That was a good choice!
HIGH W: Fighting the monster in the temple!
LOW W: Waiting for the next episode!
WTF B: Watching my son not share his cookie.
After getting a hands-on with Minecraft: Story Mode at the most recent PAX and speaking with Telltale reps about the game's focus on kids and families, I got the idea that I should do something a little different with this review, and that's exactly what I did.
Although I've played Minecraft proper and have enjoyed it in the past, my kids have spent far more time with it, and are more enthusiastic about the IP than I am. As such, I recruited my six-year-old son Whittaker to play the game while I sat beside him and took notes.
Before getting to what he had to say, prospective players should know that Minecraft: Story Mode is another choice-focused cinematic title from the people who made a splash with The Walking Dead. Ironically there are still zombies this time around, but there are a lot less of them, and they're way less vicious.
No, the real focus of Story Mode is on main character Jesse and his or her group of friends. In a first for Telltale, the main character's gender and race are selectable at the beginning of the game—a great addition! Regardless of what the player chooses, this blocky bunch of kids goes to a local festival and gets caught up in a surprise disaster. They're then tasked with finding the land's lost heroes, a group called The Order of the Stone.
The structure of the game is similar to any other recent Telltale effort—the story unfolds, the player chooses dialogue options, important events are "remembered" by key characters, and QTEs replace standard gameplay. Structurally, it's right in line with what they've been doing for a while, but Minecraft as the subject is what's unusual. After all, Notch's claim to fame isn't exactly known for its characters or narrative.
So, what did my son think? Well, he started off being pretty confused.
This was his first experience with cinematic adventure, and he didn't quite grasp what was going on right away. Since it looked so much like standard Minecraft, he kept asking when he was going to get to build something, or when he was going to be able to move the camera and walk around the world. We paused and I took a few minutes to explain what the game was, but I wasn't sure he'd click with it. To his credit, he hung in there and after the first major action sequence, he was hooked.
Since Telltale's formula is so familiar to most grown-up players these days, I decided to skip the usual breakdown and focus on it from a parent's perspective—what worked for my son and what didn't. It seemed only appropriate since I'm guessing Story Mode will have more than a few little ones wanting to play.
The first thing that stood out? Time limits for choosing dialogue don't work for youngsters, especially ones like mine who are still beginning readers. I let him handle the first few chat choices on his own, but the timer ran out before he read and comprehended his options. We ended up with a compromise where I would speed-read the choices and he would decide himself, but I would love a special "kids" mode where the timer was removed. I understand the value of adding urgency to conversations, but for something with child appeal like Story Mode, it seems more important to make sure little ones are able to read what's going on.
I also noticed that many elements that are old hat to Telltale vets were unfamiliar to him, and it felt like the game didn't make any special effort to acclimate newcomers. For example, although he's seen QTEs before, more warning that they may be coming would be welcome. The directional arrows that appear on-screen aren't amazingly readable, and the sequences where the player must aim the cursor at a specific place and click the action button caught my son completely by surprise. These bits were usually over before I could coach him through them, so just like with the dialogue, I'd like a mode where the timer is removed. At the very least, I'd like to see the game clearly telegraph these mechanics before they actually "count" in the story.
Despite those criticisms, my son had an absolute blast. He adored the action, and while the story got a little dry at times, he was able to follow most of it and stayed interested in seeing what happened next. Older gamers who aren't Minecraft devotees may find Story Mode skewing a bit young, but that's quite all right. We've had plenty of mature offerings lately, and it's great to have something that's fit for families and kids. If my son's shock and dismay at having to wait for the next episode is any indication, Telltale's got another hit on their hands.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 2 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the episode was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: fantasy violence and mild language. If your kids play Minecraft then everything here will be quite alright. It's all about lightly whacking a few zombies with a wooden sword, or dodging some angry tentacles— super harmless stuff, if you ask me. I didn't notice any salty language at all, unless you count "stupid" as a cuss word. It's totally fine for all ages.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: While sound is not necessary for successful play, Telltale (again!) chooses to subtitle audio in the background rather than what the characters are saying in the forefront. I have no idea how or why this happens, but it's maddening. Thankfully it only happens two or three times in the episode so it's not a huge problem, but it's still baffling. In general, though, it's fully accessible.
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