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Minecraft Dungeons will be a fun and frantic dungeon crawler—if the loot holds up

(Image credit: Mojang)

I'm dual-wielding scythes, I've got a massive fireworks arrow I can launch from my bow, and I can eat a mushroom that turns me into a berserker. I can also summon a wolf using a magic hunk of meat and set my ricocheting arrows on fire. Every time I do a forward roll I gain a speed buff and leave a trail of fire behind me. 

I'm a stocky, blocky killing machine, in other words, blasting away at range with my bow, slashing with both fists at mobs of skeletons, zombies, spiders, and creepers, and then speedily rolling away to let any surviving monsters burn in my wake. The Minecraft Dungeons beta only has a handful of overworld levels and procedurally generated dungeons to hack and slash through, but I've played each of them multiple times and haven't gotten bored yet. A bit impatient for more types of loot, sure. Bored: no. It's good, frantic, frenetic fun.

There's something delightful about seeing a familiar world presented from a new point of view. The blocky beauty of Minecraft looks fantastic as an isometric dungeon crawler—you can't dig up blocks in Minecraft Dungeons, but you can still recognize them as you're running around. Even though this is a completely different type of Minecraft game, it still feels like I'm at home in a world I've known for a decade.

The story of Minecraft Dungeons isn't exactly deep—a scorned dork finds an object of tremendous power and seeks revenge on the world that refused to accept him. And voila, we've got a villain. The Arch-Illager, as he's called, is commanding armies of monsters to attack the fine folk of Minecraft, and you're here to stop him.

Unlike Diablo and most other action-RPGs, There are no character classes or even skills in Minecraft Dungeons—you can pick a skin at the start of the game but your abilities and powers come from enhancements to your gear and artifacts you plop into slots. As you hack and slash through mobs you'll acquire gems and new gear from random drops and treasure chests, and between levels you can spend your gems for more randomized gear from vendors at your camp.

The hacking and slashing is mostly mindless but satisfying fun against scores of enemies, who act mostly same as they do in Minecraft. Creepers run up and begin blinking before they explode, though you can defuse them by killing them first. Skeletal archers turn you into an absolute pincushion and spiders fling webs that stick you in place if you don't dodge out of the way. The only boss I've encountered in the beta is the Evoker, who summons tiny flying vexes and pulls stony fangs from beneath the ground to snap at you.

Combat is a speedy, messy, and colorful affair, but very simple—left click for melee, right click for your bow, activate slotted artifacts (like my mushroom and fire arrows) using the number keys, and tap E to drink a health potion, which is bottomless but has a cooldown before it refills.

TNT blocks can appear as drops (you can see one below), and they hover over your head until you fling them. They're not items that go into your inventory, and it feels a bit weird that they don't destroy the environment at all, but you can stack a few on your head and then chuck them all at once for a satisfying, mob-killing blast.

As fun and frantic as the combat is, the loot may be an issue for veteran players of Diablo, Grim Dawn, and other, deeper action-RPGs. There are some neat random enchantments for both armor and weapons—I'm partial to a leech power that feeds me back a percentage of a mob's health, and one that permits a small chance of a lightning strike every time I connect with my sword. An armor enchantment called Thorns means I return 100% of the damage I take, and I can upgrade it to 200% with the enchantment points I earn as I level up. I love softening up a mob with my firework arrow before shredding the survivors with my dual scythes.

But the overall amount of loot gained after slashing through one of the sprawling levels feels a bit lacking. I'm used to sorting through my bulging pockets after a dungeon crawl, and here I'll have maybe a handful of new weapons. That may be okay if they were distinct, meaningful items—but as in most loot games, the weapons I end up with after each level are similar to the ones I already have, or they're the same artifacts but simply a level or two higher. The loot just doesn't measure up in either quality or quantity.

Granted this is just a beta, so there's bound to be many more loot options in the full game. It's a bummer that armor, for example, comes in a complete suit rather than pieces you can assemble. That takes away one of the best parts of a dungeon crawler: Feeling like you've cobbled together the perfectly optimized wardrobe, born out of a thousand fights.

Maybe the streamlined approach to loot will work just fine for Minecraft Dungeons, and can serve as a gateway to deeper games like Diablo for players new to the dungeon crawling genre. Minecraft Dungeons is due out on May 26, so we'll find out then.

Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring stories in RPGs so he can make up his own.