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Minecraft Legends (XS)

By Lee Mehr 20th May 2023 | 3,317 views 

The building blocks of Legends' personality and hybrid design are there, but Mojang & Blackbird fumbled with this blueprint.

Mojang is at it again.  On those off days when the Minecraft IP isn't discovering a new avenue for merchandising or being natively ported to every bootleg Eastern European console, this iconic universe is being refashioned into another genre hybrid of sorts.  While the first breakthrough with Minecraft Dungeons aping Diablo's template felt limited by meager launch content and mechanical simplicity (though I still respect Stephen LaGioia's thoughts), perhaps Legends' marketed 'action-strategy' mechanics could find stronger footing – especially with Blackbird Interactive as co-developers.  Sadly, just like the seemingly contradictory genre description, it eventually buckles under its own weight.

The piglins are coming!  The piglins are coming!  Those porcine enemies have escaped The Nether and are wreaking havoc across The Overworld.  The elemental guardians of the land - Foresight, Knowledge, and Action - call upon your not-yet-selected character template to save their lands from doom.  There's not much beyond the broad strokes of combatting evil and seeing the piglin leaders pantomime their petty grievances, but it provides enough incentive to push forward.

So what’s an action-strategy game, exactly?  Rather than a zoomed-out viewpoint, the default camera is plopped behind you like a 3rd-person action game.  While navigating a procedurally-generated map on horseback, you're called on to harry enemy outposts by day and defend friendly villages from nighttime raids.  There's a nice flow to it early on: gathering resources is done by calling harvesters to a specific grid (seen through the clean UI), assembling a minion horde is ready in seconds, and modest spacing between locations gives ample time to explore off the beaten path.  It captures that initial sell of summoning a small battalion to rid the land of unclean swine.

These battalions are nothing without a leader's commands though.  Therein lies the rub: even with rather basic commands, like rally around or attack a specific point, you're dealing with cumbersome command mechanics.  Like a typical strategy game, it's possible to have different units focus on specific tasks, but it feels unwieldy to do much except mosh-pit everyone to the next enemy wave or next battlement.  And your friendlies can often act insanely stupid – even disregarding self-preservation.  This issue was epitomized for me when I tried taking down the first Nether Portal.  The game alleges your golem minions, friendly creepers, and skeletons can all fight as one to take down this scourge; what's shown in action is groups of creepers and skeletons picking their noses until you rally them and hope they don’t tumble into the base's lava moat while crossing a bridge.  It never captures that sense of precise, meaningful collab-boar-ation.

Of course, I'd be fooling myself to expect Command & Conquer-level tactics in a cutesy, E-rated game about squashing a pig army.  Incorporating a "Baby’s First…" mentality into these spin-offs is part of the appeal.  It's easy to slot the wood golems as the ranged attacker, stone golems for smashing buildings, mossy golems for healing & removing debuffs, and so on.  But that shouldn't mean experimentation becomes a bigger burden to execute and one that's ultimately futile.  After unlocking the Minecraft-flavored trebuchet, I reflexively thought it'd be a great way to pummel defenses from afar; in action, mediocre range and protracted reload speed make it such a waste to babysit from sow-er piglin mobs.  Even flavorful extras like buffing golem stats or tweaking builds aren't really here.  It's more about ballooning your numbers.

The quickest way of trudging through enemy outposts is essentially golem-blitzkrieg: max out resources, build golem spawners right outside the piglin area, cut down any secondary defenses in your path towards the center, retreat to recoup lost forces when needed, and then finally reach and destroy the nexus.  Everything else disappears once the heart is destroyed.  To be clear, the bases themselves are varied: different infantry spawners, gas exhaust vents, arrow towers, and later additions like shield generators.  Even geographical differences, like a mountainside outpost, crop up now and again; that said, most aesthetic and mechanical changeups simply serve as speedbumps to the same monotonous stratagem.

While the routine doesn't go away when defending settlements, tapping into Minecraft's building aspect feels more engaging.  Maintaining a flow state of scouring the world, summoning passive resource harvesters, and enclosing a town with barriers and defenses tickles a special part of the brain.  Even the freedom of how you wish to stand guard is engaging on its own.  I can imagine a nutty guy spending hours enclosing each village strictly with arrow towers (which only take up a 2x2 block); should they get more spicy, throw in a few supplementary structures that buff said towers.  These hare-brained schemes are rewarding to consider, especially when you're scrambling to prepare at the start, but as you grow more competent your physical presence becomes more negligible.  Your defensive acumen grows so exponentially that you'll wait out the clock while automated guard towers do the rest.

Such inconsistent quality between different systems takes a more annoying turn when asking why Mojang & Blackbird implemented several odd rules.  Why after the starting hours of hacking away lesser piglins does my sword do nothing against beefier foes?  Well, perhaps to push me more towards being an active strategist.  Why are outpost guard gates so finicky with opening and closing?  Well, likely to force players to appreciate stone golems breaking structures down.  That's fine, but that also means when I pre-emptively dashed past one I couldn't get out before said golems were wiped; and since I couldn't build a ramp to escape, I just had to die and respawn.  It doesn't take long to notice these micro-annoyances (mostly regarding combat) build up and make you question the thought process.

For all the criticisms against Legends' design & mechanics, it's tougher to raise a peep against its presentation.  Of course this is the same Minecraft known the world over, from block-shaped environments to block-headed wildlife.  Minecraft Dungeons – naturally – retained that aesthetic, but the thing I appreciate more here is re-capturing the original’s scope.  Dungeons' quasi-linearity and isometric camera never enabled it to put you in awe of the nearby expanse; conversely, here you'll likely go through 2-3 distinct biomes while traveling on horseback to another village.  Beyond the variety and expansiveness, something about the subtle cel-shaded art style makes the world pop even more. 

Of course, this is complimented by the expected Minecraft soundscape too.  Any longtime fan will spot that most qualities sound familiar, but with an increased amount of complexity.  The scale of certain battles with so many elements simultaneously running (except when friendly & enemy AI run in circles) can feel quite hectic.  The bombast is complimented by Crispin Hands' surprisingly-good soundtrack too.  While it keeps to the typical themes of an all-ages fantasy adventure – booming chorus for "scary" piglens, serene wind instruments, and so on, it's also more dynamic and imposing than it has any right to be.

PvP might prove to be a stronger reason to continually return, given the inherent tension in knowing another four-member squad (maximum) is hunting you down alongside enemy piglins.  The more facetious side of me might even say it's funny to think of your enemies also struggling with the annoying strategy systems.  Either way, the fun of separating tasks and responding to evolving circumstances with friends is the type of addition I feel is more of a nice bauble, but can also see its longstanding potential for many fans.

Perhaps my current outlook stems back to something that's been endemic to this IP: the Games as a Service (GaaS) content model.  One could argue the intent of evolving Minecraft began at the original’s 1.0 start, but boundless potential was there without The Ender Dragon or other new stuff.  Contrast that with Dungeons' slim start and you can tell the latter had to grow to fully capture its identity; I don't believe Dungeons survives contemporary scrutiny without the updates and subsequent Ultimate Edition.  While not being as skinny by comparison, I still slot Legends is in a similar boat – especially for hopeful gameplay tweaks, but that's a tougher pill to swallow with $40 Standard/$50 Deluxe starting price points. 

While it's a shame to see a repeat of the GaaS structure that limited Dungeons' launch-window appeal, Minecraft Legends also doesn't command this action-strategy template with the intense care required.  It's striving to pare down real-time strategy to its basic elements, but can't avoid feeling repetitive with its mission design and effective tactics.  It's neat how 3rd-person action is incorporated, but confounding design decisions limit its ultimate utility and fun.  The building blocks of its personality and hybrid design are there, but Mojang & Blackbird fumbled with the blueprint.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

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This review is based on a digital copy of Minecraft Legends for the XS

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