Minecraft Legends Review – Tides Of War

Taking the world and characters of the original Minecraft, a sandbox block builder, and putting them into a real-time strategy game with action elements is–while certainly a cool-sounding idea–an experimental move. Sadly, it’s one that doesn’t quite pay off in Minecraft Legends as the simple action elements actively detract from the more tantalizing possibilities present on the strategy side. However, it has good ideas outside the story-driven campaign that keep the game from descending into an absolute slog of an experience.

In the story campaign, you play as a denizen of the original Minecraft, who is plucked from your time and transported back to an older version of the Overworld that has long since passed into legend. This Overworld is overseen by Foresight, Action, and Knowledge–three deities who each add a dash of charm to an otherwise straightforward story of good versus evil. The simple villagers and animals are under attack by the Piglins, who are constructing portals across the land and building machines that make everything more like the Nether. In a final act of resistance, Foresight, Action, and Knowledge call on you and your building smarts to construct defenses, Golem soldiers, and war machines to slaughter the invading forces.

It’s a fantastic concept that’s made even better when the game dips into the more absurd elements–you can build giant redstone-powered cannons to lay waste to entire battalions of enemy Piglins one explosive shell at a time, for example, or construct ludicrously giant wooden bridges to safely transport troops over whole stretches of mountainous terrain. And having the chance to forge alliances with normally antagonistic Minecraft creatures, like the surprisingly honorable Skeletons and all-too-eager-to-die-for-the-cause Creepers, is also enjoyably silly.

To war!
To war!

As creative as all that is, though, Minecraft Legends simplifies its real-time strategy elements too much for that side of the game to be fun. Although this better highlights the action side of the game, where you battle your enemies alongside your troops, forcing you to split your time between directing your mindless soldiers and actually fighting, this can frequently feel like a distraction as opposed to a seamless and symbiotic back-and-forth. It’s not an entirely novel concept, as other games have also moved away from the player being an omnipresent god who looks down upon the world like an all-knowing puppeteer–but it’s not executed well here.

I like the idea of making the player an everyman general who moves throughout the world and fights alongside their troops. And, in practice, this does create moments of epic warfare. Since you can only direct troops who are following you and you have to walk up to units and give them the “Follow Me!” command to get them to fall in line behind you, the start of each battle typically begins with you waving your banner and trumpeting the war to come, and then rushing toward the enemy with dozens of troops at your side. It’s a pretty cool feeling to gallop toward a sea of Piglins with a horde of Minecraft creatures at your back, only for both forces to crash into each other with murderous intent.

But that feeling of empowerment all comes crashing down once the actual battle is underway. Beyond getting your troops to follow you, the only other command you can give them is to charge. There’s some nuance to this command–you can specifically choose to only send one of your melee fighters forward, for example–but there’s no way to give orders more specific than that and better take advantage of each unit’s unique strengths. The result is a hodgepodge of Minecraft creatures beating the snot out of each other in a jumbled mess, which you can join in on with your trusty sword. It’s funny the first handful of times, but after that, it’s just the tedium of repeating the cycle: summoning troops, sending them off to battle, creating more troops, and leading them to the grinder.

Frustratingly, you can’t build on the land corrupted by the Nether, either, meaning most of every battle is spent running back and forth between the actual fray and greener pastures where you’ve set up the spawners for your troops. You can unlock a way to revert Nether-corrupted blocks back to their normal state, creating a way to build resources closer to the fight, but it’s tedious and grinds the excitement of battle to a halt.

Minecraft Legends' story campaign isn't that great.
Minecraft Legends’ story campaign isn’t that great.

The game gently forces you to contend with that tedium, however. Your troops are brainless without you, and if they finish destroying an enemy structure or killing all the enemies in an area, they’ll sit there and wait for you to direct them again. To keep the battle in your favor, you have to regularly get into the mix and tell your soldiers to go here, and now there, and now over here. Admittedly, this is how most real-time strategy games work, but the big difference with Minecraft Legends is that you aren’t quickly jumping around the battlefield. Instead, you have to gallop on your horse to reach each group, slowing your ability to quickly command multiple units and making it difficult to put strategies into motion.

There’s no way to give orders from a distance or call your soldiers to come to your side either. The most you can do is go up to one of the unit spawners you’ve created, where you have the option to recall all soldiers to you. And that’s not something you regularly want to do since, again, your spawners are usually built a Nether field away from the fight at hand–calling all your soldiers to you would only remove them from the battle you’re planning on leading them to.

In the moment-to-moment gameplay, leaving the battle to spawn more troops or command your redstone cannons can mean leaving your soldiers alone for a whole minute at a time–potentially a death sentence for those under your command. If you don’t take steps to cleanse the Nether–especially around larger Piglins bases where the field of Nether that extends around them is massive–you won’t be able to move your structures closer to the actual battle, and you’ll end up spending most of the fight just running back-and-forth between the Piglins base and yours, barking out general orders to whoever is still alive every time you return to the front lines.

The reward for going through the effort of capturing an enemy base is worth it at least. Stopping the Piglins in their tracks is the only way to earn the necessary resources for expanding your inventory or unlocking the necessary tools to gather the resources to build new types of units and structures. You still run into the same problem of not being able to easily build them close to where you want them, but it’s always nice to have new toys to play with.

Building and defending bases are the best part of Minecraft Legends.
Building and defending bases are the best part of Minecraft Legends.

When you’re not waging war or enduring a siege, most of your time in Minecraft Legends’ story campaign is spent exploring the world and collecting resources. The world is colorful and vibrant, with Minecraft’s recognizable blocks stacked into gorgeous vistas, precarious canyons, murky swamps, and majestic forests. Unlike Minecraft, you don’t have to mine individual blocks to gather their contents. Instead, you have a select amount of tiny helpers you can direct to collect all the available resources in a given space and automatically add them to your inventory. This is especially helpful in combat situations when you’re running low on resources, as you can run out to a nearby forest or cliff face and command your helpers to gather wood and stone while you return to the fray. That said, a big part of Minecraft’s slow but personal resource-collecting process is that it encourages you to really explore and understand the world you’ve fallen into–you come to know it after spending many hours in it. In comparison, I don’t feel such a connection to the world of Minecraft Legends, as this truncated variation of the original game’s resource-collecting system is far less personal and intimate. It’s not a bad system by any means–it works as intended–but I couldn’t shake the feeling that a crucial part of the Minecraft experience was lost.

A lot of the issues in the story campaign are mediated by the drop-in/drop-out co-op multiplayer where a combination of players can work together, splitting their attention between commanding soldiers and building structures. For the player wanting (or needing) to play Minecraft Legends solo, however, there’s no easy way to avoid the shortcomings of the combat mechanics. Granted, these shortcomings are largely the result of Minecraft Legends simplifying the oftentimes systems-heavy gameplay loop of real-time strategy games to be more approachable and welcoming to players new to the genre. And that is great. Nonetheless, the campaign doesn’t build beyond these simple beginnings to address its shortcomings–whether with more complex systems or something else–causing the gameplay loop of the story campaign at least to stagnate, especially if you’re playing on your own.

As you wage war on the Piglins, they in turn enact their own machinations, slowly spreading their influence across the continent. Each army is overseen by a different general with their own brand of fighting, whether that’s building especially high walls and numerous defenses or implementing a nimble fighting force that quickly moves across the land in pursuit of any perceived threat. As each army expands, they’ll mount attacks on peaceful villages under your protection. Early warning systems will alert you to these attacks, allowing you to travel to an ally under siege and defend them, flipping the normal combat loop and putting you on the defensive.

Minecraft Legends’ combat works way better under this format. Each village is small enough to keep you close to both the battle at hand and the structures you’ve built, but since Piglins can attack from any direction and typically do so in waves, it forces you to still be strategic. Do you use the last of the wood in your inventory to shore up that wall that’s about to break in this wave, for instance, or is it better spent building more unit spawners in preparation for the next wave? It’s also easier to take advantage of the game’s ability to disassemble structures to recoup resources and build them somewhere else when you have a more comprehensive view of your surroundings and the state of the battle. If you defend friendly villages, their inhabitants will gather rare Minecraft blocks like iron and redstone as thanks, incentivizing you to keep checking up on them and stop any approaching Piglin armies.

It's certainly a pretty game.
It’s certainly a pretty game.

You can find more of this tower defense format in Minecraft Legends’ first Lost Legends, Portal Pile. Lost Legends are post-launch challenges that will release on a monthly basis. Portal Pile is a 10-wave tower defense mission where you have to defend a single village from a massive Piglin horde spilling out of three separate portals for as long as you can. This mission escalates Minecraft Legends’ challenge significantly, encouraging you to make snap decisions and respond to threats with ingenuity instead of brute force. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you’ve got a partner or two working with you to make the mission more surmountable. I’m sure it’s possible to complete all 10 waves on your own but I haven’t managed to do it–if this first Lost Legend is any indication, these post-launch challenges will be far more difficult and strategy-oriented than the gameplay loop of the story campaign. Only having one of these at launch means this option grows stale fairly quickly for audiences wanting something more than the easy-to-pick-up but shallow gameplay of the main story campaign, but it’s far and away the most enjoyment I’ve found in Minecraft Legends and a hopeful indication of the game’s future.

Additionally, Minecraft Legends has a Versus mode for players hoping to take the skills they’ve accumulated in the story campaign and use them on others in PvP. Versus sees six to eight players in teams of three or four face off. Each side must work together to defend their tower while attacking the opposing team’s tower, taking any wandering Piglin into account as well. I like the set-up of Versus–especially since an opposing player can prove to be a more clever opponent than a bunch of Piglin–but oftentimes the mode suffers from putting opposing bases far apart, giving time for both teams to build rows of walls and dozens of arrow-firing towers. At that point, the flow of the match can stall into a stalemate as both sides just throw their respective units at each other in the hope of breaking the deadlock. Ground gained can be quickly dashed by an opponent shoring up a broken wall or building another arrow-firing tower. It’s far faster to build structures than it is to destroy them, meaning two well-defended fortresses can each endure for quite a while–sometimes long enough for players to get fed up enough to just leave the match.

There’s a lot of good in Minecraft Legends. The absurdity of the game is delightful at times and the tower-defense elements in both the story campaign and the first Lost Legends challenge are a taste of how the combat system can excel in the right scenario. But the story campaign’s regular gameplay loop of tracking down enemy bases and overthrowing them can become tedious, especially in battles when there’s a huge field of Nether between you and your foe. Gathering resources, while enjoyably quick and easy, feels so impersonal as well, making it difficult to appreciate the vibrant world you’re slowly chiseling away in your war with the Piglins. The pieces to a good game are here; they just aren’t yet built into a structure sound enough for me to want to spend a lot of time in it.

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