Release date: December 22, 2015
Note: This review includes spoilers.
Let me just come right out and say A Block and a Hard Place is an amazing episode. In fact, one of my only major complaints is that it took Telltale so long to find its stride. A Block and a Hard Place features a level of narrative complexity that dwarfs the previous episodes as we begin to delve into the history of The Order of the Stone and the lies they’ve told to become celebrities. The episode also feels like the most complete adventure yet, while continuing to pay tribute to the vast mythos that has grown around the Minecraft franchise.
Telltale didn’t hide the fact that A Block and a Hard Place would be the end of the Wither Saga. With time running out, Jesse and the gang team up with Ivor and head out to the Far Lands. The Far Lands, as most Minecraft players know, are the point at which the game’s world-building mechanics begin to break down. Blocks are found floating in midair, bizarre structures form, and everything just gets a little bit wonky. To see them canonize what is essentially a bug in the game is a fun moment for a Minecraft fan. As someone whose always enjoyed the variable nature of the Far Lands, it was great to see this utilized as the home for Ivor, the (essentially) banished member of The Order of the Stone.
Through a bit of narrative necessity the group has become separated from Ivor on the journey to his home, and thus has to solve his entrance puzzles sans his assistance. This stood out to me as the biggest narrative problem in the episode, but it’s easily forgiven. Ivor’s mansion stands as a testament to both The Order of the Stone and fans of the Minecraft series. When Jesse finds the treasures that were collected by the Order, it’s a walk through a museum of memories. There’s the sea lantern, ice blocks from the ice spikes biome, several other blocks, and of course the Ender Dragon egg.
Soren, who at this point has become Jesse’s sole companion, narrates the history of the Order, but as we’ve known from the beginning, his story is full of holes. Eventually, the truth comes out. The Order of the Stone used the Command Block to defeat the Ender Dragon and then lied to the populace to gain fame and fortune. While this isn’t any great revelation, it's handled extremely well.
With Ivor’s special magical book, some rad new armor, and an all-powerful weapon (I made a pickaxe), Jesse reunites with the group and takes the fight to the Wither Storm. Endermen make their return as the means of deconstructing the Wither Storm so that Jesse can infiltrate and destroy the Command Block. Jesse aggravates the Endermen so they’ll join the fight, but even though is was a fun and action-packed scene, it felt as though it ran a few moments too long. Perhaps this stands out because the rest of the episode feels so tightly paced.
Inside the main Wither Storm, Jesse and the loyal pig Reuben go on their final assault against the Command Block. After some heroics and lots of shouting, the Wither Storm is slain. Up until this point, the game played out along the same lines I’d expected. And then Reuben died. Poof. Right before Jesse’s eyes Reuben turned into a slab of raw pork. And I was mortified.
For me this is the right call to make. The follies of The Order of the Stone never feels more real than when Reuben dies in Jesse’s arms. As a direct result of their actions, we see one of our young heroes give his life to fix their mistakes. However, as much as I enjoyed this, I’m curious about the impact this would have on a younger gamer, perhaps someone who wasn’t prepared to see their pig friend fall to the Wither Storm.
With the Wither Storm defeated, Jesse and the gang of misfits are crowned the new Order of the Stone. And with one more episode left in the series, it’ll be fun to see where the new Order goes next.
Again, Telltale has stepped up its game with A Block and a Hard Place. Unfortunately, the puzzles are still lacking the complexity that could have come from a Minecraft title, but they have gotten a little better. There are several points in the game where Jesse must construct something at a crafting table, and each time I deliberately tried to make everything except the obvious answer. Sometimes the game let me have my fun, but sometimes it shoehorned me into the “right” answer. Regardless, Telltale has done a remarkable job bringing to life traditional Minecraftian elements, and for that I am thoroughly grateful.
I’ll admit that there’s not much to say about the QTEs in this game. At this point, the games in Telltale’s oeuvre all have the same feel. Veteran Telltale fans could likely sleepwalk through the most complex QTEs this game has to offer, so I would like to see Telltale change up the formula moving forward. However, since this game is geared toward a younger audience, this is likely not the game in which to begin making drastic decisions.
OPEN WORLD!!! Sorta. Not really. But a little? Exploring the maze in the Far Lands is one of the most exciting moments of Minecraft: Story Mode. It tapped directly into my own memories of exploring the Far Lands, this dark and beautiful land where things just aren’t right. But the open world aspects are short, and then it’s back to dusty libraries for research. Despite this, it remains one of the highlights of the series for me.
Again, though I’m belaboring the point after my past reviews, the sound of Minecraft is pretty good. They’ve augmented the original minimalistic noises with a great cast and an acceptable (though somewhat disappointing) score. Both Catherine Taber and Patton Oswalt carry the lighthearted moments of the story and are adequately prepared for the emotions of the darker moments.
A Block and a Hard Place brings us the conclusion we wanted, no, that we NEEDED from this series. Sharply witty and narratively complex, Telltale built a world in this episode that outshines all previous entries in the series. While there were some small stumbles, the game was a wonderful experience.
And did Telltale bring more tears to my face? Yes. Yes, they did.
+ Finally some narrative complexity
+ Finally some crafting complexity
+ OPEN WORLD for a few seconds
+ Reuben, you were the hero we needed
- Several brief pacing issues
- Narrative necessity to leave Ivor behind