Minecraft Dungeons

I am hopelessly in love with Mojang’s passion project, Minecraft Dungeons. After several hours in the fairly limited closed beta, I simply can’t put it down. It takes everything you love about Minecraft’s world, with enchanting music, whimsical humor, and that signature aesthetic and combines it with everything you love about Diablo, with deep action RPG customization and combat, that simply feels great.

Here’s why I think Minecraft Dungeons is set to be a special entry in Microsoft’s growing Xbox Game Studios portfolio, ahead of its planned May 2020 launch.

Minecraft Dungeons, first and foremost, looks and feels like a classic Minecraft game, right down to the aesthetics and music. Save for one crucial difference: no building. Minecraft Dungeons is one-hundred percent action RPG, with a self-proclaimed mild emphasis on story. That’s not to say there isn’t any story. You’re an adventurer on a quest to defeat the evil Arch Illager, whose Illager hordes and Redstone monstrosities are rampaging across the land, pillaging and defiling as they go.

Built with Unreal Engine, Minecraft Dungeons retains the charming blocktastic aesthetic of the sandbox game we all know and love, albeit through an action RPG lens. Monsters are more varied and dynamic in their movements and attacks. Skeletons fall apart into piles of bones, rather than simply flop over dead like in the base game, for example. And spells and effects come with more spectacular profiles, giving your abilities a real sense of impact upon the world. Tossing a crate of TNT into a crowd of enemies sends them flying all over the place with glorious ragdoll physics, shattering against walls and trees. It simply feels great to play.

The beta we’ve had access gives us just a small glimpse at the types of environments players can expect. We have zombie-filled spooky forests, pillaged pumpkin farmlands, and tombs crammed with enchanted skeletons.

The (rather gorgeous) full world map reveals several Minecraft staple biomes, including desert temples, mining hills, mountain peaks, and forest ruins. Mojang has also said they have two additional pieces of DLC on the way, with more planned for the future. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll end up in the Nether or The End?

People who aren’t into Minecraft often associate it with younger audiences, despite the cavernous amount of depth it has. I have already gotten the question a few times about whether Minecraft Dungeons is a “true” action RPG, akin to Diablo, or something more simplistic aimed at younger audiences. Just like Diablo, you can tailor the difficulty quite heavily, spanning from easy and accessible all the way up to reactive and challenging. Once you’ve beaten the main story, two more difficulty tiers unlock as well, granting access to even more powerful loot and even more challenging enemies.

Minecraft Dungeons is made up of story scenarios that are set in their layouts, but there are also many procedurally-generated random dungeons that change every time you enter them. The first we found was hidden in the Creepy Woods, known as the Creepy Crypt, and it was truly gargantuan. Exploring every part of it on maximum difficulty took the best part of forty minutes, and the rewards were incredibly compelling.

We got a powerful bow that produced explosions on-hit, which stacked with our various enchants to produce cascading explosions and all sorts of chaos. To add to the flavor, it was hidden away in a secret room behind a secret door, adding an element of Indiana Jones to the proceedings. We’ve seen the random dungeons spawn different types of puzzles and other sorts of traps and obstacles as well, beyond merely battling hordes of enemies.

Speaking of enemies, even in the set story levels, it seems that the types of enemies you’ll meet are randomized to a degree. On higher difficulties, you’ll start seeing purple “enchanted” enemies who come with unique modifiers, granting them specific attack bonuses. The way enemy abilities can intersect and overlap makes combat feel incredibly dynamic as well, in a way even Diablo III often doesn’t.

On the maximum difficulty available to us in the beta, Creepers were just as deadly as they are in the base game left unchecked. When combined with Evil Wizard enchantments and Spider webs holding you down, Creepers went from a nuisance to incredibly dangerous in a split second.

On top of the regular enemies, Minecraft has a range of boss-type enemies that come with far more powerful abilities and more complicated attack patterns. The only one we’ve seen so far in the beta is the Evoker, which is a more powerful type of Wizard that can summon creepy demon Cherub-like mobs that swarm you, while also producing massive jaws out of the ground that deal tremendous amounts of damage. Dodging these attacks while maintaining your damage is as fun as it is challenging, and the rewards can be oh so sweet.

Speaking of rewards, Minecraft Dungeons doesn’t have any microtransactions or “pay-to-win” elements (thankfully). All the items you obtain are found in-game, or via randomized vendors that will let you exchange emeralds for a random artefact ability or gear piece. Artefacts make up the game’s ability slots, as Minecraft Dungeons has no fixed classes, as is often the case with other similar games. Instead, you tailor your playstyle around weapon types, armor styles, and artefact skills.

If you want to make an archer, for example, you’d pick armor that increases your arrow supply and ranged damage while looking for artefacts that push melee enemies back at range. Melee attackers might want to find heavy armor and enchants that boost close-quarters combat, and so on. You may even want to make builds that revolve around special weapon types you find. The possibilities seem endless.

When making your character, the game offers a ton of skins to choose from, although it seems like some will be tied to preorder bonuses or Xbox Game Pass perks. You can always make new characters if you want to try out something new, or simply build up multiple gear sets on an existing character, using different enchants, armor, and weapons that fit your preferred playstyle. There are quite literally dozens we’ve found so far at low level, with hundreds, maybe thousands of potential combinations. Who knows how many to expect in the full game.

Minecraft Dungeons already seems to hold so much potential and promise, even via the tiny slice of the content we experienced in the game’s closed beta. The game is aiming to launch in May, after Mojang issued warnings that the current work-from-home policies hitting the world may impact the game’s final release date. It’s hitting PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC, complete with local and online play for up to four friends, and with cross-play on Xbox One and PC.

Minecraft Dungeons looks to live up to the rewarding, satisfying expectations set by the genre. I’ve rarely found myself addicted to a beta, but here we are. Considering this game is hitting every platform, complete with multiplayer, and the potential it has for post-launch updates and continuous play, I’d say Microsoft is on to a big win here.


Final Fantasy 7 Remake

Since our time with Final Fantasy 7 Remake at Gamescom 2019, we’ve had a few more hours with the game at a hands-on event.

Not only did we get to play the opening of the game, as detailed below, but we also got a chance to jump ahead to later sections where Aerith and Tifa have joined your party – and the battle with Abzu – and got to try out Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s classic mode

What we can tell you is this: FF7 Remake lives up to the hype. It’s a stunning reimagining of the game that holds so much nostalgia for many. It’s not just the aesthetic that has seen an improvement, the level of detail in cutscenes is mesmerizing and combat feels fluid – while technological advancements have been introduced which see voice-matching being more succinct and the game’s music dynamically shifting while maintaining the same melody. 

Midgar is truly brought to life, with each area within the city boasting its own personality and experience. We can’t wait to sink our teeth into the full game.

Final Fantasy 7is one of the few games that has truly worked its way into the cultural lexicon. Releasing more than 20 years ago, this timeless JRPG completely transformed the way stories in games were perceived – at least in the mainstream. This game is responsible for creating one of the most beloved narratives of all time, along with a cast of unforgettable characters that are beloved to this day. So, Square Enix has a lot to live up to with Final Fantasy 7 Remake. 

We got a chance to go hands-on with the Final Fantasy 7 Remake at Gamescom2019, and while it was a very small slice of the game – essentially a boss fight and some change – we can honestly say that the title may end up living up to all the hype leading up to it. Of course, we won’t know for sure until we get a chance to review the full game, but at least we got a taste. 

One of the biggest changes fans will immediately notice is that Final Fantasy 7 is no longer the turn-based JRPG they grew up with. Instead, the game uses a hybrid battle system that feels like a perfect mesh of action combat and slower tactical RPG gameplay. 

Essentially, you attack enemies with the Square button, use Circle to dodge and the R1 button to block. By attacking enemies and blocking attacks, you’ll build up your ATB gauge, which you can then spend using combat abilities and items. Don’t worry, Limit Breaks are still in the game, and you’ll build up your Limit Meter by taking damage, which you then spend on extremely powerful attacks. 

In our time with the game, we go to face up against the first boss, the Guard Scorpion. And, well, its a lot different than we remember. Instead of the quasi-tutorial that the boss served as in the original game, this boss fight has teeth now. If you’re not paying attention, dodging and blocking the gunfire, there’s a real chance of failure – something we expect to be amplified during more difficult fights later on in the game. 

One thing that really struck us was how good it feels to both switch between characters and issue orders. You see, whichever character you’re not controlling will automatically fight, building up their ATB gauges for future attacks. 

At any point, you can take control of that character and resume the fight as if you were building those points up yourself. Or, even if you just want to issue a quick command, you can just enter the tactical screen and issue a single command and continue fighting as a different character. It’s a fantastic way to make up for the fact that you’re not fully in control of every character like you were in the original game. 

While the combat in Final Fantasy VII Remake is definitely going to be an important aspect, this is one of the most beloved stories in video game history, so there’s a lot to live up to. 

From what we saw at Gamescom, Final Fantasy VII starts out with the same iconic train cutscene the original did, but obviously with way more modern visuals. However, in the demo played before our eyes – we only got to personally play through the boss fight at the end of the demo – there is a lot more to the world. Rather than some mysteriously connected screens due to the hardware limitations of the PlayStation, everything seems to connect in a way that makes sense. It feels more like an actual city, as the developers didn’t have to imply the spaces in between the screens. 

But, what especially reassured us that Final Fantasy’s story is intact (at least, so far), is a scene that plays out between Barrett and Cloud on an elevator, where the former tells the protagonist that Mako is the planet’s lifeblood, and the planet is screaming out in pain. Cloud, of course, shrugs it off. Admittedly, in a story that will now take multiple games to tell, this is just a tiny sliver. It is reassuring, though. 

We were told that Square Enix would be expanding the story in Midgar, a section of the original game that only took an hour or so to play through, to be its own game. We’re not sure how exactly that’s going to play out, but what we’ve seen so far was so intricately detailed that we’re sure it will be done tastefully. And, the way we look at it, as long as the central themes of the original game are firmly in place, more detail really can’t hurt.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Final Fantasy VII Remake is one of the most anticipated games of 2020. However, in our brief time with the game, we’re now reassured that the game might be able to live up to that gargantuan level of hype. 

Some JRPG purists might balk at the idea of turning Final Fantasy VII into an action RPG, but the combat system really does feel like the best of both worlds. And, beginners to the genre and series newcomers will have a much easier time getting into Final Fantasy VII than ever before.


Mario Maker 2

It’s hard to decide where to begin when talking about all the things I love about Super Mario Maker 2. It does nearly everything better than its already excellent predecessor, introducing some incredible new ideas, level styles, building items, and so much more – all while maintaining the charm of Mario games we know and love.

Despite enabling you to depart so radically from the core Mario style, even the most odd-ball levels still feel like they could belong to some lost Super Mario game. But Super Mario Maker 2 is so much more than just a way to live out your Miyamoto-esque design fantasies: there’s also a robust online mode to play against or with other people, a story mode that could almost stand as a full Mario game in its own right, and an abundance of content available to you before you even start making your first level. Like I said, I don’t even know where to begin.

Story Mode

One of most surprising new additions is Super Mario Maker 2’s story mode, which has as much depth as you’d expect from a Super Mario story: Undo Dog accidentally presses the reset button on Peach’s castle, destroying it. It’s up to Mario to make it right. To do so means beating increasingly difficult levels, which earns you coins needed to repair the castle. That’s all story mode is and that’s all it needs to be.

Essentially the story mode exists as an excuse to get you to play over 100 pre-made levels, referred to as “jobs,” most of which couldn’t exist outside the bent rules of Super Mario Maker 2. They take the classic Mario formula and use the new building elements to pull that otherwise familiar rug out from under you, with the result being hundreds of ways Super Mario Maker 2 delighted and surprised me.

There’s no central theme or structure to the levels – there isn’t a World 1-2 with a warp zone to World 4-1. Instead, each level stands on its own, and in spite of the barest of narratives, I found myself absolutely in love with the story mode. The levels are so wonderfully creative, each one using the many varied tools of Super Mario Maker 2’s maker mode to create something never seen before. It’s almost like a chef tasting: each artist has created a small dish, unfettered from the constraints of their nightly menus, and you’re lucky enough to sample the fruits of their creativity. Levels range from classic Mario platforming, to levels challenging your technical skills with precarious jumps and timing, to levels where you race on a series of bouncing platforms inside a Super Mario 3D World Koopa Car. A later level takes place entirely in a Koopa car, and it’s one of the most fluid, and most fun, levels in the game.

I mean it when I say the story mode in Super Mario Maker 2 could be its own game. After completing construction on the castle, which required me to beat over 100 levels, I still had five pages of “jobs” left to do. Completing the story unlocks a new option in your Maker levels, so there’s more reason to play through it other than “because it’s awesome.” Honestly, I hope there are more jobs to unlock beyond the ones I have, because I love playing them.

Maker’s Mark

But this is Super Mario Maker 2 after all, not Super Mario Castle Repair Simulator. It comes as no surprise that the section dedicated to crafting your own Super Mario levels is superb. Any concerns I had about controller-based input versus the 3DS and Wii U’s touch input melted away after a short period of adjustment. I actually grew to prefer using the controller to build levels over handheld’s touch input – not because touch is bad, but because using the controller is so good. There is a gentle learning curve, one that’s easy to overcome, and once I got the hang of it, I couldn’t go back. My one complaint is that handheld mode forces you to use touch for most things, with no option to use a controller at all. Again, touch interface works great, but I’m so used to building levels with my controller in docked mode that I’d like to keep that continuity when I swap between Switch modes.

The number options here for level creation are astonishing. Across the top of the screen are 12 blocks, each with an item option for building, like bricks, power-ups, enemies and such. Hitting the magnifying glass in touch, or holding down the ‘Y’ button, brings up even more choices. Options depend on what Mario style you’re using, with the 3D World items like the cat suit not usable in the 2D game styles. There are then further, nested options buried inside many of the elements: hold down the Y button over a placed green Koopa, for example, and you can turn it into a red one, or give it wings, or both. You can also choose to the make them enormous, or have them don parachutes. Those are just the options for Koopas; most elements have additional customization options available, like setting the speed of conveyor belts, or deciding whether a floating platform will move or drop when you land on it.

Some of the new options, like different angled slopes, add even more variety to your level designs. But maybe the biggest, literal game-changer comes with the new “clear conditions.” You can set exciting/simple/clever parameters that must be met in order to complete the level. For example, you can set it so players must defeat at least one Hammer Bro, or take zero hits (even when powered-up).

I haven’t seen all the clear conditions used in other people’s levels yet, but I did play an extremely fun and challenging level where Mario wasn’t allowed to jump or even so much as leave the ground. Through a clever use of environmental obstacles like seesaws, note blocks, and conveyor belts, I was forced to complete a fully realized Mario level without jumping once. EVen a bounce invalidated the run if Mario’s feet left the ground. It was part auto-Mario, part-platformer, and it was so inventive (and occasionally frustrating), I started dreaming up my own similar levels immediately after I finished. (Note: they were all bad and I deleted them.)

New switching blocks open up exciting new options for puzzle levels, and snake blocks bring a new element to the popular auto-Mario levels that eventually dominated the first game’s online community. There are also new, adjustable paths for autoscrolling levels, so you can build your very own airship armada at varying levels of altitude and set the pathway ahead of time. It’s so insanely robust and overflowing with creative options that it can occasionally seem overwhelming.

Easing that burden is maybe my favorite extra feature of Super Mario Maker 2, Yamamura’s Dojo. Yamamura is a sentient pigeon who runs a tutorial mode with the help of Nina, a human, but I feel like calling it a tutorial mode does it a real injustice. The Dojo is a game-design boot camp. Yes, there are lessons showing you the basics -how to test your levels, what to do if you mess up, and how to use the various parts and pieces – but there are also lessons on drawing inspiration for your works, giving directions to your players, and even a lesson called “Treating the Player Fairly,” where the ultimate take-away is “no one likes a troll.” Well said, Nina. Well said.

But even those are just the intermediate lessons. Advanced lessons in Yamamura’s Dojo explore more ethereal topics like pacing, effective use of clear conditions, and can even tackle philosophical game design questions like “Does the Way Forward Always Need to be Clear?”

Better still, these lessons are entirely optional. It’s up to you how much, or how little, you want to learn from some of the most creative minds in video game creation. The broader lessons on pacing and respecting the player extend beyond just Super Mario Maker 2. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re now 10 years away from game designers citing Super Mario Maker 2 and its lessons on building competent and compelling levels as the catalyst that started their careers.

Course World

Mario Maker is fundamentally about sharing and exploring levels built by other people, and the Course World section of Super Mario Maker 2 is where user-generated content lives. I liked how easy it was to browse other people’s creations, and more robust search options this time around allow you to drill down to find the exact level you want. I wanted to find a level tagged “Auto-Mario,” so I just deselected all the other tags and the search gave me what I wanted. But I could have gone to much greater lengths of specificity: if I wanted a Super Mario Bros. 3 ghost house level with an expert difficulty level created in Europe and speed-running elements, I could have found one and then sorted the results by popularity or clear rate. (Sadly, none such level existed during the review period.)

I really like Course World, and it does a good job of floating the quality levels to the top -at least during the time I played pre-launch. Playing someone else’s level, and have it be good and surprising, is a real delight. It also helps in the creative process. One of the most popular levels has a great sky castle design with a coin-collecting clear condition, and I enjoyed it so much I wanted to emulate its feel immediately. It’s just so enjoyable finding and playing other people’s levels, I would still be having a lot of fun even if I never had to build my own.

Super Mario Maker 2 is the most accessible game design tool ever created, and that core is just one part of a greater whole. I spent hours building levels, testing them, and starting over again, and I feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. The Story Mode has a basic story, sure, but it’s still a great excuse to introduce hundreds of novel, professionally made levels to play. Its design tutorials are so much more in depth than they ever needed to be, and you can take them or leave them as you see fit. Super Mario Maker 2 affords so much freedom in how you play, how you make, and even how you learn, it’s astonishing how incredibly well it’s all held together in one cohesive package.


Overcooked 2

In many ways, playing Overcooked 2 is like returning to a favourite restaurant after a long absence and ordering what you always used to have. The comfort of familiar, nourishing food is hugely enjoyable, of course, but it’s the sense of coming back to something that’s truly special. When playing Overcooked 2 there’s a lot more shouting and swearing, but the principle is the same – this sequel is strikingly similar to the first game, but a few well-chosen additions and refinements breathe new life into one of the best couch co-op experiences going.

For its part, Overcooked 2 assumes its players are already familiar with the first game and isn’t shy about ramping up the difficulty early on. This means a steeper learning curve for anybody new to the series, but on the whole it’s a good thing – before you’ve so much as finished the first game world, you’re already tackling more intricate recipes and employing far more advanced strategies than the equivalent stages in the first Overcooked.

New recipes include sushi, pasta and steamed dumplings, while returning favourites such as burgers and pizza feature additional ingredients to make things a little more fiddly. Right from the get-go, then, Overcooked 2 demands more from its players. Add some truly ambitious level layouts to the mix and it comes as no surprise that the ‘food burning/fire imminent’ alarm is one you’ll be hearing a lot more in Overcooked 2. Moving parts and sudden divides are nothing new to seasoned players, of course, but these obstacles are now more numerous – and nefarious – than ever.

One, for instance, has you making fried chicken and chips while the team is split in two and housed on a pair of rafts floating down a river (or later, a swamp). With ingredients kept separate from cooking stations, it’s a frenzy of ferrying things back and forth in order to fulfil the most basic of orders. I went back to the first Overcooked to refresh my memory before writing this, finding some levels I used to think were pretty challenging now seem simplistic by comparison.

Overcooked 2 is definitely a more challenging game, but happily its chefs are also better prepared. New to the sequel is the ability to toss raw ingredients to one another / around the kitchen willy-nilly. Where before ingredients had to be walked all the way to their destination, throwing gives a huge boost to players’ manoeuvrability and versatility. That chicken and chips on a raft level I mentioned earlier? You can speed things up by bunging ingredients at one another and – if you’re really good – you can even chuck things straight into the fryer. Lobbing things around is also a tremendous way to wind up your opponents in versus mode, which I’ll return to shortly.

I have only one gripe with Overcooked 2, and that is with the speed the plates come back. I realise that sounds extraordinarily petty, but stick with me on this one. The joy in Overcooked 2 is that it’s a game of simple systems that have to be manipulated in tandem. When this works well it’s great, and when they break down it’s also great – in fact, that’s where the most memorable bits of Overcooked come from.

Those failures, however, have to come from the player – the moment the game itself causes a hitch or delay in the flow of these systems, it effectively shoves another chef into the kitchen: an extra person who isn’t pulling their weight, only it’s not someone you do anything about. In Overcooked 2, it’s the plate return speed that’s at fault. At several points while playing with friends we found ourselves ready to serve dishes, only to find there weren’t any plates left – not even dirty ones. Occasionally, it felt like we were working in a restaurant that only had two plates to go around and it really slowed us down. It’s a relatively minor problem – it never stopped us passing a level, for instance – but it can feel frustrating.

As well as the ability to throw tomatoes at your colleagues while waiting for plates, Overcooked 2 also introduces online play. This ran swiftly and smoothly when I tested it out, swiftly matching me and Eurogamer editor Oli with two opponents for a kitchen showdown. We quickly learned Overcooked is a very different beast when played over the internet rather than in the same room – mainly because it’s far easier to shout at someone when you’re sitting next to them. To make up for a lack of voice communication, Overcooked 2 allows you to emote – saying things like preparing, cooking or serving. After spending so many hours jabbering non-stop, it’s bizarre to be navigating a kitchen in total silence, but it’s also surprisingly effective. With emoting taking up precious time and shouting not an option, it forces you to pay attention to what the other chef is up to – responding to their needs and going where they aren’t, while they try to do the same. It’s a breath of fresh air in a game in which players often seek to delegate – yelling ‘we need lettuce’ without checking to see whether anyone has actually gone to chop some now one chef has loudly absolved themselves of any responsibility (Gretchen, if you’re reading this, I forgive you).

On the flip side of the burger, playing online made me realise the limitations of the in-game emotes. While useful, they only really allow players to narrate what it is they are doing – which, to be frank, should already be obvious. While delegating is a pain in Overcooked (seriously Gretchen it’s fine, let’s just forget about it), occasionally people do need to be prompted – if they’re the only one with access to a particular ingredient, say – and not having a clear way of doing that is a bit of a frustration.

But then Overcooked 2 over the internet was never going to match the fun of playing it in a room with some friends and it’s there that this excels all over again. Overcooked 2 may be more of an improved recipe than a completely new menu, but it remains an excellent sequel and a delightful co-op experience.