Minecraft: Story Mode – Episode 1
I’ll admit it; I was skeptical when Minecraft: Story Mode was first announced. I’ve put dozens upon dozens of hours into Minecraft over the years and across platforms. Generating a new world, building a shabby little hut, and gazing out at the moon as you await sunrise has become a quintessential modern gaming experience. Even still, cachet and an acclaimed developer weren’t enough to sell me on a narrative driven adventure sourced from a game absent of story. Could Telltale really translate their developmental acumen to a project of wildly different tone and scope from recent releases? My doubts laid dormant for many months, but now Story Mode is here and Telltale mostly delivers. Story Mode – Episode 1 is a family-friendly romp through the world of Minecraft not without missteps, but with enough success to excite me for later episodes.
The premier episode of Story Mode introduces Jesse, voiced by Patton Oswalt (the female version by Catherine Taber), and his intrepid band of friends and newbie Minecraft players – Oliva, Axel, Petra, and Lukas. Jesse and friends are seeking members of the legendary Order of the Stone to save their world from destruction. Evildoers appearing and a hero emerging to save the world is a pretty well-trod concept, but it affords later episodes a lot of leeway in where to go. Even so, the story itself neither being unique nor self-aware takes away from the overall experience.
Oswalt (or Taber) and Ashley Johnson, the voice of Petra, are standouts among the cast, delivering lines expertly and giving their characters the layers of depth we’ve come to expect from these talented performers. The interactions between Jesse and Petra are the highlights of the episode. Axel, voiced by Brian Posehn, is similarly compelling, beginning the episode as a stock meat-head character and ending as loyal friend to Jesse; however, the rest of the supporting cast is largely forgettable. The antagonistic members of Lukas’ posse are exceedingly boring, and the villain, Ivor, schemes superficially.
Story Mode is a mixed bag; when it works, it works and it’s charming – but it doesn’t always work. Jokes sometimes fall flat. Choices aren’t always significant. Desperately wanting to appeal to a younger audience while keeping the tension up and stakes high, Story Mode has an identity crisis. Moments like an enormous Wither rampaging through a packed convention center do feel epic, but the lighthearted nature of the game somewhat tempers any real sense of danger. Lighthearted is by no means always a bad thing though, the value of friendship and finding a secure sense of self are important and compelling themes to explore. Telltale only needs to find a balance engaging the player with action while maintaining a consistent tone.
Less varied in quality is the game’s soundtrack. Story Mode takes the spirit of the music of Minecraft, ambient, complimentary instrumentals suited to the background, and transports them into great sounding jazzy drum and bass tracks. With flourishes at all the right times and a touch of electronica, music punctuates important moments and otherwise pleasantly fades into the sidelines.
Story Mode looks and runs great too. The assets of Minecraft are understandably less graphically intensive and as a result, I only noticed a very minor slowdown or two. Weirdly enough, the game often neglected to treat the bodies of characters as physical objects. All games are guilty of this to some extent, and animating blocks to look and work like people is no easy task, but something so fundamental as looking down always resulting in body parts colliding was a little distracting. Otherwise, I found Story Mode to be the most polished, smooth release from Telltale in years.
Story Mode – Episode 1 hits or misses with its characters and presents a relatively anemic plot for later episodes to build on; less immediately captivating than its predecessors, yes, but Telltale has set out to find the perfect blend of action and heart – they haven’t found it yet – but in later episodes they just might.