On the surface, Dragon Quest Builders seems like the most cynical attempt at game design imaginable. Take one part Dragon Quest (quite possibly the most recognizable video game franchise in Japan), add a generous helping of Minecraft (a worldwide phenomenon that many of my generation just don’t get) and hopefully you’ll produce a hit. It shouldn’t work, and yet Square Enix have developed the rough equivalent to chocolate and peanut butter. Sure, there’s some problems here and there that could use some tuning, but DQB is one of the most interesting and unique titles I’ve played in a long time.
DQB’s story is both wonderfully charming and incredibly nostalgic for those familiar with the venerable franchise. At the end of Dragon Quest 1, players were given the option to side with The Dragonlord to rule over a world destroyed by evil forces. DQB picks up with this “bad” ending to the original game, opening up a fantastic set of possibilities along with returning themes, places and events. Players move through four chapters, each centered around an area from the main game and featuring classic monster designs by Akira Toriyama. While the plot isn’t anything new and astounding (this is Dragon Quest, after all) the characters are a lot of fun and the localization continues the great tradition of humor mixed with gravitas for dramatic effect (again, this is Dragon Quest). It’s also pretty dang amazing to see the world of DQ1 so lovingly recreated in 3D. The soundtrack is also a fantastic mix of classic DQ tunes, though they repeat far too often and often proved a bit grating on my ears.
But instead of grinding for levels by killing metal slimes, players must harvest resources and build in order to thrive. The Builder (note; he’s not a hero) gets a home base each chapter and companions who slowly filter into town with new creation recipes, tasks to complete, and hilarious dialogue to read. You’ll start each section with just a small number of building options that quickly balloon into massive tech trees allowing for lots of variety. Chapter 1 is modeled after the typical upgrade path of an RPG, starting you off with sticks and slowly giving you access to more powerful weapons and armor. I was worried this would be the standard path of progression for each chapter, but thankfully DQB throws in a lot of curveballs to keep things fresh and exciting.
And Dragon Quest Builders is certainly at its best when it asks you to explore and gather at your leisure. I was a little apprehensive at the lack of direction at times, like when I was tasked with crafting a brick barbecue for my town. With little to no direction, I walked out into the wilderness and started gathering everything in sight in an organic way that shows a real depth the visual language of the game’s design. “Hmm, I haven’t seen that type of glowing rock before, and it’s located in a pretty out of the way area. Wonder what that is?” Turns out it was some precious orichalum that gave me access to a couple super strong weapons. There are quest markers to locate certain people, places and things, but they often hindered my progress because of the lack of a proper map screen (you can only zoom out to a bird’s eye view that’s one step above useless), but the strongest parts of DQB comes when the game gives you the freedom to explore and experiment.
Giving some actual guidance and quests to complete is half of the reason why I leaned into Dragon Quest Builders so hard. I don’t have anything against Minecraft, but its sandbox nature doesn’t really appeal to me as a gamer. Giving me something to do along with all of that freedom is truly intoxicating, and that’s why I spent so much time exploring the land of Alefgard. You will unlock a pure sandbox mode after completing Chapter 1 and additional recipes for each subsequent chapter, which means enthusiastic architects will have a blast with DQB for quite some time.
The ability to craft and build is mostly handled to great effect with a strong and versatile UI. You’ll quickly learn that a basic room needs walls two tiles high, a door and some kind of light source. From there, you’ll gain access to a plethora of different blueprints, bits and bobs, and aesthetic choices that will probably keep HGTV enthusiasts enthralled for hours. I didn’t expect to take any pride in my creations at the start of the adventure given my complete lack of decorating acumen, but I ended up spending a lot of time making couches, candelabras and a ton of beds to make my base feel more like a home. Moving stuff around is fairly intuitive, though there are times when things can get awfully cramped and the level of precision doesn’t feel quite as good as it needs to be.
The controls and interface work fine, but there are some massive shortcomings that ended up annoying me during my entire playthrough. It’s pretty obvious that the game was initially designed as a Vita title and then moved to the PS4 (along with the PS3 in Japan), as several control omissions on the console make zero sense until you look at Sony’s handheld. R2 and L2 do nothing, and the X button handles far too many tasks. You X to talk, X to barbecue, X to open a menu (???!!!???) and all of this in super cramped spaces if you haven’t feng shui’ed your town correctly. Starting up a super long conversation when you just wanted to craft some iron ingots is the pits, and this constant aggravation led to lots of downtime and carefully clicking through text in order to avoid another long winded piece of exposition. And while it isn’t a deal breaker, DQB doesn’t allow you to quickly filter out all of your crafting components or make a specific number of items at a time. What’s baffling is how smart the UI is in other respects, making these omissions seem like obvious mistakes. Ingredients are neatly deposited and used from a massive storage container once you have it, and yet I can’t easily find the castle foundation building block unless I quickly identify its image from memory. Then there’s the camera which can become an absolute nightmare indoors and will probably have you giving a second thought to putting a roof on your beloved mansion.
These small annoyances may have consistently aggravated me, but they aren’t the reason my review is so damn late. Unfortunately, DQB feels the need to put a spotlight on probably its worst feature far too often; the combat. It wouldn’t be Dragon Quest if you weren’t fighting some pretty funny looking slimes, ogres and giant trees, but things feel so basic and boring that I quickly lost interest and wanted nothing more than for the game to end. Just hitting an enemy feels initially off, as you have to be one square away from them and there’s no lock-on to speak of. The Builder takes damage if he so much as touches an adversary, so you’re constantly trying to move super close to enemy so your hits register, but not so close that you end up getting hurt. Things get worse as enemies usually take about two or three hits before they get to attack regardless of your hits, so now you’re trying to avoid attacks without a proper dodge button. It’s pretty mindless and basic for three of the game’s four chapters, but Chapter 3 pushed me to a breaking point with monstrous HP pools and the need to take my idiotic AI companions into battle. Guiding my knucklehead friends around the world and trying to keep them from getting stuck was the absolute worst, and I probably would have quit DQB if I hadn’t been on review. And don’t even get me started on the bosses. These encounters, especially Chapter 2’s giant bird, feel terrible and never mesh well with the more creative parts of the game.
And there’s some flashes of brilliance at a game that might have been. You make an elemental projectile to damage specific enemies, but then it never really comes up again. You make freakin’ bombs at one point, but you only use them for boss battles and the occasional mining expedition. A charge attack lets you quickly level out some land and hit lots of foes at once, but there’s no combo system to speak of. Heck, even a two square javelin-type weapon would have given some much needed depth to the combat. DQB is brimming with creativity, but it seems more like a prototype at times for something that could be truly spectacular down the line. Combat shouldn’t be the focus of DQB, but if the developers insist on making you do so much of it then they really should expand it into something special.
I can’t stress how awesome the building and exploration parts of DQB are. Roaming the land, cutting down trees, exploring caves, and building your own platforming solutions to environmental puzzles is incredibly fun and represents some of my favorite gaming moments of this console generation. There’s a super strong foundation to DQB and all of the parts are there to craft a masterpiece (all puns intended). It’s just a shame that the game forces you to into tedious situations that never gel with the rest of the package. You’ll most likely tire of the enemies and shallow encounters long before you could possibly build everything available. Here’s hoping we get a sequel to expand upon the good and polish up the bad in the not-too-distant future.