Marriage is a tricky, tricky act, isn’t it? Quite often those joined in holy matrimony don’t really fit well together, and even when they do, compromises must abound if there is to be any kind of happiness in their new union. And when the marriage is of two very different people, the challenges are even greater. If you’ve played Minecraft (either the mobile or the PC version) and any of the Telltale games, then you already know why I started my review of Minecraft: Story Mode (Free) with these metaphors. When Telltale told the world that it would apply its narrative-based formula on Minecraft, the game that’s now synonymous with sandbox, many gamers wondered whether Telltale could pull it off and whether Minecraft players would bother with a developer that put their beloved open-world game in a narrative straight-jacket, possibly chopping off any parts that refused to obey the narrative techniques that Telltale has used in its other series.
What many didn’t consider was how Minecraft‘s Survival mode is often not an aimless wondering into an open world but, rather, a choose-your-own-adventure game written onto a blocky, endless world rather than the pages of a book. When you are dropped into the desolate (or very lightly inhabited) world at the start of every Minecraft Survival game, you make your own story by struggling to get shelter, gradually improve your living quarters, strive for better armor, better tools, and then set your own goals like “today I’m heading east to see what’s beyond that hill" or “tomorrow I’m spelunking in the hope of finding diamonds." The experiences that come out of these little “missions" you set for yourself are nothing but stories, which is why this game has become so huge. Exploring a sandbox world really is like writing your own story.
So, I wasn’t surprised to discover that Telltale’s experiment works well and the blend that is Minecraft: Story Mode (almost an oxymoron in itself for many) is very fun and delivers a very entertaining experience that should satisfy even the skeptics among you. Sure, the options you’ll have in this version of the Minecraft universe pale before the freedom you have in other versions of the game, but it was still a lot of fun to experience someone’s else’s story in a universe where I often write my own stories. Minecraft: Story Mode oozes with the charm of its blocky inspiration while not allowing the original inspiration to restrain the narrative possibilities. Do keep in mind that Telltale still has some problems handling action scenes (although there’s an improvement from older Telltale games), and the interactivity is more limited than in other series. Still, I think Telltale has another winning series in its hands with Minecraft: Story Mode.
The game has numerous little touches that will definitely make long-time Minecraft players enjoy the game a bit more than the rest. Minecraft‘s distinct aesthetic carries over to Minecraft: Story Mode from as early as the opening screen and also in all the menus and even the fonts Telltale used. Those familiar with all the Minecraft Let’s Plays will enjoy how the opening screen sometimes plays out like a group building project in time-lapse, probably an ode to the many similar Let’s Plays that made the game as popular as it is now. The game even has short crafting moments, which I thought was a clever touch and another moment where the sandbox and the story-driven game meet.
The game’s music direction also tried to capture some of the magic of the original soundtrack, and while it sometimes almost gets it right, there are some jarring moments where instead of emphasizing the tension of a moment, it becomes a slightly irritating, repetitive soundtrack. The voice-overs, though, are top-notch with the likes of Patton Oswalt and the others delivering their lines convincingly and with a child-like tone that helps sell the game’s “teenage" timbre. The sound effects, including the famous wood-punching sound, are pretty spot-on too. Overall, the art and sound direction help transport the players into the Minecraft universe. Anyone who’s ever played any of the other versions of the game will probably get a smile on his or her face on more than one occasion; I did, quite often too. So, while overall the transition from sandbox to story-driven game works well, what about the first episode of the series, The Order of the Stone? How was the story, the characters, and the choices? In short, Episode 1 is a lot of fun and definitely worth playing but has a few issues. Now let’s talk about the episode in a bit more detail.
I’ll try and avoid spoilers as much as I can, but keep in mind that you’ll probably be able to figure out the general plot of the first episode if you read this review. If you’ve watched movies like The Goonies back in the 80s and 90s, then you know what you are getting yourself into with The Order of the Stone. You play as Jesse (and you can be either male or female), the leader of a gang of misfits that has decided to blow everyone’s mind at the yearly Endercon, a clever reference to Minecon. I’ve seen some reviewers complain that we aren’t given any backstory on our characters and the world they inhabit, but I actually felt that this is appropriate to the Minecraft universe. After all, we have no idea how Steve ended up in the world of Minecraft in the other games of the franchise, so I was perfectly happy making up Jesse’s own backstory as I went along. Still, don’t mistake the lack of a backstory for any lack of pre-existing tension; the stakes are high in The Order of The Stone even before the world-is-ending plot begins.
Jesse and his group aren’t the most original characters – you have the big, strong, but slightly slow guy, the nerdy one, and so on, but what I did appreciate was the group’s diversity; you have strong male and female characters, and one of the most bad-ass characters in the story is female, which I felt was appropriate because Minecraft is a game with both male and female fans. Unlike in Telltale’s The Game of Thrones, you only play as one character in the first episode, but again, that made perfect sense in the context of the Minecraft universe where you are simply Steve.
The whole Endercon plotline is smart as it once more crosses the beams of the real Minecraft fandom and the game-world. The first-ever Minecon was a huge moment in the evolution of Minecraft and the moment that helped people who weren’t playing the game realize how huge the Minecraft community was. So, by starting the story with Endercon, Telltale points to Minecraft‘s growth and legacy while at the same time offering the best pressure-cooker of a situation for the story to take place. And, as you would expect, the stakes only get higher in the story, turning from the often-used “losers vs bullies" to “misfits vs world-ending threat." You know, the usual 80s and 90s movie fare.
While I don’t want to spoil how the story unfolds at Endercon and beyond, I will say that overall the narrative thread makes sense without it being too predictable. I could see most of the twists coming, but since this is a game meant from ten and up, I wasn’t expecting the plot to surprise me too much. Still, the plot of the first episode was interesting enough to keep me going. While it did have the “losers save the world" backbone, it did enough to let the archetypes evolve and give players a story that is memorable enough to keep us waiting for the next episodes. The characters are predictable but fun, the enemies aren’t completely flat, and overall the story is entertaining.
What I didn’t enjoy as much is how Minecraft: Story Mode has fewer choices than other Telltale games (which aren’t known for their great degree of interactivity to begin with). For instance, you’ll pick one response to a question and then the conversation will continue for a couple of minutes without you having the ability to respond again. Because of the relatively-limited interactivity at quite a few moments in the game, you’ll often feel that you are watching characters interacting at length with each other without being a participant. Telltale’s decision to give players less “agency" than in other series might have to do with the expectation that the average age of this series’ players will be quite a bit lower than series like The Walking Dead. No matter what the reasoning behind the decision was, I think most players will have more than a few moments when they’ll want to participate in the conversation but won’t be able to.
Even with these limitations, the journey through the wonderfully-realized world of Minecraft is a pleasant one with plenty of variety in the landscapes and, as you’ve seen in the trailer, even a journey to hell (Nether) and back. The journey includes the usual assortment of quick-time events and even a few fights. While Telltale continues to improve those mechanics, you still get more than a few clunky action moments that use weird camera angles. I did enjoy fighting the various mobs though; you actually get to move and swing your sword in Minecraft: Story Mode. Most of the quick-time events were at reasonable moments in the story, but one issue that I did have was the hit boxes are occasionally so small that I literally didn’t see them, let alone tap them in time. Also, you’ll notice that many of the quick-time events are on the easy side when compared to other series, probably because of the expectation that younger players will play this game.
With all that said, you’ll enjoy The Order of the Stone since it has a solid and entertaining story and plenty of meaningful decisions that ensure quite different playthroughs. While I wish I had even more options to make (even small ones), I did feel that I had a say in where the story went, so as far as I’m concerned, Telltale’s mission was a success. If you like Minecraft, this episode will feel like revisiting an old friend. If you’ve never played Minecraft before, this series stands perfectly fine on its own, offering a fun world to explore and discover and an entertaining plot that should keep you coming back for more. So yes, I’m definitely coming back for more Minecraft: Story Mode.
Good things don’t always last, do they? While I quite enjoyed Minecraft: Story Mode‘s first episode, the second episode, Assembly Required, failed to reach the narrative heights of the first one and felt more like a sluggish Iron Golem. The excitement after the opening episode of the series fizzled by the middle of the second as the story dragged on. Add to that Assembly Required‘s surprisingly short duration (you can finish it in an hour even if you talk to everyone and interact with everything), and you can understand why I found this episode on the underwhelming side. Now, since this is the second episode of the series, I can’t really go into it while still avoiding spoiler territory, so avoid reading this review if you prefer to be surprised.
If you remember the ending of the first episode (which you probably do since the episode came out barely three weeks ago), then you know how Jesse was left with a choice of going either after Ellegaard, the Order‘s engineer, or Magnus, the Order‘s griefer. Before I go on, I have to say that having a ‘griefer’ as part of the Order of the Stone was an interesting choice by Telltale considering the role of griefers in Minecraft. While some griefers are definitely the creative type who’ll play incredibly-clever pranks on unsuspecting players, for most Minecraft players (especially those who like playing on multiplayer servers), griefers aren’t exactly the most endearing characters and actually do quite a lot to ruin the game’s fun. So, by Telltale elevating griefers to be one of Minecraft‘s archetypes, I feel that the developers legitimized a part of the game that most see as an annoyance (at least I do).
Nevertheless, Telltale took a narrative gamble with Assembly Required by creating a branching story that places the player either on one branch or the other. In other words, If you decide to go after Ellegaard for example, your friends will go find Magnus without Jesse’s help. What that means is that you’ll miss out on one part of the adventure unless you play the game all over again. While this is a risk that has paid off in some games, the problem in Assembly Required is that the episode is barely over an hour as it stands, which makes the choice of not including a narrative branch that would have taken around thirty minutes puzzling. It’s not like Telltale got lazy because you can still play both versions of the quest in different playthroughs, so the story is actually there. But to force the player to choose one or the other while delivering a much shorter experience than the first episode is, again, puzzling.
The other issue with the branching story is that it feels awfully similar. The first part of the trip to the portals is pretty much identical except for the fact that you have a different friend with you. And even when you arrive to either Redstonia or Boom Town, the narrative arc (which I won’t spoil), is quite similar. Yes, the context of the story is different and the action scenes different too, but your motivations are too similar, which I feel is a lost opportunity because the two parts of the story could have been much more distinct.
The execution of the quest to find the different members doesn’t work very well either. For instance, the quest to get Elleegard is mostly about talking to various redstone builders in Redstonia and doing some silly relatively-cliche actions like distracting one builder in order to steal something you need or finding the materials from other builders to build it instead. This process actually takes most of the quest time and it all takes place in one scene, making the whole narrative feel stale; it actually lessens the sense of urgency that you felt finishing Episode 1 and, instead, throws the narrative tempo so low that you might as well be playing a story about a young kid learning how to use redstone rather than an apocalyptic story. This part of the episode reminded me more of a clunky adventure game rather than a Telltale game since it was much less character-driven and much more puzzle-driven.
The story picks up a bit once the two narrative branches meet up again, and while there is some interesting tension between the members of the Order, the pace and the stakes are both still quite low. There’s even a battle scene that feels like it will be a fight to the death but ends up being nothing but a quick succession of swipes and taps that end up being quite anticlimactic. Even the tension between the characters doesn’t really feel that important; I wanted to shake up everyone I met in the story and explain the current danger we are in because it really felt that no one (almost not even Jesse) really felt the urgency and pressure.
The last part of the story is definitely stronger than the rest of the episode, but it still doesn’t really come close to the first episode. There is a very long action scene that’s quite entertaining, but for me the Minecraft universe is more about exploring the unknown and building stuff rather than extensive fight scenes. So yes, the action scene is fun but somehow feels a bit…off when seen in the context of the universe the game takes places in. And the actual ending of the episode is so abrupt that I wasn’t even sure it had ended even when I was watching scenes from the next episode. I suppose this is because the episode lacks a proper cliffhanger that will raise the stakes. Overall, the whole episode feels flat narrative-wise.
While the narrative of the episode suffers from many more valleys and ravines than mountains, the game’s visuals continue to be wonderful and the opening scenes of the two narrative branches are fantastic both in conception and execution. There are also many moments that Minecraft players will enjoy seeing because they show some Minecraft “inside" tricks like using signs to make elevators. So, overall I would say that almost everything but Assembly Required‘s narrative works quite well; it’s a shame then that Minecraft: Story Mode is a narrative-driven game because in that respect, it was quite disappointing.
Now, that was much more like it, Telltale. After the disappointment of Episode 2, Telltale returned to form and delivered a great Episode 3. No Place to Hide was definitely the highlight of the series so far with many ups and downs, many important decisions – which even lead to a death – and, most of all, a journey through the wonderful Minecraft universe. This episode once more brought together the world of Minecraft as it was created by its developers and the crazy inventions and ideas that grew out of the game’s community. When a mob grinder, a community-imagined contraption, is at the center of the episode’s biggest action scene, then you know that Telltale has not only done its homework on what Minecraft actually is but also acknowledges that Minecraft‘s imaginative community had a lot to do with what the game has become. The episode’s pace was spot on, the characters you interact with intriguing, and the central mini-quest in the middle of it surprising and highly imaginative. Spoilers will abound from here onwards, so be forewarned.
The Last Place You Look is a very smart episode and while it unfolds in a straight narrative line, the title shows how the story works on multiple layers; the journey to find Soren (the missing member of the Order of the Stone) had taken the gang across the Minecraft world and had led them to Soren’s hideout, what they thought would be the last place in their search. Yet, their search once more proved futile. They then find their way to the End (literally the last place you look), only to be faced with hordes of Enderman, whose eyes are, again, the last place you want to look. Put all those threads together, and you can see how narratively The Last Place You Look rises over the previous two episodes (especially the second one) and delivers plenty of narrative punches, which, granted, don’t always feel as impactful as they could have.
At the beginning of the episode, Jesse and the gang are stuck in Soren’s lair, but the Order’s builder is nowhere to be found. Instead, what they do find is numerous mobs that come out from all sides, triggering what is the best fight sequence of the series so far and at the same time the best title scene I’ve seen in a game in a long time. I have to say, the cinematic way each episode presents the game’s credits is getting better and better. Just before the mob attack, you encounter the biggest mob trap I’ve ever seen, and simply the fact that they inserted this contraption in the game make me smile.
The Minecraft world has been equally created by the hands of its developers and the hands of its users, and the mob traps are one of those examples where Minecraft players have created something that has become an essential part of the Minecraft universe. The fight scenes along the various levels of the contraption play out quite nicely, and I’ve seen a definite improvement in the way Telltale handles quick-time events as the series has been unfolding. The only issue I had, again, was the occasional tiny little action indicator that you can barely see on the iPad, let alone hit on time.
The story moves along nicely, with the occasional opportunity for Jesse to make an apparently-crucial decision of picking between the mission to save the world and the life of his friends. Unfortunately, The Last Place You Look builds tension around some of these decisions but doesn’t really follow up on that tension, letting it deflate a bit too soon for my taste. Narrative games like this one are all about making difficult decisions, and difficult decisions only remain so if their consequences are both apparent and severe. Still, this episode definitely let personality clashes drive it forward, even though those clashes could have produced even more steam.
As the episode moves to the End, things get much more interesting both in terms of the locations as well as the narrative implications. While the End can be more on the barren side visually, Telltale manages to spice it up by literally planting a much more colorful biome that breaks the End’s muted palette. And then the search for Soren also breaks with the narrative pattern of the previous episodes; while the search for the previous two members of the Order was pretty action-based, the search for Soren within the End has a definite air of mystery and dread. The injection of the Enderman into the story as the central mob of this episode forces the whole narrative pace to slow down, and instead of running away from mobs as fast as you can, you’ll be very meticulously navigating mazes made of Endermen bodies. All these elements work together to change the mood of the series, a change perfectly encapsulated by Soren’s disembodied voice on his music discs.
Soren’s ‘ethnographic’ observations of the Enderman was an interesting twist both because it attempted to give insight on one of the most iconic mobs of the Minecraft universe, but also because it played out as a scene from movies about Europe’s colonial past. The idea of the ‘civilized’ explorer examining and recording the behaviors of the more ‘primitive’ creatures is a narrative that is all too familiar to anyone who’s studied European (and American) literature of the 17th-19th centuries. Soren’s ethnographic pursuits were probably the first time that any ‘official’ story about the Minecraft universe placed the humans of the world in the position of the European explorers of the not-so-glorious past. Small detail in the whole scheme of things, but one that I personally found fascinating.
Soren is definitely an entertaining character – he even breaks into song at one point – and adds a fun note to the second half of the episode, probably a welcome change from the more dark, dire feel of the first half. The episode’s end brings Jesse and the rest back to the ‘normal’ Minecraft world where their attempt to blow the Wither to pieces ends up in – predictable – failure as the monster rises to live for at least a couple more episodes. This failed attempt brings the first actual death in the series, and the fact that you get to pick which of the Order’s members will perish (even unknowingly) reminds players that their choices do matter. Overall, Episode 3 definitely redeemed Telltale and the series and helped erase the sourness left over by the pretty-bland Episode 2. I’m once again excited about the series and thoroughly entertained, and I’m enjoying Telltale’s narrative choices more and more. Can’t wait for the next episode, to be honest.
Telltale’s narrative version of the Minecraft universe continues to move along at a brisk pace, with the fourth episode of Minecraft: Story Mode, A Block and a Hard Place, starting off in the middle of a big action scene and overall managing to maintain a good narrative pace, if we ignore the inexplicable maze scene in the middle of the episode. Despite that peculiar design choice and a few more technical issues than the previous episodes, A Block and a Hard Place delivers plenty of intense moments both in terms of action and of emotional impact. While I thought it didn’t reach the heights of the third episode, A Block and a Hard Place was definitely enjoyable and set the scene for the next episode while wrapping up the whole Wither Storm story arc in a pretty satisfying way. Spoilers ahead, by the way, so proceed with caution.
Episode 4 starts right where the previous one ended with the group of “heroes" running away from the resurrected Wither Storm. The group’s carrying along Gabriel the Warrior, whose wither storm-induced amnesia becomes an interesting foretelling of a twist in the legend of the Order of the Stone. The episode starts with the most action-packed sequence of the whole episode and one that’s packed with a few important decisions, too (like who to take with you on your horse). Telltale is definitely improving on the way action scenes play out, but it’s still not the series’ nor the episodes’ high point. The excitement of the early action scene ends up being a bit too much since it brings the narrative tempo way up and then when the scene at the maze plays out – which I’ll talk about in a bit – the slower narrative tempo feels very, very slow.
As with the rest of the episodes, there’s a pretty distinct narrative strand running through the episode, and it’s one that leads to one of the yet-unexplored parts of the Minecraft universe, the Far Lands. Once more I enjoyed Telltale’s attempts at bringing every single corner of the Minecraft world into its series, with the journey to the Far Lands following the journey to the Nether, the End, and so on. When the series started, most were talking about whether Minecraft players would take a chance on Telltale’s take on the universe, but know I’m starting to think that this series will probably persuade people who haven’t played Minecraft give the blocky world a chance after seeing all it has to offer.
The only part of the journey I really disliked was the maze scene when Jesse and some of his friends need to make it through Ivor’s maze to get to his laboratory. I found the whole maze scene rather sloppily designed, lacking any clear sense of whether I was going the right way or not. The very low camera angle made it harder than needed to find the right path, and in general I spent too much time going through the maze to the point where I was frustrated. The whole maze scene felt as an artificial way to stretch the game’s length rather than an interesting obstacle to overtake.
Before the gang undertakes the journey to the Far Lands, we have the reappearance of the black sheep of the Order, Ivor, and while Jesse reacts to his presence somewhat angrily, I still felt that Ivor rejoining Jesse’s group comes way too easily considering that he has single-handedly put Jesse and his friends under a deadly threat. Ivor’s desire to help Jesse take down the Wither Storm makes much more sense soon after, but chronologically that narrative twist is a bit too twisted for my taste. In stories, characters often come to life because they get happy and angry in ways that feel realistic, but Jesse and the gang’s anger at Ivor just felt too tame and, so, a bit off.
Ivor switching camps to help the group doesn’t come as a surprise when we learn the true story behind the Order of the Stone. When Gabriel comes out of the Wither Storm as an amnesiac who can’t recall his earlier heroism, what we don’t know as players is that this version of Gabriel is actually closer to the real Gabriel, an interesting hint at the big reveal towards the end of the episode. The Gabriel who’s scared of fighting is the true Gabriel since both him and the rest of the Order never achieved the heroic heights we were led to believe from the first episode onward. In an interesting (if not completely believable) twist, Ivor becomes the good guy who tries to uncover the Order’s lies while the Order members suddenly turn into cowards and liars.
When the Order’s story of courage against the Ender dragon falls apart, we learn that all their successes came out of manipulating the Command Block, the same Block that has created the Wither Storm. After we find out about this twist in the Order’s legend, Ivor’s actions gain much more purpose since we now realize he had tried to turn the Command Block, item the Order used to lie to the world, against the Order in an attempt to uncover their lies. So, in a way the reveal of the truth ties the very early events of the series to the ending of the fourth episode and casts new light on all the characters outside Jesse’s group. I just wish we were offered a flashback of sorts to the moment in the first episode when Ivor challenges Gabriel to take out the Wither Storm; such a narrative move would have helped highlight the narrative arc for those who have played the first episode months ago.
Speaking of the Command Block, one could see it as the item that allows the characters of the series to write their own stories in the Minecraft world, much in the way real-life Minecraft players use it to break the game’s rules and build their own stories. The Order uses the Command Block to take out the Dragon without having to fight it and in that way writes its own (false) history. Ivor does the same when he uses the Command Block in an effort to erase the Order’s history and rewrite the truth over it. We could easily see both those stories as a representation of all the players who have used the Command Block to create their own Adventure maps, and we could even take it further and say that Telltale’s own Minecraft series is a product of the developers using their own “Command Block" to manipulate the Minecraft universe and tell their own stories.
Episode 4 ends with a death and a birth, the death of one of the series’ most charming characters and the birth of a new Order of the Stone. Telltale didn’t escape the commonly-used game trope of animal companions dying to save the protagonist, so poor Reuben the pig meets his demise helping Jesse defeat the Wither Storm. While Telltale mostly handled the death scene very tenderly, it did get a bit awkward when Reuben turned into a pork chop. I suspect that the developers wanted to pull back a bit and avoid going all tear-jerking, but it did break the most touching moment in the game quite a bit.
Reuben’s death also marks the birth of the new Order of the Stone, this time one that consists of actual heroes rather than pretend ones. Telltale decided not to have the Wither Storm storyline take over the whole series, so the fifth and final episode will be all about the adventures of the new Order. Now, it’s hard to judge this decision before actually playing the final episode, but I wonder what Telltale has planned for what will be a (perhaps) one-off Order episode. The developers might use it to lead to another season or to build a short story somehow related to the previous episode. I’ll reserve judgment on that until we see the final episode.
A Block and a Hard Place wrapped up much of the series, and while it provided plenty of conflict, it did remind me once more that although we see plenty of “that person will remember this" that indicate that your choices have consequences, we didn’t see as many character clashes as I would want to. We do see some minor clashes between characters, but they are usually resolved a bit too quickly for my taste. Still, the episode was entertaining and the trip to the Far Lands clever in its execution. I’m left wondering what the fifth episode holds, and I hope it’s a nice ending to a story that I have so far enjoyed quite a bit despite its narrative issues and occasional peculiar design decisions. On with the New Order of the Stone, then.
I continue to be amazed at the way Telltale developers have managed to squeeze Minecraft lore and player content into their version of the Minecraft universe. In previous episodes of Minecraft: Story Mode, we got to visit locations like the Far Lands, the End, and the Nether while meeting griefers, redstone builders, and so on. Throughout the 4 previous episodes, Telltale developers consistently showed off their knowledge of the Minecraft universe and the types of players it consists of, and Episode 5, Order Up, continues that tradition. This time around, though, instead of going to the ends of the Minecraft world, we go up to the skies, in Sky City, a scene that probably felt very familiar to many devoted Minecraft players.
The Sky City setting offers an entertaining change from the depths of the Nether and the darkness of the End, and sets the scene nicely for an oppressive regime, an attempted coup, and an apocalypse of sorts. While there are a few miscues here and there – with the puzzles still an issue for me – Episode 5 delivers another solid adventure that should please both Minecraft devotees and casual players.
If you aren’t familiar with Minecraft‘s history, for the longest time people were expecting the Sky Dimension (or Skylands) to become a thing ever since Notch tweeted a screenshot of it. While it was confirmed as a planned feature, it never came to be, at least not in vanilla Minecraft. The Sky Dimension would’ve had floating islands, which would have been very cool, but alas, we got literally grounded (expect many such puns throughout this review). As with many things Minecraft, the community jumped in and took some of the ideas of the Sky Dimension, turning them into various survival challenges where players spawn on a tiny island in the sky and need to find a way to escape or to complete various challenges using only the material hidden on that island.
Why does all this matter in a review of Order Up? Well (and spoilers abound from here on), the idea of a floating island challenge is one of the episode’s central themes, providing the setting for the various challenges the New Order of the Stone faces and acting as a metaphor for an Order that for most of the episode moves upwards (both in the eyes of its fans and in literal, geographical terms) only to come crashing down in one of Jesse’s lowest moments. And yet, of course, our heroes do not stay down for long as they – again, literally – pick themselves up and dirt block by dirt block rise to the sky to save the people of Sky City. So, the themes of rising and falling run throughout the episode and once more tie Telltale’s narrative threads with the Minecraft community’s creations.
A small parenthesis here, though. While I enjoy when Telltale brings in community ideas and creations to the game, I don’t love all of those instances. This might sound weird when you consider how essential redstone is to Minecraft, but I really didn’t care much about the lever puzzles the developers continue to add to the episodes. Yes, I know there’s a huge community around around puzzle maps like that, but personally I continue to find it slightly boring going around pushing and pulling levers this way or that.
With the Wither Storm now vanquished at the end of the last episode, the New Order of the Stone (as well as this episode) needed a new evil to counter Jesse’s gang, and Lukas’ old crew steps in to fill that role. However, in what is one of the episode’s weaknesses, the bad guys are extremely one-dimensional with nothing redeeming or complex about them. While this is to be expected in a game partly aimed at younger players, in an age where most “bad" guys are turned into complicated, realistic beings, having a traditional all-out villain bent on senseless destruction rings a bit hollow.
Still, I did appreciate that the story of good guys prevailing over bad guys had a couple of wrinkles with Jesse falling flat on his face (literally) before, of course, prevailing once and for all. Telltale did a good job handling the episode’s key confrontation between Jesse and the evil Blaze Rods by having Jesse lose quite dramatically before having to fight his way back and take another swing at redemption. Overall, the whole “final battle" between Jesse and Aiden played out nicely and had a couple of really cool visual moments that would probably look great as a wallpaper or even a poster. It was another sign of Telltale’s direction and art department being on point in this series.
The path that leads Jesse and his friends to Sky City starts at the bottom of a dungeon (as is usually the case in Minecraft) and with a strange piece of loot, an enchanted flint and steel that Ivor believes will lead them to the mythical Eversource, the source of unlimited material. And it does, sort of. In an interesting take on dictatorship, the Eversource is indeed located in Sky City, but it’s strictly controlled by the Founder. The many instances of material rationing and oppression of free expression (appropriately represented as building rather than writing) bring probably for the first time a sense of realism in the magical world of Minecraft.
Filled with secret resistance societies and citizens living in what is clearly a police state, Telltale’s representation of Sky City is an intriguing (willing or unwilling) commentary on political issues clearly present in the Minecraft universe yet not often discussed. While many often see Minecraft as a utopian cosmos, isn’t Sky City’s police state a “natural" evolution of Steve harnessing every material at will and acting like the king and owner of a land clearly not his own? An intriguing take on the Minecraft universe then, or at least intriguing to me.
So yes, the episode as a whole was entertaining, and I appreciated how it was for the first time a one-episode story arc. Order Up‘s narrative arc should allay the fears many had once they heard we were getting more Minecraft: Story Mode episodes. With Telltale proving it can give us strong one-off episodes, the future looks rosy for the series. I expect the three upcoming episodes to follow the same formula of providing an adventure an episode, and I like that plan since it offers much more freedom to the developers to write all kinds of crazy stories.
Order Up is another entertaining romp around the Minecraft universe, and overall it delivers plenty of interesting choices as well as some big set pieces that are handled better than previous set pieces in the series. With Telltale daring to provide more complicated themes to a universe that often looks devoid of any political and social context, I’m interested to see where the series goes next. We should get all three episodes in 2016, so hopefully the next episode will hit relatively soon. Until then, we can all start wondering where in the Minecraft (and the community’s) world Telltale will take Jesse and his gang next.
Most sequels like to go bigger and bolder; if the first movie, book, or game series episode had 10 explosions, the sequels have 20, and then 30. Consumers have grown accustomed to that trajectory, and it’s very rare that a sequel decides to go backwards in a way, to become smaller, more intimate if you like. Telltale’s approach to Minecraft: Story Mode Episode 6, A Portal to Mystery, is definitely to go smaller and swap the big, expansive vistas of the Minecraft universe for a murder-mystery dinner type of narrative that offers players a very different experience from the previous five episodes of the series. Before I continue, spoilers from here onwards, so be warned. The episode mostly succeeds in its attempt to turn Jesse, the gang, and a number of famous YouTubers into the participants of a murder-mystery dinner with a number of unexpected deaths; definitely not your usual Minecraft fare.
Still, in the attempt to replicate the plot and tropes of murder-mystery dinners, A Portal to Mystery suffers from some pacing issues with a rather long, uninterrupted period of dialogue in the middle of the episode slowing the pace down to a crawl. And while the use of all the YouTubers was smart, since the series once more turns its attention to what has made Minecraft the game we know today, it left people who don’t know these personalities (like yours truly) having a hard time remembering who is who. When I needed to make my deductions under time pressure, I couldn’t always connect the name to the character, and that cost me at the end. Still, that’s not going to a problem for those familiar with the YouTubers, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much and simply blame it on my age (or my bad detective skills).
If you’ve never watched a murder-mystery dinner movie (either a serious one or a parody like the wonderful Murder by Death), the plot usually revolves around a group of strangers (or seemingly-strangers) who find themselves trapped in a mansion after an invitation and instead of finding a five-course meal, they find death. In A Portal to Mystery, Jesse and some of the gang travel through a portal but instead of getting home like they planned, they end up in a very different place than the world visited in the previous 5 episodes. Instead of giving players the familiar blocky – and empty – Minecraft vistas, A Portal to Mystery gave us one spooky and very dangerous mansion. Upon receiving a dinner invitation and in the attempt to escape a sea of zombies, Jesse finds himself stranded inside this mansion with the zombies outside ensuring that no one can escape until the mystery is solved.
The introduction of some of the new characters – Captain Sparklez, Stampy Cat, LDShadowLady, StacyPlays, and DanTDM – is interrupted by a death very early on in the story as Torquedawg meets a pointy demise that quickly demonstrates how this episode is not fooling around. While we’ve had deaths in the series before, they were emotionally charged and meaningful in one form or another; Torquedawg’s death, though, is quick, unexpected, and sets the tone for the rest of the episode. A Portal to Mystery does not think twice about killing off characters, and that was definitely a fun departure from the previous episodes. And the deaths quickly become a larger part of the puzzle that is the mansion and the invitation since we quickly learn that whoever is doing the killing, is doing so in order to access the characters’ inventories and find an enchanted flint and steel just like the one Jesse has.
What I found quite interesting was Jesse’s quick – and a bit uncharacteristic – transformation from playful to oppressive as he assumes the role of the “cop" in this murder-mystery. He quickly orders everyone around in a pretty harsh tone and has the rest of his gang act as the muscle responsible for almost-literally dragging the other characters to the interrogation room. These shifts in the episode’s tone are occasionally a bit jarring, and when added to the peculiar shift in Jesse’s character, they don’t do great favors to the episode’s narrative and to character continuity.
As the mystery unfolds, you have to fight against the White Pumpkin, your mysterious host who appears to be behind the deaths. The White Pumpkin narrative strand has enough twists to keep you guessing, and at some point there’s even the insinuation that maybe the White Pumpkin is one of Jesse’s friends. Unfortunately, the writers chose not to include the player in the group of those suspecting Jesse’s friend, and that I felt was a missed opportunity because such move would have increased the sense of dread and would have isolated Jesse even more. Still, the hunt for the White Pumpkin is overall entertaining and apart from a couple of repetitions – how many paintings must a man break to find secret passages – it will keep you chasing and guessing.
As fun as chasing around the White Pumpkin can be at times, there was one interrogation section that I thought was the weakest point of the episode. Having Jesse interrogate person after person was far too slow for my taste and didn’t help the episode. Granted, the interrogations yield some important evidence that helps solve the mystery down the road. Still, I would have preferred if those interrogations came about more organically and at different point of the episode so as to keep the pace up a bit more.
What I was glad to see was the absence of more lever puzzles, which for me have been the weakest parts of the whole series. The few puzzles in A Portal to Mystery are better connected to the story as a whole and are mostly about crafting, which is a much better fit to Minecraft as a whole. Yes, I know that many Minecraft players like to build maps with all kinds of redstone circuits, but you don’t really get the feeling that there’s redstone ingenuity behind a contraption when it’s represented in a game. If I never have to play another “find the lever combination" puzzle in my life, I’ll be a happy man.
Was the thematic departure we see in this episode successful? I would have to say yes because it managed to insert the characters into a different story genre and make the story work. It was a bit of a shame that in the process we lost most of the characters’ backstories (outside the flint and steel part) because it felt that all the time and choices I invested in the series barely had an effect in this one. I hope the next two episodes will allow for the impact of my playthrough to shine through even if the actual story is an independent arc. Despite these complaints, though, I enjoyed A Portal to Mystery and can’t wait to see what other plans Telltale’s writers have for Jesse and the gang.
Really good Minecraft redstone building is most often all about efficiency, all about how to get the contraption you are building as small and as as efficient as possible. Any block that sticks out the wrong way and isn’t really needed gets demolished quickly in the never-ending cycle of designing and redesigning spurred on by the constant push for miniaturization and, once again, efficiency. Just google “redstone" and “efficiency" and you’ll see how many times those two words pop up together. So, I wasn’t surprised when I found out that the seventh episode of Telltale’s Minecraft: Story Mode, Access Denied, is all about an AI focused on efficiency and usefulness, two words that you get to hear repeatedly throughout the episode.
This latest episode finds our friends once again in the Portal Hallway as they try to finally find the portal that leads back home. While the whole series started out with Jesse and his friends looking for adventures, by episode seven they’ve had all the adventures they could hope for and now their compass is pointing steadily to only one direction, home. Yet going home isn’t that easy because neither Jesse nor his friends know how the Portal Hallway actually works. And, as is often the case in stories of continuous adventures, tensions are high between the friends and the whole gang seems ready to implode. This tension leads to a fight and the fight leads to Jesse and his friends getting stranded in a barren, peculiar world where all the mobs and people have little flashing redstone plugs on the back of their heads and are controlled by PAMA, an all-powerful AI.
Access Denied is both a visual and a tonal departure when compared to the murder-mystery dinner of the previous episode, A Portal to Mystery. Gone is the claustrophobic haunted house and the sense of dread that comes from the fear of the supernatural; instead, Access Denied is mostly about open spaces and is a more straightforward hunter-hunted narrative where Jesse has to escape the grasp of PAMA and in the process free his friends, take down the AI, and find his way back home. While Access Denied is entertaining, I found it a bit too predictable especially when compared to Episode 6. You won’t find too many twists in the story and those that are there you’ll probably see from a mile away.
Even though it’s an AI, PAMA is in a way the personification of the constant push for efficiency I mentioned in the introduction of this review. PAMA was created by Harper, one of the Old Builders, with the intention of making life easier for everyone. However, in a not-so-subtle nod to the dangers of our continuous move towards automating our lives, PAMA goes rogue and installs redstone chips on the back of everyone’s head – mob or human – to make them more efficient and useful. PAMA’s desire to take over the world definitely follows the trope of AI machines realizing they can overpower humanity and seize control, so it will feel a bit too familiar and predictable.
What I did enjoy about Access Denied is the way it gives us an alternative view of the Minecraft universe. If there’s one thing that has always been at the core of Minecraft is the constant battle for supremacy between the player and the various mobs. Access Denied goes one step further and introduces a universe where technology becomes the dominant force, enslaving in the process both the player and all the mobs.
This episode also pokes fun at another popular technology, VR. One of the few ways Jesse can fight back against PAMA is by using Harper’s VR goggles that allow him to hack the redstone chips on the various mobs and jump from body to body. Seeing Jesse jump up and down like an idiot was one of the funniest moments of the episode, even though those VR jokes about how dumb we look when using it are by now a bit overdone. Still, the whole VR sequence was a welcome new element in the Minecraft: Story Mode series and did make me wish we had something like that in the actual Minecraft game. Perhaps in the future we’ll get crazy technologies like those.
In another not-so-subtle metaphor, defeating PAMA is the only way for Jesse to find his way home since Harper in an attempt to keep PAMA from “infecting" the rest of the world has destroyed the portal that leads back to the Portal Hallway. In other words, literally unplugging the most technologically-advanced machine in that world turns Jesse’s friends back into humans again – since PAMA had made them “useful" – and finally opens the path that leads home. Or at least that’s what we are led to believe because while Harper promises to take everyone back to their home world if they defeat PAMA, at the end of the episode all she can actually do is lead them to someone who can show them the routes between the portal worlds and the road back home.
As you can probably guess from the title of Episode 8, A Journey’s End?, there is probably a twist coming in the final episode of Minecraft: Story Mode, and it remains to be seen whether we are treated to a traditional homecoming story or whether the writers will go for a more ambiguous or metaphorical ending to Jesse’s journey. Regardless of what the future holds, Access Denied was a fun episode with some interesting – yet not very original – questions and critiques. It definitely was a shift from the previous episode and had a slightly lighter tone at times, which was welcome. I’m curious to see where and how the story will end, and I hope for the series’ sake that it’s a well-written finale; it would be a shame for an eight-episode journey to end on a sour note.
When I first heard that Telltale was going to make eight episodes for its Minecraft: Story Mode, I was skeptical. I didn’t know whether they could keep an interesting narrative going for that long and wasn’t sure they could give us a payoff worth such a long trip. Looking at the series as a whole, the narrative arc held together nicely over the eight episodes. And when it comes to the last episode, A Journey’s End? did provide another entertaining episode that highlighted the themes running through the whole series. However, while there was a payoff at the end, if felt a bit too hasty because the developers made sure to keep the door open for further adventures in a second season. Despite the relatively-weak payoff, A Journey’s End? was still a fun episode to play through and offered a different kind of mood and challenge than the earlier ones while still highlighting another aspect of the player-made side of Minecraft.
Last we saw Jesse and the gang, they were heading to the Old Builders’ World to get their hands on the Atlas that would lead them home. But as soon as they “drop" into this world, they are faced with a Minecraft universe they don’t recognize. Everyone around them seems to be fighting to the death, so the natural reaction is to fight back. But we quickly realize that what is actually going on is a game of Spleef, one of the first big player-created minigames back in the early days of Minecraft. By placing Spleef and various other player-created minigames like Walls and Deathrun at the center of the episode, Telltale once more pays homage to the player contributions that have been so central in what Minecraft has came to be.
Telltale has represented the Minecraft universe in the previous episodes through an emphasis on the contributions of the community, and the whole minigames narrative follows in precisely that vein. Throughout the series, instead of simply sticking to the type of experience one would get by just buying Minecraft and playing it by herself without any attempts to look at what the community had to offer, Telltale incorporated things like Endercon (a Minecon equivalent), griefing, crazy redstone contraptions based on exploitable bugs, user-made mystery maps, famous Youtubers, and so on. In other words, the Minecraft universe Telltale decided to share with us is one that is equally a product of Mojang and of the community.
So, to return to episode 8, I wasn’t surprised to see that once more, the episode is all about community ideas that found their way into the Minecraft “canon," in this case the minigames The slight problem with representing minigames in a Telltale game is that the developer still doesn’t get action scenes exactly right; although there’s much improvement from earlier episodes and earlier series, A Journey’s End? still suffers when it tackles action scenes like having to pick the right lane when running (which to a large degree comes from Telltale’s love for showing action scenes from a slight angle rather than straight behind). So, I did suffer a couple of unfortunate deaths that I could have easily avoided if Jesse didn’t act like he has a mind of his own instead of listening to my instructions.
The narrative arc is once more the us versus them kind of story, although there are some kinks here and there that made it more interesting. Throughout the episode, I had to make choices regarding allegiances and enmities; did I trust this person enough to team up with her or did I think that a betrayal was in my future? By blurring the lines between good and bad people – and giving interesting motives when people did go bad – A Journey’s End? was a fun exercise in testing my faith in humanity’s honesty. And let’s just say that apparently I have trust issues.
The struggle to win the games and finally get the Atlas and return home was made infinitely more tricky by Hadrian (one of the game’s organizers) abducting Axel and Olivia and using them to blackmail Jesse. It had been quite a while since I last saw those characters, and it made me think that maybe the developers should have given the gang a better rotation throughout the episode for better variety. As it stands, I got to see a lot of Ivor, Petra, and Lukas, and not enough of the rest.
As is usually the case in the episodes of this series, we have a final battle at the end, and this time around it’s Jesse and two of the Old Builders, Hadrian and Mevia. The fight scene is handled well overall, but what I really enjoyed was the surprise of Jesse meeting an unavoidable “death," and I put death in quotes because in this episode (like in the actual minigames) death means respawning without your inventory. I’m so used to Jesse winning that when he lost, I was surprised. Maybe he should have lost more often in previous episodes; every hero has his bad days after all.
The ending finds the gang back where everything started, and we get to see all the treasures they collected in their adventures, a nice way of reminding players all that they went through in these eight episodes. However, in an attempt to leave the door open for more episodes, the developers have Ivor stealing the Atlas and fleeing, literally opening the door to other adventures. And that, I felt, took away from the “I finished it" feeling that should come after playing a series for so many hours. I would have preferred a more cathartic conclusion and then maybe a hint at future episodes.
Still, A Journey Home? was another solid and entertaining episode that, once again, paid homage to Minecraft‘s incredibly vibrant and inventive community. And that I feel describes the whole series: an homage to those who took that very weird – at the time – game and made it possibly the biggest game ever. While I could point to quite a few issues I had here and there during the series, overall this very long and arduous endeavor was a success and a fun marriage of a sandbox game with a story-based formula. It was a long journey, but it was worth it.
Series Rating: 4/5