By Matt Peckham
October 15, 2015

Minecraft: Story Mode was probably inexorable according to the law of merch. Pop cultural phenomena beget t-shirts, caps, tie-in books, bedding, plush toys, action figures, films and, of course, video game spinoffs. Last summer Minecraft became the best-selling PC game in history, on its way to becoming the best-selling game full stop. It may well be our medium’s zeitgeist, and zeitgeists demand offerings.

So should you pony up the $5 (or $25 for the full season, five episodes in all) for Telltale Games’ attempt to storify Minecraft?

It depends. On the one hand, the first episode, “The Order of the Stone,” feels like just the sort of slick, gameplay-sprinkled, largely non-interactive thing Telltale’s known for. Everything, in other words, that studio Mojang’s Minecraft isn’t.

Nothing wrong with trying to pull a story out of a hat if it’s a story worth telling, and Telltale clearly wants to transpose Mojang’s contemplative, often solitary world-building experience into a straightforward buddy yarn inspired by works like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Goonies. In theory, there’s no reason it couldn’t work.

You play as Jesse who, with her pals, hopes to win a local crafting contest so they can see their work featured at an upcoming builders convention. Shenanigans ensue and, in the space of a few hours, you’ll wind up spelunking, visiting Mineraft hell (a.k.a the Nether), riding a mine cart coaster, volleying fireballs at Ghasts (tentacled flying monsters) and plenty of related winking. By the first episode’s close, Jesse and friends have leveled up from second-rate builders to plucky adventurers on the hunt for a handful of absentee heroes.

If you were hoping a game as sui generis as Minecraft might nudge Telltale out of its comfort zone, you’ll be disappointed. Story Mode rolls out the same old timed dialogue choices, trawling for hotspots in locations so the protagonist can make pithy observations, solving much-too-simple puzzles, watching cutscenes that grab the lion’s share of play time, and numbly obliging quicktime events you’d have to close your eyes to fumble.

Even the Minecraft stuff feels pat. Instead of making something like the game’s crafting table a central device, Story Mode trots it two or three times, then hands you the recipes. It’s as pointless as solving fill-in-the-blank phrases while someone feeds you the words.

Most of that stuff would bother me less if the story stepped up. But Telltale’s writing, incisive in the past, feels weirdly timid here. The plot lurches from one hero’s journey cliché to the next, the in-jokes settling for cutesy instead of trying for clever or cutting. The target audience argument’s no defense, either: family-friendly doesn’t imply anodyne. Film studios like Pixar and DreamWorks (and think about The Lego Movie!) have managed to craft stories that can tickle the funny bones of multiple demographics. Why not an outfit as accomplished as Telltale?

It’s as if the shift from expanding on The Walking Dead‘s or Game of Thrones‘ darker mythologies to a whimsical, almost sentimental vibe, drained all the panache from the script. Scenes that could have been insightful or ironic or just plain hilarious instead comes off as derivative or dull. I’m not sure even Minecraft acolytes will bite, speaking as a recent full-blooded convert. Is a workaday version of your favorite thing really better than nothing at all?

I’ll give it this: It looks like Minecraft, maybe a trifle prettier, the color saturation knob cranked to the point of glowing, even if you’re only able to engage with all that beauty the way you would links on a web page. The legendary-heroes-as-Minecraft-archetypes thing holds some promise as well, if Telltale develops the gameplay in the remaining episodes around your quest to unearth those individuals. And to be fair, it’s still just the first episode: Telltale had the unenviable task of establishing relatable characters and motivations in a world that intrinsically eschews both.

Maybe it’ll get better. With four episodes yet to come in the series, we can hope.

2 out of 5

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com.

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