"The mere fact that Builders can accommodate fans of both genres so interchangeably speaks to the strength of the gameplay itself."
Show of hands: who would have guessed Dragon Quest — one of the most traditional of franchises out there — would receive the Minecraft treatment? Then again, it isn't like the timeworn series hasn't responded to phenomena before. Look no further than Pokémon's influence on the Monsters spin-offs. But unlike the GameFreak breadwinner, Minecraft doesn't owe its breakout success to the genre staples pioneered and established by Yuji Horii. And that's what makes Dragon Quest Builders a bit of a head scratcher because no one quite knows what to make of Square Enix's attempt to marry a series that's the very definition of "big in Japan" with a game that has attained unparalleled ubiquity in the west over the last five years.
Lucky for me, I got to fiddle with Builders at PAX West a few weeks back. As someone who hasn't played much Dragon Quest beyond IX and never got into Minecraft, I went into my hour-long session with no real expectations. Signatures like Slimes and groan-worthy puns were all musts, of course, but I didn't need much else beyond the peanut butter-and-chocolate novelty of it all to satiate my curiosity.
The demo opened with a question that harkens back to the very first Dragon Quest installment, but in a comedic twist of fate, I was required to join the Dragonlord rather than resist temptation, causing the world to spiral into blocky despair. Right from the get-go, Builders seems to align itself with the more subversive narratives of IV, V, and VII, even if it is admittedly a little more tongue-in-cheek than the numbered entries. It will no doubt be interesting to see how the story unfolds in the retail release and how it capitalizes on the "what if" tale, but gesturing towards the series' early history strikes me as the right call as Square Enix attempts to once again endear the Dragon Quest brand to the west.
After succumbing to the Dragonlord's whims, I found my newly christened protagonist at the bottom of a deep pit with no way out. This acted as the tutorial segment wherein divine intervention struck to introduce the game's controls and explain how to craft items and use blocks to create paths. My only frustration here was that placing blocks above and below my character felt cumbersome being mapped to the shoulder buttons. For me, pressing R1 and L1 to place objects vertically never quite felt natural, even after an hour's worth of playing time. Yes, it is a minor gripe, but when the whole game is centered around building things by stacking blocks, the stacking input should feel as intuitive as possible; unfortunately, I didn't walk away from Builders with that impression.
After escaping my holey situation, I stood overlooking the blockified world of Alefgard from a tall mountain range. The demo directed me to re-establish a township first so I could save my progress, but after that, I was encouraged to roam as I deemed fit. To my surprise, the demo covered a good chunk of the map, filled with remnants of the old world, including everything from dilapidated homes to lost villagers. Taking inspiration from Minecraft's open-ended action really helps Builders circumvent the stop-and-go tedium associated with more traditional JRPG series like Dragon Quest with their slow turn-based battles and heavy reliance on dialogue. Here you can pretty much wander to your heart's content, with the promise of rare materials or an NPC-in-need around every corner.
I took almost 50 minutes to just meander around, and among the things I found were two villagers, a homestead in need of repair, a forest grove ripe with crafting materials, and a giant dragon enemy that I made a point to avoid given how ill-equipped I was to take on such a feisty foe. For a land turned into basic shapes, Alefgard felt rich in content and variety in a way that RPGs rarely demonstrate in their first hour. And while Builders isn't strictly an RPG in theory, it might as well be in its execution, where the only real difference boils down to a shifted focus from battling to rebuilding the world, block by block.
Truth be told, Builders reminds me of 2014's sleeper hit Fantasy Life in that there are other ways to advance a plot beyond duking it out with enemies. Here in Builders, progression is measured not so much by who you have bested in battle (although there are boss encounters in the full game), but by those you have aided throughout your journey. Fulfill enough sidequests and a previously inaccessible part of the world becomes free to explore, and so on and so forth. I spent my dwindling time with the demo doing just that in the hopes that I might be able to unlock a new area to round off my session, but alas I was told I had to wrap things up.
Among all the games I demoed at PAX West, Dragon Quest Builders was the one that stuck with me long after the show. Admittedly, I spent most of my time playing it like an RPG rather than completely delving into the sandbox elements, but the mere fact that Builders can accommodate fans of both genres so interchangeably speaks to the strength of the gameplay itself. While I still have a number of unanswered questions, like the actual size of Alefgard or how the story is handled after the game's onset, Builders is shaping up to be one of my most anticipated titles this fall and an easy recommendation for anyone who is even remotely interested in the concept.
"Watching a character drawn in Akira Toriyama's signature style romp around a 3D environment always fills me with a childlike sense of glee..."
Dragon Quest Builders is a bit of an anomaly. It's easy to see the influence of Minecraft on what has been, primarily, a traditional RPG series steeped in nostalgia, and the developers seemed to acknowledge that during our interview on the E3 showroom floor. The desire with Builders is to bring new gamers, who may not be familiar with the venerable franchise, into the fold by appealing to what is probably the most recognizable game next to Mario Bros. It's easy to pass this off as a calculated marketing decision, but watching the game in action left me intrigued and willing to accept this new approach to Yuji Horii's seminal classic.
Watching a character drawn in Akira Toriyama's signature style romp around a 3D environment always fills me with a childlike sense of glee, and here's where Builders immediately strikes the right cord. All of the classic monster designs look absolutely awesome, from the lowly slime to the giant rock golem. Their animations look superb and really make the wait for DQXI all the harder. Attacking them seems a little uninvolved, degenerating to merely walking up and smacking them with a large hammer or whatever. Thankfully, a last minute boss introduction required a little finesse, some proper bomb placement, and building unique shields to block your home from incoming attacks.
Which is really what the focus of a game called Dragon Quest Builders should be, right? We got to see some pretty awesome looking user-created content that will probably require far too much patience than I could ever muster. An endless roller-coaster, unique castle, and other ludicrously designed abodes are simply a few (dozen) block placements away, and everything seems to snap together in an easy and intuitive manner. Yes, it is very much Minecraft, right down to the UI and general pace, but it works with DQ's vibrant collar palette and monster design and will probably appeal to gamers like myself who don't necessarily get the latest gaming zeitgeist.
I was also very glad to hear that Builders features a story and quests that give the game more structure than a sandbox title where you always make your own fun. The aforementioned boss fight looked great, and hunting down various monsters provides incentive to explore and discover. A particularly nasty environmental hazard had me wondering if players will have to find some unique methods to survive and succeed. There's also the promise of more connections to the world of Dragon Quest 1, as Builders takes place in the alternate "bad" ending that leaves the world in shambles and requiring some... rebuilding!
It's unclear whether Dragon Quest Builders is going to finally breakthrough the wall the series has faced in America. It certainly looks very familiar and inviting to members of both camps, but I wonder if Minecraft players will enjoy a new take on the genre or if DQ fans will want to play something that's so radically different from the status quo. It's easy to write off Builders with an eye roll, but maybe it will surprise us with a genuine new adventure for old fans and new ones alike.