Dragon Quest Builders

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Oct. 11, 2016 (US), Oct. 14, 2016 (EU)


PS4 Review - 'Dragon Quest Builders'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 11, 2016 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Dragon Quest Builders is a Minecraft-like, open-world action/RPG where you are tasked to rebuild the Alefgard Kingdon, which was destroyed by Dragonlord.

Buy Dragon Quest Builders

Minecraft is probably the biggest game to come out in the past decade. For all that Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto stands out in our minds, it's hard to compare to the sheer overwhelming and unbelievable popularity of the little game that could. It's also no surprise that clones and knockoffs are fast and furious. Surprisingly, there's little in the way of big-name attempts at capturing Minecraft's popularity. Dragon Quest Builders is interesting because it's undeniably an attempt to ride the coattails of the biggest game in recent memory, but at the same time, it has enough of its own personality to not feel like a mere clone.

Builders opens up after the Bad Ending of the original Dragon Quest. Instead of saving the world, the great hero accepted the evil offer to temp up with the terrible Dragonlord. The result was that the world was plunged into a terrible darkness, and monsters overran the human kingdoms. The players take control of The Builder, a young person who awakens from stasis many years in the future. The Builder has the power to create new things from thin air and is the only person who can restore the kingdoms and bring back light to the world. The Dragonlord's forces won't sit idly by and allow this to happen, and a new adventure begins to pit the hero against the original JRPG bad guy.

The core of Builders has a lot in common with Minecraft. You're thrown into a simple generated world and given the task of building. You can do this by hitting various blocks until they collapse into raw materials, which you can then translate into new items. Smash up a tree, get some branches, and take them to your crafting bench to make a chest. Use that chest to store items, so you can build a forge. Use the forge to craft better building material, so your town is safer. Rinse and repeat until your tiny town has evolved into a bustling JRPG town. Many of the core mechanics, from the basic gameplay to the health mechanics and even the inventory system, borrow from Minecraft, but there's enough originality so Builders doesn't feel like it's merely copying the king.

Buildings are built from scratch. A basic building requires walls without a gap, a door, and a light source. Once you've done this, it qualifies as a building and can be modified. As you play through the game, you'll unlock and discover recopies, which show how a building can be modified and what that does. Put two beds in a building, and it becomes a house and gives residents a boost to their HP. Create an armoire, and you'll have a dressing room. Further modify that dressing room with some ornamental armor and weapons, and it changes into an armory, which boosts the combat ability of your residents. Not all items you can place completely modify a building; some merely boost its quality or are simply there to look neat. The game rewards you for decoration and focusing on making a home feel homey instead of having a strict minimum.

Builders is quick to emphasize that your character is a builder but not a hero. This means that building is the only meaningful way to get more powerful. Crafting new equipment allows you to build up your character's base stats. Finishing quests for characters will sometimes unlock stat-boosting seeds or new abilities. The most important of all is your base level. Rather than gaining experience points, your level is determined by the sum total of your buildings and their quality, so you'll want to focus on making your home as stylish as possible. Spending the time to make sure every house has windows or that the sickroom has flowers does a lot to improve your base level, which in turn attracts new people to your base. On the flip side, if enemies attack your base and it isn't defended well enough, you can lose base level during the attack and need to rebuild.

Combat in Builders is of the simple action-RPG variety, which is pretty much what you'd expect. The bulk of your combat time is spent mashing the attack button near enemies and waiting for them to fall over. As the game progresses, you get more options. Throwing stones, a charge attack, and a shield that can block enemy charges all come into play, but the key is that combat isn't the focus of the game so much as getting your stats and supplies high enough that you can reliably farm monsters and defeat the occasional boss.  It's fun enough, but you won't play Builders for the fights.

Bosses in Builders come in the form of minibosses and large end-of-chapter bosses. Minibosses are either regular foes with enhanced stats or foes with minor gimmicks, such as a snail-monster who sits in the middle of a poison marsh and requires you to sneak over to them while avoiding long-range bombardment. The end-of-chapter bosses are larger and generally can't be damaged normally, but you'll need a special item to defeat them. The first boss is a giant golem who is normally immune to damage, so you have to use a special shield to block all of his attacks until he gets so angry that he leaves himself vulnerable to damage.

The bosses in Builders are fun but not particularly the highlight of the game. They encourage you to figure out building solutions, but they also feel limited. I preferred the horde encounters, where swarms of enemies attacked my base, because I found it to be more fun to build a clever set of defenses for my hometown. The bosses can be genuinely enjoyable to fight. If Builders were more of a straight action-RPG instead of a pseudo-Minecraft, I'd have no real complaints, but I sometimes felt that the gameplay mechanics didn't take advantage of it being a building game.

Where Builders thrives is in its structure. It is obviously inspired by Minecraft but has a focused plot and story, which make it a lot easier to form coherent goals. The goals give you reasons to drive forward beyond sheer exploration and function as a lengthy tutorial for the various mechanics. Once you finish the plot, you'll be more than capable of hopping into the sandbox mode and building whatever you like. Build a certain building, and beat a certain monster. As you progress, you'll get more complex and less focused goals. The game is divided into chapters, with each chapter being a (relative) start from scratch. That might sound tedious, but each chapter swaps up how your city builds, so it works quite well and gives you the fun of creating without feeling too repetitive.

The structure benefits Builders and sets it apart from Minecraft. While it obviously plays a lot like its incredibly popular inspiration, the focus on story and goals reminds me more of the old SNES game ActRaiser than anything else. You can play it just like a Minecraft-like and have plenty of fun doing so, but where Builders shines is in giving you excuses and reasons to do things. The only real flaw is that this extreme game structure means you're going to play a lot of Builders before you can access some basic recipes and mechanics. It takes a good long time to unlock your first accessory. This may be a plus to some people, since the game is well structured enough that it's fun to gradually unlock new challenges and tasks. To others who just want to build their Dragon Quest-themed Minecraft world, it may feel too slow. The focus is on simple, accessible and enjoyable gameplay, which means that anyone who's gotten into creating complex computers and excessively detailed castles will find the tools in Builders to be a bit basic.

Builders is built upon a lot of nagging flaws. There isn't one giant major problem that ruins the game, and most of the problems are easily overlooked, but they can build up. The user interface is just a little awkward and requires fiddling around to find shortcuts that make simple tasks easier. The X and Square buttons are context-sensitive, and sometimes the context-sensitive recognition isn't great, so you may throw a sick person on the ground instead of gently placing them on a sickbed.

Perhaps the biggest flaw is the camera, which works fine 90% of the time, but if you use it anywhere with a roof, it starts to choke. If you're digging in a cave or entering a dungeon, you can expect it to be uncomfortably close. The town-building even discourages roof-building seemingly for this reason. You certainly can build roofs, but it's clear why it isn't a requirement. The important thing is that these nagging flaws are just that. There's no design flaw bad enough that you won't want to keep playing; there are just a lot of little things that you wish they'd fixed before release.  Even the poor camera control is a minor issue that leads to occasional moments of frustration more than causing any serious problems.

There's a lot of value in Builders. Each of the chapters take a few hours to finish even if you rush, and once you've finished them, you can redo them from scratch with special challenges, such as defeating certain special foes or finishing them in a short time. There's also Terra Incognito, a sandbox monster-free mode where you can spend all your time crafting and building, including several special materials found only in that mode. You can even share your Terra Incognito buildings with friends online, so they can see what you've built up. At the end of the day, Builders truly ends only when you get bored.

Builders is also easily the best-looking Minecraft clone out there. The graphics are simple but colorful, bright and well modeled. Builders also has a Vita version, so the graphics aren't particularly great for a PS4 game, but they're quite solid for a Minecraft clone. The environments are bright and easily readable, the character models are cute, and there are some wonderful replications of classic Dragon Quest monsters. The soundtrack is solid if slightly repetitive. A little more variety would've been welcome, but it does the job well enough. As with the rest of the game, it is filled with nostalgia fodder that is sure to delight Dragon Quest fans.

Dragon Quest Builders is an excellent example of a game that can take after something more popular but retain its own personality. There's no mistaking the Minecraft lineage, but there's just as much Dragon Quest in Dragon Quest Builder's DNA as there is Minecraft. It's charming, it's funny, it's accessible, it's easy to play, and it has enough of its own strengths to be worth playing even for die-hard Minecraft fans. Only some nagging flaws and annoying camera issues drag it down slightly, but it's still worth playing. For Dragon Quest fans, it's a great introduction to the genre, and even for those who aren't, it offers a structure and sheer playability that many Minecraft clones don't.

Score: 8.5/10

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