Video Games Review: Dragon Quest Builders (PS4, 2016)

Dragon Quest is one of the most venerable franchises in the history of video game role players. In its homeland of Japan, the series has spent its lifetime frequently and handily beating the sales all other comers, even genre titans like Final Fantasy, but in recent years has seen a bit of a drop off as new titles have become fewer and farther between. Following a big push toward handheld and the release of a surprisingly successful MMO on the Wii, developer (and proud owner of The Most Corporate-Sounding Developer Name of All Time) Square Enix Business Division 5 is looking to take the series’ renewed momentum and capture the attention of the Minecraft generation with Dragon Quest Builders.

Dragon Quest Builders, interestingly enough, picks up directly after the events of the original Dragon Quest from 1986. The Dragonlord concludes that game by making the player a steep offer — unite and rule half the world while he rules the other half, or fight for all the marbles right now. Builders, in something of a rather dark twist, plays out under the assumption that the player took the Dragonlord up on his offer, plunging the world into a new era of darkness and sorrow. Years pass and you, the Builder, awaken in a dimly lit tomb. A disembodied voice commands you to fight back against the darkness and rebuild the world.

It’s incredibly easy to draw a direct parallel between Dragon Quest Builders and the unstoppable juggernaut that is Minecraft. Where Minecraft wordlessly hands players the keys to the world and leaves them to figure out their own goals, Builders displays willingness to give you a clear mission: save the world.

You are the only person left who has any idea of how to “build.” You start by stumbling upon an old, long abandoned town and you stake your claim. As you begin to refine and upgrade your little settlement, other people will find themselves drawn to it. As they arrive, they will offer to stay and help continue the reconstruction effort. If you build it, they will come indeed.

This fledgling town and the protection of its new denizens is entirely dependent upon your ability to give the town what it needs to flourish. All you have to do to accomplish this, like any good elected official might, is listen to your constituents. Defenses, living quarters, food — they’ll tell you what they need and these will come in the form of small quests. One person might simply desire a bedroom. Another will send you on an absurd quest to hijack firebreathing statues from neighbouring cult which can then be pressed into service as defenses for the town. Each quest unlocks blueprints that can be used thereafter whenever you have the materials.

Exploring the world will yield these materials, earning things like plants and terrain slices. Everything you collect will unlock a new blueprint so the impetus is the get out there and start exploring because it means you’ll be able to build more and faster.

This translates into a neat level system for your town. Everything you craft has a number of points that it contributes to the town total, driving up your level, attracting more new arrivals.

But it goes a level deeper than that. Every new item you place in each room upgrades that room’s own individual level which grants you even more stuff to build and craft. I was able to turn a regular bedroom into a cheap inn by picking the right accouterments. This can be replicated everywhere — dressing rooms can become armouries, and so forth. It encourages the player to think creatively and draw logical through-lines between what you have and what you need.

In addition to attracting more settlers, your growing town will also begin to attract monsters before long. Fighting them off is fairly straightforward at first but quickly escalate into a large scale boss fight.

As the game’s story moves forward, these encounters will have you resorting to pretty desperate measures to save everyone. You’ll need fortifications, traps, large metal doors the monsters can’t get breach. At a certain point it starts to feel very Attack on Titan.

It surprised me how protective I became of my little town. My desire to save everyone actually turned me rather cruel — I found myself devising ways to not only stop the monsters from entering but punish them for their hubris. Deep pits lined with stone to make them inescapable, with gnarly spikes at the bottom so the monsters would be trapped and speared should they breach the town walls (which were themselves crafted with the hardiest stone materials I could find).

 Where Minecraft presents an open, endless world, Builders prefers to close its borders a little. Progressing through the main story unlocks portals that will allow you to teleport to different islands throughout the world. Each new area contains its own challenges, landscapes and monsters to deal with. At first I felt a little disappointed that Builders wasn’t truly open world but the longer I sat with this idea, the more it felt like Square Enix had made the right call. It eliminates the need to trek across absurdly large distances to find that one particular material you’ve been chasing.

My biggest concern going into this game would be how the controls of a build-em-up, Minecraft-like title could be replicated on a controller rather than a keyboard and mouse and, for the most part, Builders comes through with the goods. The game automatically allows you to build at ground level, but pressing L1 or R1 will let you move up or down. It’s all very fluid and Square have kept things from getting too complicated which is great.

 Another concern had to do with inventory. If there’s one thing No Man’s Sky taught us its that a decent sized inventory is to be prized and respected. In a game where crafting is so central, inventory space is precious. Builders is aware of this and, while it allows you to carry a certain amount of materials on your person, it also lets you construct a huge chest for storage. Here’s the thing, though: you can take the chest with you. STORAGE-CEPTION. It’s an extremely clever move and one I’d like to see in more games of this type. Even better, if your character fills up on materials, you don’t have to stop and manually switch everything around! Everything you pick up after that just automatically goes in the chest! And if you want to craft anything, it pulls from the chest without you having to unpack it again. Pure genius.

Visually, Builders is serviceable and retains the charm found in many of the other Dragon Quest games. The character designs by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama return. There’s some reasonably inoffensive music to go along with it, the bulk of it pulled from the original Dragon Quest and re-recorded.

The combat is simple and this is a function of the game wanting to keep any period of time spent not-building as short as possible. The monsters are all fun to battle, the weapons and armour you can create are similarly varied and interesting and if you really want to hunt around for some biffo, there are hidden bosses throughout the world just like the Squaresoft RPG’s of old.

The part of the game loop that was decidedly not a fan of was, upon defeating a boss, opening a new portal and travelling to a new part of the world, I was informed that the last 10 hours of my life basically meant nothing. All the time and effort you put into creating the perfect settlement gets wiped when you move into a new area and you are forced, in essense, to start over. You get to keep all the blueprints and crafting recipes you’ve uncovered up to the that point which does make rebuilding easier, but as far as everything else goes, even if you beat the boss, you still kind of lose it all. You’re able to unlock a free roam mode later in the game which is a bit more my speed, but I imagine the punishing deletion of your prized settlement will turn a lot of people off.

Despite a few odd design decisions like this, Dragon Quest Builders is a rock solid Minecraft alternative that will capture the imagination of players young and old. And, as with its bigger and more established cousin, the only thing really holding you back in this game is your own imagination.

Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Solid wide-ranging crafting; Will be a legit draw for the Minecraft crowd
Lowlights: Losing your settlement when moving to a new area is brutal
Developer: Square Enix Business Division 5
Publisher: Square Enix
Release date: Out now
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.