Capsule Review: Dragon Quest Builders

A Minecraft-like game of gathering, crafting, and building wrapped in an action RPG. It’s also a love letter to the Dragon Quest franchise - the soundtrack is a compilation of newly-orchestrated versions of the series’s best music and the story is set after the optional bad ending of the original Dragon Quest with many nods and references to that game. You play as the legendary Builder gifted with the sacred ability to make items and place blocks, using this power to save the people suffering under the reign of the evil Dragonlord.

Story mode is split into four chapters, each focused on a specific town. The player helps out the inhabitants, explores the area to defeat monsters and collect resources, rebuilds the town, and finally defeats the boss before moving on to the next. Different materials and recipes are available in each chapter, which ties into the world-building - for example, the first chapter takes place in a hilly area and you work mainly with stone, while the second chapter is in a swamp with nearby forest and you work mainly with wood. There’s also a free mode where you can just build unrestricted with all unlocked recipes - I honestly don’t see the point of this, since the entire reason to play Dragon Quest Builders over something like Minecraft is the story and characters which are missing in this mode. But it’s there for those that want it.

For someone like me who likes the creative expression possible in games like Terraria and Starbound but is turned off by their loneliness and lack of narrative, a building RPG is a great combination. Rather than making a personal base, you make a town - and as satifying as it is to defend your own house from attacking monsters, it’s even more satisfying to defend your community from them. Characters with personalities and stories move in and use the facilities you create, grow to like or dislike each other as story events occur, and give you quests that advance the plot.

The game does have two main flaws. The first is shallow combat - enemy attacks interrupt the player but the player’s attacks rarely interrupt the enemy, so the only viable strategy is to dodge attacks and get some hits in while the enemy recovers. It’s a reactive play style with a lot of waiting, making it frustrating to have your exploration or building interrupted by a hostile enemy on whom you must now focus all your attention before you can get back to what you were trying to do.

The second flaw is that most non-core mechanics are underdeveloped since they effectively reset between chapters. Each chapter introduces one or more systems that have a lot of potential but which are only explored on a surface level and then discarded when the chapter ends. Only the first chapter allows you to build defensive traps. Only the second chapter allows you to farm crops. Only the third chapter allows you to build physics machines. And in each case, the implementation lacks depth.

While the mechanical resets mean the game never lives up to its full potential, this mostly makes me want to see an improved followup - now that Square Enix have built a solid foundation with the core gameplay, a sequel could explore and develop the side mechanics and build to a stronger overall experience. And the core gameplay is great - the building mechanics are satisfying, the world is beautiful, and while the characters and story certainly vary between chapters, they are overall surprisingly compelling. I am very much left wanting more and am excited to try the sequel.

I Stopped Playing When: I finished the game and all optional objectives except for the per-chapter speedruns. (Why in the world does this game have speedruns? It’s at its best when it lets you relax and explore and take multiple in-game days to tinker with your town’s layout.)

Docprof's Rating:

Four Stars: Great. Not only did I finish the game, I probably played through the whole thing again and/or completed any optional objectives. It's an easy recommendation for any genre fan.

You can get it or learn more here.