Minecraft Story Mode, Episode One: The Order of the Stone Review (PC)
The movies of the 1980s taught us many things, but in particular there were two key takeaways. One is that montages are awesome and make even the most mundane things cool when set to the right music. The other is that there is no greater adventure than the one you embark upon with your closest friends. Taking inspiration from the golden age of teen cinema, where movies like The Goonies, Explorers and Stand By Me ruled, Minecraft Story Mode sends you on a grand adventure through the voxel-based world. While putting a story to Minecraft might seem counterintuitive to the core game's design, the team at Telltale has proven they can make a great story out of anything. And yes, that now includes Minecraft.
The world of Minecraft is a blank slate, and not just from a do-it-yourself perspective. The incredibly popular creation game leaves almost everything to the users, including creating stories for their own worlds. Telltale isn't the first to attempt to put a narrative net around Minecraft (there have been numerous books based in this universe already), but it is the first official pass at creating not just a single story, but in fleshing out the entire universe of Minecraft. Telltale does what it does best, and sticks tightly to a small group of characters, while only hinting at the massive scale and scope of the world they all live in. Instead of trying to explain every single aspect, this focused take puts the spotlight on character and relationships, and isn't very concerned with detailing the hows and whys of Telltale's carefully-constructed Minecraft world.
Players take on the role of Jesse, who can be either a boy or a girl (and from one of three different races, too). Jesse and her friends are eager builders, though they haven't achieved very much compared to other groups of would-be constructors. The friends are hoping to win a local building competition to gain entry to Ender Con, a convention of some sort where one of the fabled members of the Order of the Stone will be appearing. The Order of the Stone is a famous group of heroes that traveled to the Nether, battled an Ender Dragon many years ago, and returned to great acclaim from the public. The world-building Telltale has done goes far beyond just a simple journey for a tight-knit group of kids. There's a mythology in place, which means there's also a history that will be uncovered slowly as the adventure continues.
Of course, all of that backstory is just that. Telltale doesn't take much time to address just the world outside of the purview of Jesse and her friends. We care about what they care about because they're all we know so far. While the characters aren't developed much beyond rough archetypes, there's a lot of time for us to become better-acquainted with Jesse, Axel, Olivia, Petra and Lukas. If we're using something like The Goonies as a template here, we didn't know much about that gang up to the point where they found One-eyed Willy's map in the attic. That's about far into Jesse's story we get before the episode ends, though the stakes are much higher in Story Mode thanks to a crucial twist that sets our heroes on their world-spanning quest.
Like previous efforts from Telltale, Story Mode perfectly fits in with the aesthetic of the established Minecraft milieu. It's actually quite impressive to wander around Telltale's version of this world and see all the amazing structures and locales built specifically to make it feel like a real place. In the base game, there's so much left up to you, it can be a bit overwhelming. Just seeing the first few locations here makes you wonder how many hours Telltale spent visualizing this particular world map, and figuring out how structures like the convention center and the Order of the Stone's temple would be realized.
The puzzle-solving is light in this first episode, and mostly revolves around crafting specific items to get through a challenge. Unlike the core game, crafting here is much easier thanks to the assets being readily available to you when the time calls. There are some nice touches here for devoted Minecraft fans, including a montage where the kids need to gather supplies. That means there's a good bit of tree punching, sheep shearing, and stone mining to get things done. The time-lapsed building sequences are also fun to watch, as intricate structures come to life in seconds thanks to the skills of Jesse and her friends. If you were hoping to do much building on your own, that's not something you'll find here. This is still a Telltale game after all, and it's more about the decisions you make than crafting things from scratch.
Minecraft Story Mode seemed like a strange choice for a new game from Telltale, but the developer proved again that it's more than capable of creating compelling stories in all manner of arenas. Story Mode is fun and light-hearted, and rekindles those feelings of excitement and adventure you had with friends when you were a kid. It may wear its influences on its sleeve, but that's not such a bad thing when it's handled so well. There's an epic journey awaiting our heroes in the episodes ahead, and though the characters are a bit under-developed in this first chapter, there's plenty of time for Telltale's latest protagonists to grow. Provided they survive long enough for us to get to know them.
This review was completed with a digital copy of Minecraft Story Mode, Episode One provided by the publisher for PC.