I rarely feel as if I'm in complete control in Minecraft Legends. This general sense of disengagement makes for a somewhat disorienting real-time strategy experience, where leading mobs of the Minecraft Overworld against invading Piglin armies can be a thankless, weightless endeavor. For all the movement requests and battle orders I issued, awkwardly maneuvering small battalions between points of destructive interest, oftentimes at the whims of disinterested artificial intelligence, there were few occasions that required creative action or strategic thinking.
Release date: April 18, 2023
Platform(s): Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PC, PS5, PS4, Switch
Developer: Blackbird Interactive, Mojang Studios
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Few franchises have the global reach of Minecraft. The average age of players may sit around the 24-year marker, but the sandbox has survived the slow decay of time because it is truly enjoyed by kids of all ages. That broad scale of active Minecraft participants was always going to make the construction of an approachable RTS a challenge for the development partners at Blackbird Interactive and Mojang Studios. This genre is renowned for the depth and complexity it is able to offer, and stripping it back to the barest of essentials has proven itself to be a valiant pursuit fraught with pitfalls.
Tear it all down
Minecraft Legends frames its action around a central hero. This has a grounding effect, making the commander an active participant rather than a disembodied overseer. You're able to directly rally Creepers, Skeletons, Warriors, Zombies, and elemental Golems into uneasy alliances, and freely explore beautiful procedurally-generated worlds. Once combat begins, you can haphazardly hack at swarming mobs of enemies with a diamond sword, or prioritize the armaments your assembled mob should attack next. This intimate view of the action heightens immersion, but it's also limiting from a strategic standpoint.
Acting as the tip of the spear for an army of Minecraft mobs quickly loses its luster when you need to be within striking distance of a unit to issue one of three quick-command types (rally, halt, and charge). A 'Banner View' can be activated for a slightly wider overview, although the act of directing individual mobs towards specific targets is fraught with frustrations. This view fails to slow combat – surely a capitulation to Minecraft Legends' cooperative configurations – and directly impacts your survivability; your hero has limited health, which is easily drained by enemies as you attempt to drag a finicky cursor across the screen to leverage even the smallest amount of control over your forces.
Mojang pitched Minecraft Legends as an action-strategy game, but this alliance of styles is more uncomfortable than I expected. The lack of any discernible character customization or progression systems makes your presence feel perfunctory, and you aren't able to deal enough direct damage to justify your position in the firing line. A restricted field of vision impacts your ability to widely assess shifting combat conditions which, when combined with a limited number of command inputs, ensures that there isn't enough depth to properly facilitate the execution of divergent strategies.
Rally the troops
Mileage can vary in PvP, where players are free to build wildly complicated defensive patterns for you to grind units against, but I didn't find a campaign encounter that couldn't be overcome by an army of Stone Golems and a Redstone Launcher. Combat is not only shallow, but requires a dreary amount of repetition to see scenarios through. Your army has to be constantly handheld, owing to AI models that rarely engage with anything around them. Units ignore enemy mobs not an inch away. They stand idly as they're shot with arrows. Should they fall from a height, they won't return to their intended destination of their own volition – forcing you to leave the fight, scoop them up, and manually lead them back up user-generated ramps. Minecraft Legends is hours of pointing, clicking, and hoping for the best.
You're frequently tasked with playing the role of attacker and defender in Minecraft Legends. The use of a Legendary Lute allows you to command Allays, the mobs which facilitate the mining of local resources and building of vital structures. Gathered wood is transformed into walls and arrow turrets; stone and iron can be put towards the building of a Masonry to reinforce structures, and so on. You're able to physically plot the position of defenses and watch as they gradually materialize before your eyes. It's a delightful visual flourish that speaks to the heart of the Minecraft experience, undercut by how cumbersome it is to activate.
The camera bends unnaturally as attempts are made to draw long walls into reality. Fortifications like ramps, gates, and other useful buildings can only rotate on a four-point axis, reducing their utility in uneven environments, and severely limiting opportunities for creative construction. Still, it's in defense where Minecraft Legends is most comfortable – allowing you the opportunity to patrol smaller, less cluttered combat zones, and experiment with a selection of craftable fortifications and structures. With the promise of self-contained 'Lost Legends' scenarios arriving through the in-game marketplace every month, I can only hope that these expand this area of the experience.
Real-time strategy has always had a combative relationship with home consoles. While there are certainly outliers that prove that the genre can work in spite of the limited inputs of a controller (Halo Wars, Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth 2, and more recently Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition), Minecraft Legends will not be considered one of them. The decision to shackle tactical deliberations to the reach of a third-person camera ultimately scuppers many of Minecraft Legends' finer ideas, while the lackluster AI and limited opportunities to act creatively in combat ensure that battles rarely gain any traction. Like Minecraft Dungeons before it, Minecraft Legends is a great concept let down by middling execution.
Minecraft Legends was reviewed on Xbox Series X, with a code provided by the publisher.