Minecraft: Story Mode has had a rocky start; Episode 1 introduced a mixed bag of characters and a clichéd plot while Episode 2 tried to make player choice significant at the cost of gametime and still struggled to find the right balance of tone. For all you loyal Minecraft and Story Mode fans out there who’ve been waiting, take a seat because TellTale Games has finally stepped up their game. Episode 3 is here and it delivers. Not every longstanding problem has been fixed, but Episode 3 is the high-point of the season, bringing humor, action, and tension together in top form.
Episode 3 picks up where Episode 2 left off as players search for the mysterious Soren, Ivor emerges victorious in conflict with our heroes, and Petra suffers from Wither sickness. Ironically, the biggest new character in Story Mode isn’t a character at all, it’s the Enderman. Endermen are, perhaps, the most iconic Minecraft enemy of them all. Facing an Enderman is terrifying – I’ve frantically built walls of stone, dirt, whatever I’ve had on hand to shelter myself from the emotionless leer of the occasional Enderman I stumble upon while mining. Minecraft players know you don’t look at an Enderman, for that’s how they lock-on to you and teleport to your location. Story Mode takes this instinctive fear of this strange creature and transports it intact to their world. Our intrepid band of adventurers similarly fears Endermen and shields themselves from glimpsing one. Seeing this play out is awesome, so as standing very still or taking care not to make a sound is to ferocious wild animals, covering your own eyes is to Endermen.
The End is very much the domain of the Enderman, but, as our party discovers, Soren has built a home there too. Soren, as voiced by John Hodgman, is fantastic. His world made entirely of wool blocks, fascination with the calls of the Endermen, and efforts to domesticate them (hilariously captured on in-game recordings) are fun and endearing. Replacing Ellegaard’s sense of confidence with just a touch of mental instability and swapping her vulnerability for wry loneliness makes for a compelling addition to the team.
Episode 3 shows a remarkable sense of self-awareness in cutting the screen-time of weaker characters. A welcome change, sure, but pushing flat characters to the side will always be second to making the player care about them, and it runs the risk of undercutting ensemble moments. Moments like the climactic ending scene at the end of Episode 3 can fall somewhat flat. I never felt for Magnus; his would-be isolation is tempered by him constantly being a jerk. Ellegaard might have been captivating, but she was around so little it’s hard to use her as an agent of lasting emotional resonance. Not to say I felt nothing, but dramas derive their weight from however strong the characters are, and when characters are all over the place not everything can work. That being said, the characters that do work, work really well; everyone is armed with genuinely funny little quips to punctuate the action, and the tension of the situation tests our character’s resolves.
Episode 3 is short. Not Episode 2 short, no, but not much longer, clocking in at around an hour and a half. Though, every moment of that hour and a half is action-packed and totally necessary; brevity brings with it a lack of filler. Action sequences are cut with segments of interactivity that feel justified and don’t forget the very real drama of the larger world (remember, it’s ending). TellTale had yet to find a truly bombastic concluding scene for Story Mode in its first two episodes; Episode 1 ended with the beginning of a quest and Episode 2 ended with an anemic confrontation with Ivor. Episode 3’s conclusion is absolutely thrilling. Meticulously crafted, but still enormous, set-pieces and crazy action collide and resolve with unexpected plot twists and an intriguing cliffhanger. And I’m happy to report, even with all the action, the framerate problems that plagued Episode 2 are gone.
Not everything works well in Episode 3, though. Aside from longstanding characterization issues, Lukas runs a fine line between complicated and annoying, and Petra’s Wither sickness feels like an afterthought. What exactly Wither sickness is remains to be seen, and Petra’s decision to hope it simply goes away before she has to tell the group seems silly. Choice, again, doesn’t feel relevant. The only true choice comes at the end of the episode and, while significant, the game failed to impress upon me its significance making me regret my choice afterwards; however, unlike previous episodes this is the first time I’ve wondered if TellTale needs choice to be successful as Episode 3 does work as a (largely) linear adventure.
For 2 episodes Story Mode has consisted of unrealized, albeit enjoyable, potential. With Episode 3 TellTale has finally taken steps to make the most of its Mojang license. Episode 3 is funny and never has a dull moment; all the best characters take the spotlight, the scenery is gorgeous, and the plot is complicated by a satisfying conclusion. I do worry how Story Mode can maintain its uptick with less interesting characters needing to reappear and duller plotlines having to be resolved, but Episode 3 is as good as Story Mode has ever been. Enjoy it.