At some point in 2010, a friend convinced me to try out this weird little indie computer game called Minecraft. Even though I could never have imagined at that point the phenomenon Mojang’s building/survival project would become, it was still a game I became lost in for weeks and months at a time. Minecraft was about building your own worlds, and finding adventures in them through experiences both big and small, planned and unplanned.
While I never felt like Minecraft needed to have some sort of “story” or “purpose” or “point” to it beyond being a playbox of materials and monsters, there was always part of me that didwish the game could also be more like—well, a game. So, when Square Enix first showed off Dragon Quest Builders, I was quite excited. A hopefully-competent Minecraft clone—something its devs didn’t even begin to try to deny—with story, and NPCs, and proper combat, and other elements of the beloved Dragon Quest franchise? I was so ready.
Months later, as I was about fifteen minutes into the game, I was instead worried. After customizing my heroine, she was brought back from the dead by the Goddess Rubiss, who proclaimed me the fabled “Builder” tasked with bringing life back to Alefgard. It seems the evil Dragonlord had covered the land in darkness, and this curse had caused all of the world’s residents to forget how to create and build on their own. As Rubiss told me the basics of the world (and the controls) while I stumbled around my tomb, she talked, and talked, and talked. Once I’d finally made it out into the sunlight, she still wouldn’t shut up. Then I meet the game’s very first NPC—a young lass named Pippa—and she wouldn’t shut up either. As the game continued to bombard me with instructions, and introductory tasks, and dialog boxes, I really just wanted to go break and build stuff.
Ten hours in, that beginning slog was long over, and for the first time in months, I was actively wanting to spend all of my free gaming time playing something other than Overwatch. That hunch I’d had that a purpose-driven Minecraft could be enjoyable couldn’t have been more correct. As my rebuilding of the ruined city of Cantlin grew, and more residents showed up, I wasn’t just building for myself—I was building for them, and the future of Alefgard. I put care and consideration into where I placed buildings, what materials I used, and expanded the village’s various resources not just for my own selfish needs, but also the needs of my new friends. I set off into the wilderness to find new materials, think up new designs or recipes, and fell any foes that stood in my way. During the day, I’d explore; at night, I’d hold up in makeshift bunkers as ghosts taunted me outside. At one point, I was sent off to explore an ancient castle, and when I arrived, I found it was a once-great monument to society that now lay in ruin. It served as a fantastic (and early) example of the design that had been scattered around Dragon Quest Builders’ world, contrasting the randomness and chaos of Minecraft’s procedural generation. Knowing that castle was an important piece of the story gave it more meaning, and making my way to its upper towers was a reminder not only of the ruin that now existed in this world, but also of the pressure that now sat on my shoulders to rebuild it all.
My village was starting to show the early signs of growing into a town when its residents began telling me that do-or-die time was coming. Soon, they said, I’d be facing off against the giant golem, the monstrosity that had destroyed Cantlin the first time around. Except, that didn’t seem right. Only a small swath of land was “blessed” for building, meaning that anything outside of that area wouldn’t be recognized by my citizens or be counted for points. (In Dragon Quest Builders, you level up by creating and improving the various parts of your city, not by killing monsters and earning XP.) Things were really starting to feel cramped; when was my building space going to expand? Maybe after I beat the golem? I figured that had to be the answer, so I pressed on, completed more quests, collected more materials, crafted more weapons and tools to help give me an edge against my foe, and then—finally—faced the menacing golem.
After he was defeated, my townspeople sung my praises, light was restored to the land, and the Goddess Rubiss’ voice returned, telling me it was time to move on. I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I followed her direction to an ancient teleporter, and was whisked away to another part of Alefgard. Here too, she said, the people had falled in despair. Here too, a once great city lay in ruin, and I’d need to do for this town what I’d done for Cantlin. Except, there was a catch: the materials I’d worked hard to collect, the items I’d made, the building directions I’d learned, they all had to be left behind. My single biggest moment of disappointment with Dragon Quest Builders came as I sat there looking upon my new building site as the realization of what the game really was fully sank in. I had gone in thinking I’d be building up my own piece of Dragon Quest legacy. First a village, then becoming a town, then transforming into a bustling city or perhaps even a kingdom. Instead, I was being tasked with doing that multiple times in a row—all in small scale.
When doing reviews, one should always judge a game on what it is, not what you wish it was—and in that regard, Dragon Quest Builders is a pretty great experience across its storyline. Returning to this world from the original Dragon Quest will be a nostalgia kick for longtime fans, but even those without years of series fandom can find a lot to like here. On the building side, it’s far from the complexity and depth that Minecraft offers at this point, but the game’s still a lot of fun. Materials and crafting recipes cover a wide array of types, from construction blocks, to cooking and farming supplies, to a host of varied—and sometimes eyebrow-raising—decorative goodies. The people you’ll meet on the world’s different continents bring a nice amount of personality with them (thanks in part to a great localization), even when you get down to the more generic NPCs that don’t have as much of an impact on the storyline. (As I said before, building up your city for them is strangely addictive.) And, while your character’s reach is just short enough to make things somewhat frustrating at times, combat is a very welcome addition to this formula, and not an annoyance to be avoided as it is in Minecraft.
I do wish Dragon Quest Builders was different, though. I don’t know if the team at Square Enix just didn’t want to shoot for the moon, or if ambitions had to be kept lower so that the game would run equally well on the Vita, but there’s so much more that could have been done here. At the very least, the reset between building sites never should have happened. Each area provides enough distinct materials that you could have naturally had players have to come up with new ideas and learn new recipes anyhow. You know how, at the start of a Metroid game, some excuse is given for why all of Samus’ abilities are taken away? Imagine that happening to her four times during her next outing, and think about how that’d feel. It’s especially sad to know that all of the effort you just put into your last town then gets left behind—and may make it somewhat harder to put as much passion into the next.
There is one big asterisk trailing all of that, however: Terra Incognita. Existing separate from the main storyline, this is the closest thing you’ll find to the Minecraft experience in Dragon Quest Builders. Here, you can build without territory restrictions or fear that progress will come to a halt at any set point, and the more items you unlock in the main game, the more options you’ll have to play with here. It just isn’t the same though, you know? You can get residents, and build up a gigantic city, and all of that, but there’s no looming threat, no main goal you’re working toward, no sense that you’re helping to fix the world of a mainline Dragon Quest game. There’s also, outside of the ability to send and receive community-built structures, no multiplayer to be found here. Honestly, I wasn’t coming into Dragon Quest Builders wanting that, so I don’t miss it—but it does seem like a missed opportunity to not allow friends to build and adventure together.
If I don’t criticize it for what it should have been, and instead look at the points of failure in what it was, then Dragon Quest Builders’ problems are almost all on the more minor side of the scale. One of the biggest complaints I had is that, for a game that wants to offer the building possibility of Minecraft, it can often be annoyingly strict in what it does or doesn’t officially allow. In order to have a room be recognized as a room, it has to have walls of a certain height (with no holes as makeshift windows), contain certain items, and everything has to be within two blocks of height from the base of the room. If certain requirements are off, or even at times if you have extra items in a room that the game isn’t expecting, you won’t get it to recognize that area as a certain room type. Once it is acknowledged, the moment something breaks that template, the game will tell you via a pop-up window that momentarily pauses everything. Have a room that you’re trying to rework or expand? Get ready for the game to pause over and over and over again, unless you purposefully leave part of it unfinished until the end. Dragon Quest Builders’ crafting gameplay isn’t quite as smooth as Minecraft’s with the shift from first-person to third-person, but outside of some specific hiccups—like the game being super twitchy about when destroying the block in the ground in front of you will also destroy the one you’re standing on—it’s a system that I got used to pretty quickly.
Button mapping, on the other hand, was a tad frustrating the entire way through. For some odd reason, jump is set to the Circle button, with Triangle being attack, while Square and X are for various building and interface needs. Those two sets of buttons are completely turned around, and there’s no way to change them in the options menu. There’s also no ability to have the game auto-save either, and I warn you right now: this is the type of game where it is extremely easy to forget to do manual saves, leading to the potential loss of hours of hard work. Oh, and while the camera isn’t too bad while you’re out in the open, or when you leave the roof off of your buildings, being indoors (especially in tighter spaces) can be a nightmare at times. This is probably the biggest difference in the potential for creation and your imagination between Dragon Quest Builders and Minecraft—not the materials themselves, or the variety of things you can craft, or anything else, but the camera and the ease at which each game lets you see what you’re doing in all situations.
Dragon Quest Builders is absolutely one of those games where I have to be careful as a reviewer to separate what I personally wanted from what I got in the end. In all of the Minecraft knock-offs and “inspired by” projects out there, this is easily the best I’ve played up to this point. In a few ways, I even enjoy it more than Mojang’s digital weapon of world domination. It’s not everything it could have been, though—either in what it is, or what it isn’t. It’s an absolutely easy recommendation for anyone who loves building and crafting and world creation, no matter how familiar (or unfamiliar) you are with the Dragon Quest mythos. I just hope, a few years from now, I’ll be playing a Dragon Quest Builders 2 that takes the ideas presented here to the next level
Sadly, Dragon Quest Builders isn’t quite the Dragon Quest meets Minecraft mash-up that I was really hoping for. What it does, however, is offer an engrossing adventure that proves giving a world-building engine some storyline, characters, and proper combat goes a long way.
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|Dragon Quest Builders is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Square Enix for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.