Square Enix delivers a Minecraft/Dragon Quest hybrid with astonishingly pleasant results.
Developer: Square Enix Business Division 5
Publisher: Square Enix
Format: PS3, PS4 (reviewed), PS Vita
Released: October 11, 2016
It’s Minecraft and Dragon Quest.
That seems reductive, but it’s the best description of Dragon Quest Builders you could hope to see. Imagine Minecraft and then throw a load of Dragon Quest stuff into it – you’ve just imagined Dragon Quest Builders, the hot new game from Square Enix!
Explore the world, smash the environment apart and fight monsters to get materials, use the things you find to craft items, use those items to create whatever you feel like – Square Enix has thoroughly plundered Minecraft like so many “me too” indie games trying desperately to get through Steam Greenlight by chomping Mojang’s flavor.
There’s one major difference between this effort and all the other wannabes however – Dragon Quest Builders is really, really good.
Part of what makes Builders stand out – and far more personally entertaining than Minecraft – is how is adds some structure and story to the concept. Playing through DQB‘s campaign chapters, you’ll never be short of specific objectives that introduce you to core concepts in a digestible fashion.
Most crafting games present very little guidance – if any – allowing players a great deal of freedom in how they interact with the world. This can be liberating, but I often find myself wandering aimless, desperately poking around and trying to make my own fun. Truth is, I’m just not the kind of person who gets pleasure from constructing sprawling towns and ornate buildings simply for the sake of doing it.
Of course, I hold no grudge against those who do, and I’m routinely impressed by the amazing things people build. I just can’t enjoy it, myself.
The sense of purpose in Builders keeps me invested far more than any similar game. As the legendary Builder – a person capable of creating things in a world where humans have forgotten how – players are tasked with rebuilding fallen cities to their former glory, meeting and enlisting new NPCs as citizens with each significant growth.
These NPCs will bring with them new missions, often asking the player to find materials and construct previously unseen things. As the Builder claims materials for the first time, they’ll unlock recipes for fresh creations, learning to fashion a variety of walls, doors, weapons, crafting stations, edible dishes, and more.
Rooms within the city are built by laying down walls at least two blocks high, then adding both a door and a light source such as torch or sconce. From there, rooms can become more specific by laying down key objects – a forge will turn it into a smithy, a cookfire will create a kitchen, a mattress will give you a bedroom, etcetera.
Beyond that, rooms can be upgraded by placing complimentary items in them, and enhanced with various decorations such as flowers, chairs, and dolls. Every time an item’s placed in a room they grant points, and when enough points are accrued, the overall base goes up a level.
I’ve had so much more fun building things in Dragon Quest Builders because everything I create inherently means much more. The residents of my city will use the facilities, they’ll surround me and applaud whenever I’ve completed a major task, and everything’s being constructed with an end goal in mind.
Defending the perimeter of one’s base is also an essential component, with traps and barricades helping fend off the monster attacks that appear as wave-based missions throughout each campaign chapter.
Survival is a key aspect of the game, as one might expect, with a hunger meter and a need to find shelter at night lest the nocturnal monsters prove too dangerous. Square Enix wisely kept the survival demands light – it takes a long time to starve, and food is plentiful enough to mean one never feels too discouraged from exploring.
Dragon Quest Builders is one of the few “survival crafting” games to not constantly harass the player with needs and limitations, placing player enjoyment above the sleeve-tugging commonly found in games that throw hunger, thirst, diseases, and more at their audience.
The only major letdown is how progress resets from chapter to chapter, with the Builder arbitrarily “forgetting” all recipes and losing any equipment whenever a chapter is completed and they move to the next locale. It’s hard to get back into the game when you’ve spent so much time crafting cool armor and making nice things, only to begin anew from scratch.
Combat is also a pain in the arse to deal with, mostly because I expect better from a game with the Dragon Quest name attached. The monsters encountered throughout the land are dealt with in basic hack n’ slash battles where taking damage is almost a given. It’s mindless, and leaves little room for technique.
Even worse, enemies do contact damage like it’s the bloody 1980s, and the player character’s attack range is pitiful. Simply moving close enough to land a blow can cause the Builder to stagger and take an insultingly small amount of damage just for touching the target.
Upon completion of the first chapter, a sandbox mode called Terra Incognita unlocks, providing all the freeform gameplay of Minecraft should anybody require it. This is where you may build things to last, and even upload them for the enjoyment of other players.
There’ll be no handholding as players are expected to make their own way, using everything they learned in the campaign’s first chapter to succeed.
Unique items and gladiatorial combat against monster hordes can be enjoyed in Terra Incognita, with more stuff added when new campaign chapters are concluded. I imagine many players will be able to spend hours upon hours with this mode, though personally it leaves me feeling disconnected and listless as Minecraft and its ilk typically does.
I’m all about that campaign, even if it does have the same problem old Bullfrog games had – that sense of sorrow in completing the final objective and saying goodbye to the theme park/hospital/dungeon I’ve lovingly, methodically created if I want to move things along.
Dragon Quest‘s classic aesthetic lends a naturally endearing flavor to Builders with familiar character designs from Akira Toriyama and iconic music from Nanking massacre denier Koichi Sugiyama. Though the world itself has a “blocky” look reminiscent of the game from which it takes its major cues, textures and flora are detailed and colorful to bring it in line with the RPG series’ artistic direction.
There are some problems with the in-game camera, specifically when navigating anything that has an interior. By default, rooms do not have nor require ceilings, allowing one to maintain a birdseye view of the action. If one does opt for roofs or enters any covered space, they’ll need to push the camera around to see what’s happening.
For the most part, the game works well with a third-person character, but there are times where being able to switch to first-person would be nice.
[Edit: There is a first-person look mode, activated by clicking the right stick. At least on home consoles, anyway.]
I realize I’ve brought up Minecraft a lot in this review, but it’s impossible not to constantly compare it to the game that made Notch a billionaire since the inspiration isn’t even vaguely hidden. Ultimately, though, I have to confess I find Builders to be the better game, the more rewarding experience, and ultimately a superior production.
With the humor and silliness of Dragon Quest, a series of goals to keep players compelled, as well as the introduction of form and meaning in that everso popular survival crafting gameplay, Builders escapes being the cynical reskin it may at first glance appear to be. On the contrary, it evidences more love and care than could be expected.
Square Enix wanted more than just a Minecraft clone with Dragon Quest art. It is a Minecraft clone with Dragon Quest art, most definitely, but it’s also got a little extra magic all its own.
Now if you’ll excuse me, these spikes won’t surround my obsidian walls by themselves.