Review: Dragon Quest Builders

Initial Impressions

The demo – a classic method of marketing a video game. When you’re a publisher trying to sell a new title, you can put out all the fancy posters, trailers, and point-of-sale displays that you want. However, for an entertainment medium that relies fully on interaction, these purely visual marketing styles just aren’t enough for many gamers. That’s where the demo comes in.

Demos have been around in various forms since the birth of gaming. Kiosks set up in stores allowing customers to sample games. Discs and cartridges sent out with the latest gaming magazine issue. The shareware of the early 90s that you could fax your credit card information to the publishing company to get a full-game-unlock key in return. Many methods, but with one function: to get a sample of a game into potential customer’s hands.

Of course, the hope with a demo is to get a positive response from a customer and encourage them to buy the full version of the game. But what if that initial response is negative? Say you’re game isn’t bad – in fact, it’s a great game. Unfortunately, your demo did not reflect this to the player…is it possible to rebound from this?

I bring this up because this is what happened to me with the game we are looking at today: Dragon Quest Builders. I had the opportunity to play the opening hour or so of the game at PAX West, and wrote up my impressions here. If you didn’t get a chance to see them, I’ll sum it up simply by saying I wasn’t that impressed.

Upon the offer to review the full version of the game, though, I decided to give it another try. After all, I had only played about an hour previously, and perhaps the full version would be able to change my opinion. So, with memories of my inital demo impressions, and an open mind to let the game have a second chance to impress me, I booted up the final release version of the game.

Developed and published by Square Enix, Dragon Quest Builders was released in the US on October 11th, 2016. The game was released on PS4 and Vita. The PS4 version was played for this review.

Slowly Unraveling

Dragon Quest Builders takes place in the world of Alefgard…a world which has seen better days. The evil Dragonlord has risen and destroyed it, along with much of humanity, creating a world better suited for monsters. Some pockets of humans still exist, but they have lost one crucial thing: the ability to build things. This is quite unfortunate, as nearly every town, city, and castle across the land has been destroyed.

Some time after the destruction, a person named Bildrick awakens at the bottom of a pit. He (or she) is afflicted with amnesia, unable to remember anything about his past. Upon awakening, Bildrick is contacted by a mysterious heavenly voice, which informs him of the state of Alefgard.

The voice also tells him that he is known as “The Builder,” the one lone being that can still build things from scratch. With this ability, Bildrick is tasked with rebuilding the cities of the world to drive back the Dragonlord and allow humans to once again prosper.

I mentioned back in the Quick Look how the Dragonlord’s appearance in the intro seemed like a cool callback to the series’ origins, and was disappointed when I was suddenly dropped into an open-world, leaving that opening feeling like it was solely for the nostalgia factor. Well, as it turns out, Builders actually ends up telling a fairly interesting story…but the way it tells it isn’t easily noticeable in a short demo.

Rather than shuffling the player through an obvious plot, the story of Builders is instead told through its character interactions. Through the conversations you have with the various NPCs, you begin to slowly piece together the history of Alefgard, along with Bildrick’s history, why he is The Builder, and what his goals actually are. As more and more NPCs started moving into the town I was building, more of the game’s story game to light, and this slowly-emerging plot really ended up grabbing my attention.

While the story isn’t mind-blowing, or anything near, Builders ends up weaving an intriguing tale, and I wound up being a major fan of its storytelling style.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Once again, I gave a quick rundown of Builders’ gameplay back in our PAX West Quick Look of the game. To sum it up quickly, I originally felt like I was playing a reskinned third-person Minecraft rip-off, without too much different or interesting to offer. And also once again, the short demo I played ended up being woefully misleading.

Much like the story, the facets of gameplay are slowly doled out throughout the game. While, yes, the base gameplay is very much like a Minecraft-style game (collecting blocks and items from the environment to build your own structures), Builders managed to differentiate itself in a few major ways.

First and foremost is that this game actually has a set structure and purpose. Rather than aimlessly wandering an open world doing whatever you want, progression in Builders requires the completion of various missions. While the missions themselves aren’t typically very interesting (mostly fetch-quests, monster-slaying quests, and building specific items), many lead to meeting new NPCs, and in turn learning more of the game’s plot. Being a gamer that prefers structure to open world-style gameplay, this became a major plus in my book.

Secondly, when it comes to actual building, the focus of Builders is on creating specific buildings and upgrading them by crafting items, rather than a free-form “build anything you want” style. Rebuilding your ruined city requires building specific structures within it. Said structures can be any shape or size you want, so long as the walls are at least two bricks high, and the kind of structure you create depends on what you place inside of it. As long as a building has a door and a light source, it is considered an “empty room.” If you add a crafting station, it becomes a craftsman’s workshop. Adding beds creates a bedroom for the citizens of your city.

There’s still enough freedom offered to go crazy with some of your building – I created a giant floating inn above my city – but again, the structure that Builders brings to the crafting genre is very much welcome, and in my opinion, helps to create a more fulfilling experience. The game does offer a Free Play mode for those looking for more of the open world do-whatever-you-want style, but I didn’t find myself putting much, if any, time into that mode.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Dragon Quest game without all of the series’ signature monsters wandering the landscape. There are all kinds of monsters out in the world, and they’re all out to defend the world that the Dragonlord created for them…so you’re going to have to fight them off. Unfortunately, you’re The Builder, and not a warrior, as the NPC are wont to remind you. You can kill monsters and collect items from them, but you’re not going to earn any experience from it, nor are you going to grow any stronger from doing so.

Therefore, you have to put your building skills to use! Rather than leveling up from fighting, your battle skill relies solely on the weapons and armor that you craft for yourself. In order to keep up with the ever-more-powerful monsters, you have to constantly be seeking out new crafting materials to create new items with. When you collect a new material, Bildrick automatically learns crafting recipes that use the material, so you’ll know immediately what you can build with it, and what other materials you need to seek out.

Once you’ve crafted your equipment and readied yourself, battles in Builders play out rather simply. Attacking is done in real-time with a single button press, much as in any basic action-adventure game. There isn’t much strategy to the actual fight – just kill your enemy before you are killed yourself. Weapons and armor have a set durability as well, so they will break eventually, meaning you have to be constantly aware of your equipment and be ready to craft new weapons at a moments notice. While the battle system is simplistic, I felt that it incorporated the game’s main theme and systems (i.e. building and crafting) very well.

Blocky and Beautiful

While many games in the crafting genre tend to use low-quality or pixel-style graphical design, Builders goes in the other direction, creating a world that’s actually appealing to the eyes. While the terrain of the world is block-based, most other environmental assets are a single item that actually looks like what its supposed to represent. For example, a tree actually looks like a tree, rather than a group of blocks in the shape of a tree.

The game keeps the Dragon Quest series’ signature artstyle, as it is very bright, colorful, and stylized. Of course, this game isn’t going for a realistic ultra-detailed style. Rather, the design of Builders almost feels like a high-quality toybox, with all kinds of colorful pieces to play with.

As part of the Dragon Quest series, artist Akira Toriyama returns to lend his designs to the game’s characters and monsters. Toriyama’s style has always been a very distinct one in the world of anime-inspired art, and his designs continue to stand out here in Builders. Characters are relatively detailed and surprisingly expressive, especially considering that they are usually displayed rather small on screen.

Memories of Days Past

Much of Dragon Quest Builders seems to revel in nostalgia, especially for the first three games in the series. The world’s monsters, the world itself, and even the presense of the Dragonlord as the primary antagonist are all throwbacks to the origins of the series. In this case, the soundtrack of the game is no different.

Most, if not all, of the tracks in the game are remasters of tracks from past Dragon Quest entries. The soundtrack style follows the same suit as the graphical design: bright, upbeat,  and peaceful. Even the battle themes have a bit of a cheery bounce to them.

While playing the game, though, the soundtrack never really stood out. The tracks were really just kind of background noise to me, and I ended up tuning it out in favor of focusing on the story and building my cities. The songs aren’t bad (and I can always appreciate a nostalgic throwback), but overall, they just weren’t particually noteworthy.

Complete Reversal

Overall, Dragon Quest Builders is probably the hardest 180 in opinion I’ve had about a game. Though my initial impressions, I thought this game wasn’t much more than a cash-grab on a fad long past its peak. After playing through the final release, though, I stand completely and utterly corrected.

The basic building and crafting gameplay is straight-up addictive, and the structure that this game brings to the genre just helps to further reinforce that addiction. The presentation of the plot is a major highlight, letting the player discover it for him or herself while not shoving it in their face, nor burying it in menus and encyclopedias. The focus on rebuilding towns and cities and the streamlined crafting recipe systems are also huge perks over other games in this genre.

Really, the only final complaints I have about the full title are minor. The soundtrack, while steeped in nostalgia, was rather uninteresting to my ears. The battle system is perhaps a bit too simple, but in the context of a crafting game, it fits the title well.

I went into this review with rather low expectations, and wound up with a title that I would recommend highly to any owner of a PS4.

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Review copy provided by Square Enix. Screenshots taken by reviewer.