Review: Dragon Quest Builders’ structure makes freedom sweeter

Dragon Quest Builders has clear Minecraft inspirations, but its JRPG sensibilities make it far from a carbon copy. With a third-person view and a larger focus on aesthetics, it certainly looks different, but it’s the game’s quest structure that makes it play like its own thing.

The surprising part, though? These quests don’t serve to constrain players so much as guide them and provide a framework to shirk when they want.

Dragon Quest Builders

The premise of Dragon Quest Builders is that it’s a direct sequel to the first Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior in America, at the time), that explores what would have happened to the world if the hero of that game had indeed agreed to team up with the villain in the final scene rather than oppose them. This… doesn’t really result in a lot of plot, exactly, so much as it allows the developers to create a world that is very nostalgic and reminiscent of that game’s overworld, but with a level of disrepair that truly needs your help.

The setting and place of Dragon Quest Builders really is a constant presence.

And it is your help, specifically. Apparently you’re the only one left in the world who can build or invent things, so the remaining scattered citizens just have to lean on you and ask you for assistance. Your character will pick up new items and be inspired by them, allowing you to craft new objects and, at times, set them up to be used by others.

Dragon Quest Builders

Already this is a lot more of a setup than Minecraft ever got, and combined with a curated world rather than a randomly generated one, the setting and place of Builders really is a constant presence. As this is an import review, I do have to warn that the language barrier is going to hamper that somewhat, but in terms of actually playing the game, paying attention to highlighted words with object symbols next to them should give you the context you need to know what you’re doing next most of the time.

Dragon Quest BuildersDragon Quest Builders

The villagers’ quests form the backbone for each of Dragon Quest Builders‘ sequential areas. Rather than a large, sprawling world, the game contains things into four chapters, each potentially a dozen hours or more depending on your play style. This allows players to go back to that initial building phase that can often be the most enjoyable part of the process, and it also lets you take the techniques you’ve learned and items you’ve unlocked and integrate them into your camp’s aesthetic.

Most of the tasks are of the simpler variety: gather these things, kill that enemy or build this room. The fetch quests are often excuses to explore the world and encounter new environments, as well as a way to make sure you, say, pick up the blue gel so you get inspired to invent the torch with it. All of this actually serves to make running off the beaten path more enticing, possibly because it creates a beaten path to begin with. Your compass may tell you your goal is to the east, but what is that to the north? Is that a golem? You have to go check that out. It’s interesting that the most prominent instances of these moments involve dragons themselves… no one ever really bothers to send you on a dragon quest for a long time.

Dragon Quest Builders

The other half of the game is, of course, building things, and while you can do what you’d like where you’d like, the game rewards you for putting effort into augmenting and protecting your “camp,” or town. Sometimes you’ll be given actual blueprints that you place on the ground and build atop with specific materials, giving you some direction and teaching you how things work but letting you go your own way the rest of the time. Other times you’ll just be asked to build a room with a specific function, like an inn. For you, that means the room has to have lighting and beds and such, but how you choose to configure them and with what materials can be a blast.

Of course, you can do all these things in Minecraft, but creativity within constraints can often be a lot more rewarding than a pure sandbox.

Of course, you can do all these things in Minecraft, but creativity within constraints can often be a lot more rewarding than a pure sandbox. For example, to maintain the Dragon Quest aesthetic and also make a third-person camera work, the game requires that walls be two blocks high and fairly heavily discourages the idea of a roof. But do you want your inn to look like a castle throne room? Or have an inexplicably numerous amount of wall sconces everywhere? Go ahead! Just… keep those beds in there and you’re good.

Dragon Quest Builders

The town building also works well with Builders‘ rather fun combat system. It’s a bit like top-down Zelda, with sword-swinging and a few other weapons at your disposal and your best bet involving using the tactics of the surrounding area. This is combined with the ability to build hazards like spikes and flame-spitting statues to create a fun defense component, and collecting more and more villagers also gives you some backup while you’re racing around the camp walls to keep them intact. By scripting these elements into waves on an otherwise-static map, it lets them be actually designed, creating more complex challenges than the omnipresent middling threat of Minecraft.

This is not all to say that Dragon Quest Builders is perfect. Rather, it’s a first effort in much the same way as Dragon Quest Heroes: full of promise, but with some things to work out in the future. It could use some multiplayer functionality, even if it is a limited form to maintain the scripted elements rather than a full Minecraft free-for-all. The third-person block-placement controls can be a bit finicky from time to time, making larger structures a bit of a hassle. Still, these are minor issues that can (and should) be fixed in a sequel that this game’s definitely good enough to deserve.

Dragon Quest Builders

Dragon Quest Builders really does stand on its own in all but surface comparisons, and it serves to provide a reason for action and sense of direction that sandbox games with similar elements have always lacked. Also it looks great, the combat is fun and there’s a whole heaping helping of nostalgia along with it. Hopefully it will make it to Western territories, but even if it doesn’t, you should check it out anyway.

Score: 9/10
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: January 28, 2016 (JPN)
Developer: Square Enix
Platform(s): PS4 (reviewed), PS3, Vita
Questions? Check out our review guide.
This review is based on an imported product. It is based on the experience of playing the game with little to no knowledge of the language, and the content may change if/when released in other regions.

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