We’re at the point now where attempting to review the mechanics of a Telltale game is sort of a redundant process. We’re all familiar with that blend of tense, split-second decision-making and slightly ungainly quick-time events; it’s a well established framework that’s layered over whichever franchise the studio happens to be developing at that particular moment, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes successfully. Minecraft: Story Mode - Episode One doesn’t change that gameplay formula one jot, but it does offer a pleasingly light-hearted adventure that showcases Telltale’s skilful writing and character work, and lays the foundations for what could be one of the studio’s most enjoyable journeys yet.
You play Jesse, the earnest yet slightly dorky ringleader of a group of wannabe builders. In a nice touch, Jesse can either be male or female, and the voicework from both actors is strong enough to put a bit of a spin on each version – Patton Oswalt’s Jesse is a little goofier, more hapless, while Catherine Taber invests female Jesse with a touch of self-confidence and mischief. Both actors are saying the same lines, of course, but the difference is notable nonetheless. That’s the benefit you get from having a great cast – without exception, every actor in Story Mode is on top of their game.
Character animations manage to be very expressive, despite the trademark Minecraft voxel graphics
Jesse is backed up by loyal pals Axel and Olivia, the no-nonsense Petra, and lovable piglet Rueben. The latter, who is remarkably expressive for a voxel pig, is sure to become a fan favourite. The group idolises the legendary Order of the Stone, famous adventurers who once battled the deadly Ender Dragon and saved the world. While attending EnderCon – basically a real-life Minecraft convention - our heroes come up against the mysterious Ivor, who looks a lot like Rasputin and holds a grudge against the Order. Things take a downward spiral fairly quickly after he appears on the scene, and Gabriel, warrior of the Order, tasks Jesse and friends with tracking down the other missing members in order to save the world from an unleashed evil.
Story Mode draws on established Minecraft lore in a clever way, creating a world that’s both deeply odd and somehow still believable – trying to scavenge enough goo to form a goo-square that will allow you to bounce through the window of a chicken machine in order to scare away a security guard somehow seems normal, rather than the complete insanity that it clearly is. Endermen, Creepers, and all manner of Minecraft terms are bandied around, and there’s even a very minor bit of crafting every now and then. Those unfamiliar with Minecraft may find themselves lost at times, but even if you’re not a fan of Mojang’s cultural behemoth of a building game, the writing is smart and funny enough to draw you in. There are some very nicely handled moments in Episode One, in particular a training montage sequence that hits just the right comedic notes.
Zombies, Creepers, Endermen - think of an iconic Minecraft element, and it will probably make an appearance at some point
There are also a few “which character will you support?” plot contrivances that you can spot coming a mile off, and certain characters register more strongly than others. Rambunctious buddy Axel is fun, as is the capable, often exasperated Petra. Apparent villain Ivor’s given some interesting depth that should hopefully be explored in later episodes, too. Olivia gets less to do, and rival-turned-ally Lukas was so wet that I ditched him at the first opportunity. Still, there’s a lot to establish in the first episode, and there’s a possibility that characters will start to come into their own as the story goes on. Considering all the groundwork Telltale has to lay for an IP that’s never had a narrative element, this is a strong opener.
The lighter tone and cartoonish whimsy make the puzzles and quick-time events feel far less contrived than they have done in previous Telltale games, and as much as I like the studio’s recent work, it’s just nice to visit a more carefree, colourful world where I don’t have to saw anyone’s arm off or abandon someone to starve to death. Not that the story lacks teeth. There are zombie attacks, mass destruction, friends getting abducted by nightmarish tentacle beasts. The tone’s just about right, containing just enough threat to keep the plot moving and your interest hooked, while maintaining the light-hearted feel of a matinee kids’ film - it’s no coincidence that Goonies star Corey Feldman is in the cast. The ‘big bad’ of the first episode is an intimidating foe, and there’s no assurance that these characters you quickly come to like are safe from danger.
Episode One nicely sets up the mysterious Order of the Stone, and suggests that the group aren't necessarily the flawless heroes everyone seems to think they are
The episode wraps up with several major decisions that occur one after another, with such frequency that it’s difficult to tell how important each choice is. Some seem like they will impact future episodes in a big way. Of course, Telltale’s so accomplished in its particular brand of narrative sleight-of-hand that it’s difficult to tell when you’re making a difference, and when the game’s making you think that you are. We’ll have to wait and see.
MINECRAFT: STORY MODE - A TELLTALE GAMES SERIES VERDICT
Minecraft: Story Mode – Episode One is a promising start to Telltale’s latest venture. As someone with only a passing knowledge of Minecraft, the story and characters were interesting enough to pull me in, and the manner in which the first episode ends suggests that there’s some fairly major diverging paths to be resolved in Episode Two. It’s nothing particularly new, as Telltale games go, but I think that playing with a more family-friendly property has been good for the studio. Those trademark life or death choices were getting a little contrived, so it’s nice to just hang around with a likeable group of characters and go off on a fun, mostly light-hearted adventure. With the occasional eldritch abomination thrown in.
TOP GAME MOMENT
That training montage sequence made me chuckle.
Fun, knockabout tone.
Engaging characters, and snappy writing.
Excellent voice work.
Very familiar setup, right down to those “who do you choose?” plot branches.