Creating spin-offs to the best-selling game in history is destined to be a daunting endeavour, but Mojang Studios keeps experimenting, in admirable fashion, with the hopes of delivering a runaway hit. Minecraft Legends is the studio’s latest effort – a real-time strategy pivot set in a charming cel-shaded world.
Straight out the gate, I think it’s fair to say that, for Minecraft players looking for more Minecraft, a strategy game is more of a hard sell than an action RPG like Minecraft Dungeons, which aped Diablo to great success. With its automated resource gathering and troop routing, Legends feels, on paper, much further away from the heart of Minecraft’s gameplay, though it does retain many of its aesthetic charms.
Legends is not a by-the-numbers strategy game set in the Minecraft world. It’s more of a quirky experiment in trying to make a strategy game accessible to console players, a blend of Halo Wars and Brutal Legend, where your hero is physically present in battle rather than a godlike all-seeing presence.
It works on an Xbox controller by pulling the left trigger to create a movable cursor which you use to cast melodies (give orders). This makes your Allays (finite little helpers) gather resources or build structures, such as towers, ramps, walls and mob spawners. Meanwhile, you use the face buttons to rally troops around you and point them at Piglins, the Nether-born hordes threatening the land. Pulling the right trigger summons a more tactical cursor where you have additional control over which troops you’re controlling and where you want them to go.
It’s a bit awkward, and even by the time I hit the credits, I was still making mistakes. The most curious design choice within all of this is the ability to physically attack Piglins with your sword and platform around the forts you’re debasing. This mix of RTS overhead with a physical third-person presence makes Legends an odd proposition, with flavours of Pikmin and Fortnite, especially when you’re frantically building structures to avoid certain death. While it does have its moments, the gameplay is not immediately compelling and feels particularly restrained in the early game.
Minecraft Legends’ tutorial phase hangs around way too long. It keeps you away from the enjoyable core of its open world, which involves exploring to find useful resources, secret chests, and cutesy mobs being bullied by piglets. As part of the opening, you commit a series of similar raids that leave a poor impression of the combat while you wait for the game to get going. Unfortunately, this lets you marvel at some of Legends’ worst qualities, like the fact that buildings don’t have obvious health bars beyond hard-to-notice animations, so you can, at times, find yourself waiting a random amount of time for them to fall, or wondering whether you’re using your troops effectively.
Legends’ story is told through comedic machinima cutscenes that twist the established Minecraft lore while setting the simple scene. You are a hero who the ephemeral embodiments of Action, Foresight, and Knowledge have recruited to clear a vast realm of its honking invaders.
Across the campaign, you work your way through a series of Piglin hordes spread across the biome-divided map and liberate homesteads to unlock new mobs. It’s a formulaic process, but every horde has idiosyncrasies for you to deal with, and they do eke out some tactical considerations. One horde focuses on labyrinthian defence, while another concerns verticality and poison. It gears you up for PVP, should you wish to take the fight online. Because you need a minimum of six players, I couldn’t find a game in the review period, but I assume this is the battlefield by which Legends will live and die, as its eccentric systems would probably be at their best amid the chaos of online multiplayer.
Your campaign hub is the Well of Fate, the world’s central point, and you upgrade your abilities by physically building structures around it. I enjoyed this system the most, as it lets you have something of a skill tree in a strategy game, which is a novel concept. By the end, I did feel like I had a style of play that worked for me, and my skills were reflecting that – I could save up resources to mainline more useful upgrades like increasing my unit cap, with tradeoffs in other areas as a consequence, and I had a visual representation of this progress.
Broadly though, Minecraft Legends has a bit of a feedback problem. You regularly jump between participant and observer, and both sides can feel like busy work. The pace, compared to something like Starcraft, is glacial. Jumping feels floaty, and horseback attacks are like drops in a bucket, so it’s hard to navigate carefully or feel like you’re a part of the war machine. Without a minimap, it’s also difficult to tell where all of your stray units are at any time, and you aren’t rewarded for clever tactics as much as you aren’t rebuffed for missing the mark. You can always just run away and make more mobs or respawn quickly if you die, which takes the edge off of its missions considerably. Once I figured out a strategy involving golems, towers, and creepers, it was hard to ignore. Your goons will always get the job done eventually, and there’s not much in the way of punishment if they’re slow.
There were some moments of triumph when everything clicked together, but they were few and fleeting. The control scheme isn’t quite clean enough to allow you to always feel like an awesome leader. One of my biggest pet peeves is that you can’t switch between what you want to build when you hold the trigger down. It’s a simple change that would speed up the game considerably.
Generally, though, this isn’t the modus operandi of Minecraft Legends. It wants you to take it easy, maybe a little too easy, which can be hard to get used to if you’re familiar with the genre. I’d be glad to see its PVP component prove me wrong, but I feel like Legends can’t reach the tense euphoric heights seen in other strategy games because of how much it wants to appeal to everybody. It lacks the complexity and speed of most strategy games but doesn’t replace it with anything meaningful, even for the kids and genre newbies it may be aiming to attract.
I was hoping Legends would fill in the gaps with heaps of Minecraft charm to sell the rest of the package, but it is mostly surface-level. The creatures are typically adorable, and the world is extremely pretty, but I was looking for more secrets and subterranean exploration. I wanted to develop my hero, find stronger weapons and armour, and maybe access some AOE spells that could change the tide of battle and give me more agency in combat.
Minecraft Legends is a decent on-ramp for those inquisitive about strategy games. I’m sure it will please die-hard fans looking for more Minecraft, too, but beyond that, its control scheme and combat system didn’t convince me, and there wasn’t enough Mojang magic to make me look past that.
Minecraft Legends (Xbox Series X)
Minecraft Legends is ambitious and unique, and offers up a new experience for Minecraft lovers. While its PvP mode might give it some longevity, as an actual single-player strategy game, it unfortunately misses the mark.