trademark writing and story but worked within the parameters of their source material.

But during the final act, everything regarding the tone goes off the rails. To begin, the game splits the cast into two parties, and the player never gets to experience what happens with the other half of the group. One of the biggest joys this game provides is seeing the entire cast interacting with each other, and suddenly the game dismantles this aspect, and does so during some of the story’s lowest moments. Even the characters will remark on how sad they are that the group has been split up, and no jokes about the situation are made – the player is forced to very suddenly deal with this separation, and it can be shocking coming from such a colorful game about building blocks.

These choices feel odd, and if the game would have wrapped up nicely after this, it would be a footnote in what would otherwise be an incredible game. But Telltale commits one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen in a game of this quality in years, and it does so instantly after the player finally defeats the main villain of the game – for no reason, the player’s pet pig, Reuben, is killed.

msm234-004

This is Reuben, the player’s pet pig who dies for no reason. I hope you’re happy, Telltale Games.

Killing a protagonist’s pet is a cheap, lazy way to inject drama into a story, and in this instance it comes across as especially lazy and cheap. It’s an extremely tragic scene – Reuben, having just helped the player to defeat the large, monstrous Wither Storm, suddenly falls from a great height. The player falls from the same height as well, but lands in water, whereas Reuben just lands on hard ground. The player runs over to him, and there is a prolonged scene in which Reuben lies on the ground, eyes barely open, whimpering in pain, while the player chooses dialogue options to help comfort him. And then, he dies.

Except this is a game based in the world of Minecraft, which means that, when an animal dies, they burst into a white cloud and an item representing them appears in their place. In the case of pigs, and also in the case of the player’s beloved companion who sticks with them over the course of this emotional journey, a raw pork chop appears. A pork chop, just floating where the player’s best friend used to be. In the original Minecraft, pigs dropping pork chops when they die is part of the comical, non-sensical nature of the game. But when set directly next to a major character death, it just comes across as confusing and senseless. On the one hand, I guess I should commend Telltale for making me care so much about a pig, but at the same time, I see no reason whatsoever for this character to die, other than for a cheap and easy way add drama into the story.

What’s worse is that, when this scene ends, the game transitions into the story’s resolution. Any dangling threads with characters are resolved, and the player is rewarded for defeating the main villain. The game basically comes to an end, with the final shot being the traditional, cliche image of all of the main characters, frozen in a victory pose, as the screen fades to black and the credits roll. Except there is an episode five on the way. Not only does episode four end on a tonally inconsistent note, but then it wraps everything up nicely and basically says “stay tuned for more adventures in the final episode.” It makes no sense, and because of the ending of episode four I almost don’t even want to bother with whatever comes next.

What Could Have Been

Minecraft Story Mode could have been great – in fact, it was great for the first two acts. But Telltale, much like Quentin Tarantino, couldn’t help themselves, and they made their own version of Death Proof. Episode four ends on such a shocking note that I’m not even thinking back on the great characters or the writing – I’m upset about a damn pig. To make matters worse, the game’s pacing and release schedule implies that, maybe, Telltale overestimated the need for this story to be told in an episodic format. The final conclusion on that will have to wait for the review of episode five, but without my trusted pig companion, I predict it’s going to feel like an awfully empty, unnecessary conclusion.