Square Enix have proven that they’re not afraid to experiment with the ‘Dragon Quest’ franchise, with the much-loved RPG series seeing multiple spin-offs that branch out into different genres. Last year’s ‘Dragon Quest Heroes’ was fantastic, merging the ‘Dragon Quest’ universe with the button-bashing army destroying ‘Musou’ style of game. It was fun and it brought the franchise into the console limelight again, even if it wasn’t in the form of the eagerly-anticipated next numbered entry in the series.
With Dragon Quest Builders, Square Enix have once again shown a willing to experiment with the franchise. It’s a concoction of the charming ‘Dragon Quest’ world and the building mechanics of ‘Minecraft’, offering something that I’d have never thought to exist but actually makes perfect sense. Seriously, Dragon Quest Builders is one of the stand out hits of 2016 for me so far, offering something that manages to feel fresh and enjoyable despite being based around well-trodden genres.
Dragon Quest Builders put you in a world that’s been taken over by the Dragonlord, someone long-time ‘Dragon Quest’ fans will recognise as the antagonist of the original game. They’ll recognise him for good reason too – Dragon Quest Builders is set in an alternate universe of the original game where the villains won in the end, leaving the world in a state of ruin and turmoil. This is why the bad guys should NEVER win.
You’re cast as a protagonist who you can build from scratch, customising their name, gender, and basic facets of their appearance. After being awoken by the mysterious Goddess, you take on your role as the ‘Builder’ – someone who isn’t a hero, but is tasked with rebuilding and essentially saving the world nonetheless. It’s a mysterious role that you’ll discover more about as the game goes on, though everything pans out in a way that did feel a little predictable from the get go.
Whilst the plot is typically the driving force in an RPG, Dragon Quest Builders never takes itself too seriously nor does it expand upon itself too much. Take the opening tutorial of the game for example, which shows the impatient Builder not only trying to rush the Goddess through her explanation of the game’s mechanics, but actually falling asleep from boredom during them too. It’s all very light hearted, which is a theme found throughout the rest of the game too. Dragon Quest Builders always keeps the tone charming and fun, though the ‘Dragon Quest’ series has never been known to to stray into the serious side of things anyway.
The one obvious plot point that you will follow through the whole of the game is the re-building of the world, the main job you’ve been tasked with as the Builder. This is where Dragon Quest Builders’ ‘Minecraft’ inspirations really come into play, tasking you with mining for materials, crafting tools, building structures, discovering and concocting new recipes – if you’ve done it in ‘Minecraft’, you’ll do it here too. Whilst we’ve done all of these things in the sandbox-building genre for years now, there’s something a bit more special about it in Dragon Quest Builders. I’ve never been one to simply seek out resources and build things for the sake of it, but I couldn’t help to be drawn into re-building Dragon Quest Builders’ world all thanks to the feeling of progression it offered.
Dragon Quest Builders offers an RPG approach with its progression, with the game split into chapters that span across varying locations. There are plenty of quests to complete throughout the game, some of which will progress the story whilst others will just help you please the citizens of the world. It gave everything a sense of purpose that is often missing in the genre – whilst I’ve always enjoyed games that offered full freedom, they typically never offered enough to keep me engaged in the overall experience for the long-term. Dragon Quest Builders on the other hand kept me hooked from start to end, with a plethora of tasks constantly keeping me busy. Sure, they often followed the same formula we’ve seen in other similar games (find this, build that), but the interactions between characters that each task brought made a big difference for me.
Whilst you’re the one building the world around you, it’s the characters themselves that bring it to life. I’ll admit there’s a lot of RPG stereotypes to be found and the character development isn’t quite up there with a traditional RPG, but each NPC still had a terrific amount of personality and felt like an individual rather than someone placed there for the sake of it. You’d never know who you’d meet next, what they’d bring to your town and, most importantly, what they’d expect from you. It’s great – whilst building is the meat and bones of Dragon Quest Builders, the characters you meet and the tasks they set for you are the heart and soul.
Re-building the towns was enjoyable, with the many citizens of the game’s world typically telling you what’s needed as well as where to build it. You still get the freedom to forge your own town how you like though, so the guidance never really restricts your creativity. Knowing what is needed and then learning how to do it was helpful and taught me how to be a better player in the later chapters as well as for the unlockable free-play mode.
Constructing buildings is simple – all you need to do is make sure that each room is at least two blocks high, has a door, and a source of light. That’s just a simple breakdown of it though and more specialist buildings will require a lot more prerequisites before they can be built. You’ll unlock plenty of recipes and blueprints simply from progressing through the game’s story though, so you’ll never run out of things to create. Of course, you still have to find the materials needed to build them, but that’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game.
You can find materials either from mining in the wilderness, cutting at objects in your surroundings, or by simply defeating monsters. A lot of the game’s monsters will be familiar to fans of the ‘Dragon Quest’ series. Whilst everyone will recognise the series’ trademark ‘Slime’ monsters, others such as the ‘Golem’ and ‘Dracky’ will feel familiar too. The game will certainly pull you in with its enemy selection and you’ll constantly see more and more familiar faces the further you progress through the game.
Combat in Dragon Quest Builders felt like something out of ‘The Legend of Zelda’ series more than anything else, taking an action RPG approach that’ll have you slashing away at enemies. Night time brings out nastier foes too, so you’ll have to be wary of that. There’s nothing worse than being caught out by a deadly beast in the dark of night, but there is the feeling of satisfaction when you eventually manage to take them out too. Admittedly, there’s not a massive amount of depth to it all, but it still manages to feel entertaining. You don’t level up in a traditional sense either; your character’s combat stats will never improve but rather their equipment, encouraging you to seek out the materials required to create more powerful weapons and armours. All your equipment needs to be up to snuff if you’re going to survive in this world, especially during the impressive boss encounters that demand the best of both your fighting and building abilities.
Whilst Dragon Quest Builders is at its best during the story mode, you’ll also unlock an enjoyable free-play mode that allows you to play through the game without the restrictions of the story and tasks set upon you. I’ve already mentioned that I enjoy having a purpose to the things I’m doing so naturally I didn’t spend a lot of time in the free-play mode, but it might certainly be more appealing to gamers who simply enjoy sculpting their own world without having to work through phases of a story or see their work come to a halt when they reach the end of a chapter.
Visually Dragon Quest Builders looks absolutely superb, with the game blending the blocky style of ‘Minecraft’ with the established colourful and vibrant aesthetic of the ‘Dragon Quest’ universe. Honestly, it looks great, offering a style that’ll keep you impressed despite its simplistic look. Enemy and character designs are on point too, whilst the blocky look of the game feels unique and pretty despite its resemblance to the ugly ‘Minecraft’.
The soundtrack of the game is absolutely fantastic too, bringing an epic adventurous vibe that really drew me into the fantasy building experience. You wouldn’t expect anything less from such a famed franchise, but still, the composers have excelled themselves with a series of excellent compositions that stuck with me well after playing the game. Of course, this could be owed to the fact that the drawn out nature of the game had me listening to some of the same pieces over and over again, but that’s hardly a drawback when the quality was so good.
Dragon Quest Builders does a have few issues that I noticed during the game, such as the camera that could often zoom in a little too much for enjoyment. It’s nice to be able to see everything around you in a game like this, so when it’s literally fixed to the protagonist’s face there isn’t a whole lot you can do. There’s also the fact that nothing carries over between chapters, forcing the player to find all recipes, blueprints and materials all over again. Whilst this does revitalise the experience for each chapter, it also gave me less incentive to horde materials unless I really needed them. I’m a sucker for seeing something and thinking “I might need that later…” – the fact that I knew I’d lose it if I didn’t end up using it discouraged me from optional adventuring though.
Dragon Quest Builders had me engrossed in the sandbox-building genre more than any other game before it, with the feeling of creativity it offers equally matched by the sense of immersion you’ll feel in the world you’re creating. I actually had a reason to discover and create everything around me, in turn giving me an incentive to play on and on. It’s refreshing – I don’t typically find myself enjoying genres like this all that much, but all it took was a bit of ‘Dragon Quest’ magic and I’m now totally hooked.
It’s fun, it’s colourful, it’s charming, plus it’s surprisingly meaty with its run-time (and that’s not including the hours you can spend in free-play mode). The overall experience simply provides plenty to entertain ‘Dragon Quest’ fans, RPG fans, and gamers who simply enjoy sculpting their own worlds.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 14/10/2016
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Playstation Vita