The Dragon Quest series is no stranger to spinoffs. From an early age, we saw pocket monsters and roguelikes, while today we see board games, arcade titles, and sandbox experiences. Square Enix has even released multiplayer and MMO titles within the mainline series, though admittedly these play much closer to the core game design. Although each reinvention of the series and its assets has earned mixed reception, with some veering from “dear God, no, don’t play this” all the way to “hey, I am SO into this!” Dragon Quest Builders 2 falls somewhere in between. It does well with what it ostensibly sets out to do, while the departures from the impetus squander a potentially engrossing game.
Enter Builder, the mute protagonist who ventures from island to island alongside Malroth, a violent looking amnesiac warrior. Most of the game is a relaxed endeavor as Builder converts fearful worshippers of Hargon by demonstrating the wonders of building that give hope to all he encounters. That’s pretty much it. The references to Dragon Warrior II are a bit on the nose, but hardcore fans will likely enjoy them, regardless. Don’t worry if you haven’t played any Dragon Warrior or Quest game to date; you won’t be missing out on anything.
Playing something like Builders 2 requires a great deal of separation from logic, reality, and common sense. At its heart, the story and its characters are clearly intended for a younger audience, but like the mainline series, some suggestive themes and jokes make one question who the intended demographic is. However, that’s all from the prudish American perspective — it is not lost on me that most other cultures do not hold such a Puritanical view on sexuality. For kids, the plot is fine, but for anyone sixteen or up, the story and its dialogue are lacking. Though, I will say, the grizzled old man in me still enjoys the ever-present JRPG themes of friendship, hope, and healthy worldviews.
Builders 2 is at its best when players get to build. Go ahead, read that sentence again. Yeah, it bears repeating. One might ask: okay, what else is there? Unfortunately, the developers and director found it beneficial to shoehorn a giant helping of combat and needless running around. While I admit sandbox games don’t usually do it for me, exploring, gathering materials, and building is a Zen-like pleasure. That meditative, calm feeling that comes with simple, rhythmic gameplay that the Dragon Quest series is known for is the best part about Builders 2. Even if I’m doing a paint-by-numbers blueprint where I’m literally putting the right cube in the right spot in a three-dimensional space, I’m enjoying myself. For me, this is a big deal, because I tend to enjoy more extreme, substantive experiences. Nice job, designers!
To be precise, players typically ride a boat to an island whose inhabitants quickly go from fearing death and the wrath of Hargon to eagerly assisting in whatever endeavor the Builder has for them. Once players make a couple simple structures or improvements, the NPCs start helping out by creating buildings on their own, provided the player supplies the materials and a blueprint for the structure. The process is simple: go out into the world, find resources, use a crafting table to convert those resources into a recipe, place object where it’s supposed to go, put up walls, and repeat. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s engrossing, and it appeals to the human need to see the fruits of our labors. That desolate farm or mining village becomes a gigantic, bustling machine and architectural marvel, nature be damned.
Unfortunately, while building and exploring are about 60%-ish of the experience, the other 40% is clicking through inane dialogue and pressing left click on enemy models. I say “enemy models,” because while the enemies clearly represent classic Dragon Quest monsters, they don’t feel like Dragon Quest monsters. Also, the combat comprises almost entirely of attack, attack, attack, dodge, repeat. The Builder has no spells, and the NPCs rarely learn any spells to assist in combat. At some points in the game, the constant onslaught of enemies becomes mind-numbing and beyond tedious. Occasionally, I wondered if building between enemy encounters was just an excuse to pad the game’s length. My most memorable experiences with the game aren’t the combat — they’re the buildings and towns I made.
At one point in the middle of the game, everything comes to a screeching halt when players literally lose all building ability and have to just do routes back and forth clicking through dialogue for a couple hours. I wish I was kidding. If I weren’t reviewing the game, I might have quit halfway through. That said, I’m glad I stuck it out, because the rest of the game contains a decent helping of building goodness, and its postgame offers players true freedom to build what they want, how they want at about fifty hours in. In fact, I kind of wish the game was just the postgame. I think that would have been an improvement over the base and mindless gameplay and story.
For a title like Builders 2, good controls are absolutely necessary. While the controls aren’t bad, they’re not great, either. I experienced a bit of a learning curve in the first couple hours as I fought with the camera and couldn’t naturally grasp how to dig properly. By game’s end, I had a much easier time with the controls, but I still had occasional instances of misclicking where a block was supposed to go and digging up the wrong thing. I can’t say for sure how they could improve on the controls, but I also feel like this can’t be the best way for a sandbox game to function.
Graphically, Builders 2 shines just fine, but is a bit on the simple side. I can’t say I’m expecting DQXI levels of graphical design, but given today’s standards, more is expected. Enemies clipped through walls, some materials were indistinguishable from others, and enemies animated repetitively. Audibly, I always enjoy hearing Sugiyama’s work, but some new tunes or remixes would be appreciated. I understand Builders 2 takes place in the world of Dragon Warrior II, but a rehashing of some of its best themes would be a necessary minimum. That said, the sounds and visuals were pleasant enough, but left me wanting.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a fine game. Exploring, designing, and building structures in the Dragon Quest world was more fun than I was expecting, but the whole fifty-hour affair is saddled by tedious combat and tiresome dialogue. Just as I’m getting in my groove making bedrooms or kitchens, along comes an NPC to notify me of an incoming enemy onslaught. Groan. Fortunately, the conclusion gives players what they want, but it’s at the cost of a long “adventure.”