Sometimes the top-line pitch for a game is better than the actual finished product. Such is the case for Minecraft Legends, the latest spin-off intended to offer a different sort of gaming experience within the framework of the legendary survival franchise.
At preview, I was really impressed by Legends. After a successful jaunt into the RPG genre with ideal ‘my first dungeon crawler’ fodder Minecraft Dungeons, this title pitched the same again but for strategy titles. I like Minecraft, and I love strategy games, a genre that I feel is woefully under-served. Despite this, I’ve struggled to maintain interest in Minecraft Legends – and a lot of it is arguably down to simplicity.
As with Dungeons, the goal here is clearly to create something accessible and palatable to as wide an audience as possible. Minecraft is beloved by many very young children, and so any Minecraft game needs to have a sufficiently low barrier for entry. The bar is set low by Legends – but the game’s structure also doesn’t offer enough above and beyond that bar – which leads to an experience that feels brimming with potential, but lacking in its execution.
Rather than the isometric god-game view of many strategy games, Minecraft Legends casts you as a specific hero atop a trusty steed. You can attack with the B button, and therefore have an active role in combat yourself. You’re relatively squishy and vulnerable, however, so the real goal is to marshall troops and micromanage them in true strategy fashion.
The commands to do this are relatively rudimentary, and they do work well enough. It’s a comparison that not huge numbers of you will be familiar with, but to some degree it reminds me quite closely of Brutal Legend, Double Fine’s metal rocker hack-and-slash that takes a hard left turn into full-fat real time strategy gameplay part-way through the game.
At its best, Minecraft Legends will see you surrounded by a gang of troops – at first small golems, but later more iconic Minecraft creatures and even enemies join your ranks. With just a few button presses you can have those troops follow you, or command them to attack a certain point, rally, retreat, the works. It’s an extremely simple take on the RTS formula, but it does work – at least, for the first few hours.
The more you play, however, the more the cracks begin to show. The less patience you’ll have for babysitting troops that are pretty much useless without you. The battle structure, which primarily asks you to destroy buildings as they spawn waves of enemies at your troops, begins to grate as repetition takes firm hold.
The repetition is real on a macro level, too, with the persistent Minecraft world existing in a tug-of-war state between the warring factions. Spend too long away from a village and the Piglin baddies might topple it, meaning it’ll need to be liberated again. Likewise, Piglins spread out across the world, constructing bases and corrupting the land. You have to be proactive – and you definitely shouldn’t put the controller down to make a cup of tea without first saving and quitting, since this is a persistent world that carries on, with no pause available.
There’s not much Minecraft in these battles – but that’s instead offered in the downtime and in battle prep. You’re helped by little drone-like critters who can dismantle the world for you and gift resources – no need to punch trees here – and these resources are then spent to build structures and useful items in the world.
All of this is persistent, and it’s neat – it feels, briefly, like Minecraft, even if you can only build predefined structures. It feels good to place a bridge and know it’ll be there in perpetuity, or drop a spawner at a key point of contention so you can replenish troops in a hurry.
A lot of this is where Legends gets its X-Factor, which is perhaps appropriate given how it wishes to leverage the Minecraft brand. When you begin constructing siege weaponry, it feels as though the game’s meta is instantly transformed. From here on in, I began to enjoy Legends a lot more – until frustration set in once again as damage sponge enemies with oodles of health began to dominate the late game.
This is a bit of a theme, I suppose. The best of Legends is like Diamond in Minecraft – buried deep, and requiring time and effort to reach. When it clicks, it’s really rather wonderful. So much time is spent shepherding moronic AI troops around, or responding to aggressive enemy base expansion, or fiddling with a cumbersome UI. The frustration runs deep, but is almost worth it for those magic moments when the battles click.
On its own merits as a kid-friendly, genre-entry real-time strategy game, it’s a decent attempt. The controls are fiddly and the micromanagement is a frustration – but these things can be forgiven for how it offers strategy action in a colorful world that’ll surely appeal to those that are fans of Minecraft but not of the genre. On that front, mission accomplished – but once people are in the door, I wouldn’t be surprised if they tire relatively quickly and think about checking out some other RTS offerings instead.
There are other elements designed to keep you entertained longer, of course. There’s multiplayer, which works well and is definitely more immediately engaging than the campaign’s attrition war. Being Minecraft, there’s also a huge emphasis on DLC, with cosmetics already available for purchase. To give Mojang and Xbox Game Studios credit, Dungeons got a ton of free add-ons too – so I hope to see the same here. The framework offered shows promise, and so updates and DLC that expound on the base ideas could completely change the game for the better.
All that matters at the time of writing is the launch experience, though. Minecraft Legends is gorgeous-looking, and is thrilling in how it presents the Minecraft world from another angle. It also has a solid backbone for a captivating RTS. It just doesn’t go far enough, however – and the final result is a game that struggled to hold my attention the deeper in I got. It’ll be decent Game Pass fodder – but I can’t help but feel like this should’ve been so much more. It certainly won’t be for everyone, though I expect Minecraft-obsessed kids to have a blast regardless.