This article was originally posted on Nintendo Scene on 8th February 2018.
It likely surprises no one at this point when it comes to me getting excited about new JRPGs coming out, especially if they are coming to Switch and I can play them whenever and wherever I would like to do so. This being said, I’m not normally a fan of building or sim games such as Stardew Valley or Minecraft as I find them a little overwhelming and ultimately dull. However, I could not ignore Square-Enix when they announced that they were bringing Dragon Quest Builders, their mash-up of building games and their popular Dragon Quest series, to the Switch. I wanted, at least to have a play around in their blocky reinterpretation of the traditional Dragon Quest formula. One question though, how is the game?
The story of Dragon Quest Builders follows a familiar pattern to the mainline Dragon Quest games, in that an indefinable darkness is threatening the world and it falling to our plucky, amnesiac protagonist to save it whilst trying to discover who he is. The twist in Builders, however, is that the world has already been decimated and that it is the protagonist’s role as the Builder of legend to rebuild it. Furthermore, in the player’s journey through the world, the different areas in the world, which are accessible in their own separate chapters, have been struck by the blight in markedly different ways making for different narrative experiences that still contribute to the overarching story. The main tale itself is told slowly, and mostly through dialogue with NPCs (non-player characters), although there are some enigmatic and mysterious sequences that play occasionally when the protagonist sleeps that further the intrigue as to who he actually is or used to be.
The gameplay itself entirely revolves around the building mechanic. Every enemy, most pieces of scenery and even pieces of the game world itself can be attacked then collected as materials for use elsewhere. You start the game with a simple stick that breaks easily and can be used to gather basic materials such as earth and broken branches; but before long you’re wielding sledgehammers and swords that not only make short work of enemies, but can break apart harder materials such as stone and brick. Placing materials is easily done as it is mapped to a single button press, and after a short while it becomes second nature, even if it is initially a little fiddly and you’ll likely misplace a lot of materials on early attempts. One piece of advice that can be given at this point is to hunt for materials everywhere, because the number of items that can be made is entirely dependent on how many materials the player has discovered in any given area. However, before all this, you first you need to have a safe space in which to build and prosper.
This is where the towns come into play, which the player creates by placing a heralding flag into a plinth, creating a set area around it that seems to resist the darkness of the rest of the area. Once the flag is placed, lost people will begin to flock to you, each with their own requests and back stories. Their quests can range from merely bringing them a certain amount of materials, to building them particular rooms by following a blueprint they give you. Although these rooms have to follow the guidelines given, after the quest is completed the player can destroy and rebuild the rooms to whatever specifications they wish, as long as they contain the objects and furniture they need to to qualify as the room type. Also, the town will level up if you have enough points across all of the rooms in the town. This can be done by furnishing the rooms with decorative items, changing the walls and floors to higher quality materials, or by increasing their size.
The combat within Dragon Quest Builders is far simpler than the mainline games, with the player simply having to clout the enemies until they lose all of their HP, and this makes almost all of the encounters mostly trivial and more of a nuisance. In fact, the main problem you will face when combatting the various iconic Dragon Quest monsters is the struggles with the camera, which is fully manipulable but often swings with no warning and gets trapped on scenery far too easily. The only time that the basic enemies can become overly troublesome is during the night time segments of gameplay in which the standard adversaries become more ferocious and an additional enemy type appears that will follow you relentlessly until you either sleep or dawn breaks. Sleeping will not only bring it back to morning, but will restore all of the players HP. Note that this doesn’t restore your rather cumbersome hunger meter, which frustratingly has to be restored with food found in the world or cooked in town.
There are, however, bosses at the end of each chapter that take place around that areas town and are far more challenging encounters. Each of the bosses require a particular invention to have been built, without which the player cannot hope to defeat them, which is more frustrating when you have built the correct object but placed it incorrectly and are then locked into a battle that cannot be won. The problem with this can be that the bosses then become frustrating trial and error affairs, as the player tries to work out how to adequately stop the boss from destroying the town you have spent copious hours on building. In fact, rather than the satisfying bookends to the missions that I’m sure they were intended as, the bosses feel poorly implemented and out of place both mechanically and thematically from the rest of the game, therefore feeling more like an agitating barrier to progress than a satisfying end to a chapter.
Everything about the aesthetics of Dragon Quest Builders simply oozes charm. The blocky landscapes are reminiscent of games like Minecraft but less pixellated, the enemy designs (all lifted from the Dragon Quest’s illustrious bestiary) are full of character, and all of the locations are unique and distinct. A key point to bring forward about the visuals is that all of the protagonist and NPC designs have been created by the legendary Akira Toriyama, and thus this game feels very much like a mainline Dragon Quest. This is further enhanced by the sound design, with all of the effects and music lifted directly from the series. All of the familiar chimes and tunes are here, with the level up sound being used when the towns level up, and even the magic spell sound being used by the Meowgician enemies among others.
So, should you buy Dragon Quest Builders? If you are looking for a game with a lot of encouragement to experiment but with a strong sense of direction, one that allows the player to create their own working towns from the ground up and also rewards them for fully exploring areas to find hidden secrets. The game looks fantastic and plays well in all three of the Switch play styles, with no noticeable drops in quality between docked and undocked. If you have ever been interested in games like Minecraft but was deterred from it by how intimidating it can be in scope, then this is a fantastic midpoint. It’s not without its flaws, but its charm, simplicity and familiarity (if you’re a fan of Dragon Quest) more than make up for them.
Thank you for Nintendo UK for kindly supplying the code for this game.
Dragon Quest Builders is out now on Nintendo Switch.