I’ve always been fascinated by the things people manage to create in video games like Dragon Quest Builders, and envious that I’m not able to do such things myself. Sure, I can always blame the fact that I’m almost always too busy reviewing games to take on big projects, but I suspect that’d be a deflection away from my simple lack of creativity in that regard.
I’m never going to be the guy that builds a scale replica of the Game of Thrones set in Minecraft, nor am I going to be the one to make an auto-running music level in Super Mario Maker that plays Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” (that was a joke, but it’s been done already, hasn’t it?). Despite my limitations, I still manage to have a good time in my own way with these titles, particularly when there’s some sort of traditional game structure laid on top of the creation system — and that’s exactly why I had such a good time with Square Enix’s take on the crafting and building genre.
As you might expect, since Dragon Quest is an RPG franchise, the developers have seen fit to outfit Dragon Quest Builders with a narrative justification for all your constructing activities. Continuing in the franchise’s long tradition of “chosen ones,” your created hero will be the “Builder,” a legendary figure whose coming has been hotly anticipated for years.
It seems people have lost the ability to create things, and a glut of monsters have reduced the human population to just a few folks. That means it’s your job to travel to various worlds and fix that by building towns with houses, castles, fortifications and more — all while protecting them from the looming threat of the monsters — in order to get humanity back on track. As is customary for Dragon Quest, the plot itself is nothing to write home about, but the characters’ dialogue is charming and fun to read.
At its core, the gameplay here is all about knocking things down to build up better ones. When you start, you’re little more than a hobo in rags with not a single thing to your name. After a quick word from the mysterious being that’s apparently sent you down to fix things, your objectives quickly become clear: beat objects and enemies with your weapons to gain materials, then use those materials to create new things. At first, you’ll be focusing on simply getting together basic weapons and facilities — like a bedroom to spend the dangerous nights in — but things begin to open up before long.
As you come to what remains of an old town and begin to piece it together, attracting an array of needy villagers (all of whom have quests for you to fulfill!) and building more and more complex facilities, you slowly gain access to more and more material types, blueprints, weapons, armor and so on. This is the sort of game where the layers peel back slowly, revealing ever-increasing depth just when you think you’ve seen all it has to offer. Predictably, things start with the practical and then move into the cosmetic.
I really enjoyed creating different areas in Dragon Quest Builders, even with the knowledge that my humble locales might not be close to the size, scope and ambition that some other players’ will employ. There’s a smart ease-of-use here that makes everything — from gathering materials to crafting items to constructing buildings — intuitive and simple without sacrificing your freedom to do things as you please. It might peeve some players that they do have to work with certain limitations, such as mandatory items in rooms for them to be considered a certain type of facility (e.g. at least two beds, a door and a light source to be a “simple bedroom,” and so on), but I found these requirements and blueprints a pleasure to work with.
What I found less of a pleasure was the continued franchise trend of menus that are more cumbersome than they need to be. I complained in my review of Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past that everything from inventory management to equipment swapping was an annoyance thanks to an outdated interface, and that same criticism holds true here. I’m hoping that someone at Square Enix eventually realizes that “retro” menus, purely for tradition’s sake, are a huge pain — in a game that focuses so heavily on sorting and using so many different items, it’s obnoxious how even the slightest inconvenience here can hold things up.
It might also strike some people as extremely odd that an experience like this — ostensibly about building cool things for other people to see — is single-player only. In this age of Let’s Plays and livestreams, I hardly think that’s a huge limitation, but I do think Minecraft-likes should include a way for people to meet up and build stuff together. Producer Noriyoshi Fujimoto says that’s happening if there’s ever a Dragon Quest Builders II, but it’s kind of lame to make players wait for a sequel for such a sought-after feature.
When it comes to the incorporation of role-playing elements into the building activities, things are a little more reminiscent of modern “looting” games than your traditional Dragon Quest of yore. That is to say, you don’t actually gain experience from beating up the enemies you encounter when you go out into the world to gather materials. Instead, you’ve got to craft weapons and armor, for which you get stronger and stronger recipes and materials as you continue to progress. Overall, while this adds to the collecting and creating fun, the extremely simple hack-and-slash gameplay is not positioned as a real focus — it’s more of a means to an end to get to the materials you need, and a test of the fortifications you’ve built around your areas.
The presentation of Dragon Quest Builders is about as good as you could expect for a title with a simultaneous PS4 and Vita release, which is to say, okay. The graphics are colorful and cute, and pretty similar to the ones you’d see in any other game in the series. It’s a shame I can’t say the same for the soundtrack, which — while decently composed — uses lame, fake-sounding samples that drag each track down. It’s not the worst I’ve heard, but to hear these tunes garbled through such poorly-synthesized virtual instruments is a real travesty when I know the possibility is there for cleaner, crisper sound.
I may not be the person to use Dragon Quest Builders to recreate famous landmarks in miniature, but imagining what people will do with it is enough for me. Since there’s no multiplayer available here, the vast majority of sharing will have to take place in the realms of Let’s Plays, livestreams and screen captures. While that’s a bummer, I think the robust set of materials Square Enix has given players, in combination with intuitive mechanics and controls, is more than enough fun as a single-player experience to recommend on its own merits.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Dragon Quest Builders continues in the series' tradition of being slightly cumbersome and unpolished, but getting lost in its toybox pleasures is easy and extremely fun.