Cameos are an awkward beast. The best ones, I find, are the cameos where you don’t notice unless you know the right handshakes and winks to get it. Otherwise they blend seamlessly into the crowd like an effective serial killer. A Portal To Mystery is blunt about its cameos, like a sledgehammer to the trachea, which seems to stand as a perfect symbol of everything else in the episode.
[There will not be any spoilers of Minecraft Story Mode – Episode 6: A Portal To Mystery, but I may end up discussing Minecraft Story Mode – Episode 1: the Order of the Stone, Episode 2: Assembly Required, Episode 3: The Last Place You Look, Episode 4: A Block and a Hard Place and Episode 5: Order Up, as well as the review of all five (which you can find, respectively, here, here, here, here and here). However, the rating at the bottom will be spoiler-free if you wish to skip there.]
A Portal To Mystery is the sixth episode of Minecraft Story Mode by Telltale, as well as the first episode under the “buy a second season pass to access the content” system. It’s been over two months since the prior episode but, fortunately, the simplistic narrative allowed me to remember. One thing leads to another — Jesse (aka, you) discovers a portal to a hallway of portals. Each magical gate ushers you into an alternative world. Meanwhile, as you travel from place to place trying to find your way home, there are floating rumors of the creators of these gates and questions of if they’re still about.
There was also the “save the world” thing that happened for the first four episodes, but Telltale has decided that it is time to move on from such small affairs.
In A Portal To Mystery, Jesse, Lucas, Ivor, and Petra stumble into a mansion after being chased by zombies. Although inside, the building doesn’t offer the gang safety just yet. The cast find themselves with 7 Youtube celebrities, one of which is a murderer trying to steal an enchanted flint-n-steel.
I admit that I rubbed my hands with glee at this. Perhaps gullible, but I thought back to Telltale’s work on The Wolf Among Us and its investigative element. in particular, being able to pick how I scoured over the scenes or questioned suspects, as well as the order in which I did it.
The good news is there is something of a mystery here, as they do give you clues to what might have happened. If you’re careful, you can suss out using in-game logic of who the serial killer is before the final reveal. It then climaxes into a face-off that plays out with a gripping action sequence that ends on a moment where you can inflict retribution or forgiveness.
Frustratingly, that is where the compliments end with a hideous screech.
To get the obvious part out the way: the inclusion of Youtube celebrities actually hinders more than aids the writing. To those not familiar with the celebrities, hearing names like “Captain Sparklez”, “Stampy Cat” and “Dan The Diamond Minecart” is going to be jarring at best as it flows in conversation like Christopher Walken’s speech pattern.
To those familiar, besides the glee of recognition, it comes off as worse, as it gives away the ending. If you have a cast which includes two fake personalities, one who kicks the bucket within a few minutes, it is likely a safe bet it is the second fake personality who did it. This isn’t to fault the Youtube celebrities who helped out and who did a good job voice acting (especially Joseph Garrett as Stampy Cat), but rather awkward usage of their personalities.
There is also the red-herring, which is hideously executed. While trying to dance around a spoiler, a particular character appears to push a particular button, which does a particularly bad thing, for no good reason. All you have for it is a collection of apologies for an event that seems bizarrely nasty for the character, and a moment of misdirection to help prolong the mystery.
I also admit a personal frustration that the episode just lacks tension or atmosphere that could have potentially existed. Stories that rely on you to be trapped with the killer in an enclosed space always have the lovely potential to create the fear that maybe you or your friend is next. Sadly, the motivation of the killer (revealed early on to be the hunt for an artifact) just begs the question of why the mansion isn’t being crushed, with the remains scraped for belongings. In addition, it just confirms you and your gang are safe from the wrath as you noticeably have nothing to do with the artifact. In the end, there was just nothing to fear and it ended up as a wasted opportunity.
I could be here all day poking at the weak spots of the episode, but perhaps the biggest misstep is more an interactive element. With two months of development and a murder case opportunity, I had hoped for a Wolf Among Us style of investigation where, despite being pretty linear, you still felt like you had control in the direction of the inquiry. Sadly, you are instead dragged from one scene to the next as Minecraft Story Mode seems afraid to let you off the choke-chain. Even if you know the answer, you can’t do things differently to achieve it or even allow the early guess to be scrutinized. You feel less of a vulnerable detective caught in the killer’s eye and more someone stuck on a train watching the sights.
The final score of Minecraft Story Mode is a 5/10. I recall being cautioned once that I was holding the series to an unfair standard. That the audience I thought was intended (i.e. the episodic game series crowd) was not the actual intended audience (i.e. Minecraft fans between 10-14 years old). I believe they were correct.
Putting aside how the episode works out badly for even those fans (enjoy the predictable ending), I honestly believe there is nothing stopping this series catering to both fans of episodic games and Minecraft fans. I think there is an opportunity in the same way children’s films like Toy Story, WALL-E, and Up are for children primarily but work effectively for adults. This is especially true as there are glimmers of good ideas (e.g. the mansion setting with the serial killer, having to investigate what is happening, and the final showdown scene) which are marred heavily by sloppy presentation and writing.
It’s frustrating to review a game that only technically works and only passes by doing the bare minimum. It is depressing and fury-inducing that Telltale does this while Minecraft Story Mode still shows they can do better, if they wanted to. Just like I could do a real ending to this review if I wanted to but, due to inadequate writing, I have to rely on a random phrase to get cheap chuckles from easily amused chumps. Mashed potatoes.
A PC review code for Minecraft Story Mode – Episode 6: A Portal to Mystery was provided by TellTale for the purpose of this review