When Square Enix first announced Dragon Quest Builders, I was skeptical. How could they marry the traditional trappings of a classic RPG with the mechanics of a typical free-roaming sandbox game? Were they just using the popularity of other building titles to make something quick and easy? Does this game even fit into the Dragon Quest series and lore? I found myself digging deep into these questions and more during my time with the North American release – out now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.
Before we get into this, I must confess I’m not really one for sandbox games. I’ve never played Minecraft or Terraria or any of the other latest building titles so if you’re looking for a comparison to those here, you’ve perhaps come to the wrong place. Instead my review comes from the perspective of a RPG fan with an open mind willing to give Square Enix’s latest experiment a fighting chance.
Dragon Quest Builders starts out innocently enough – with a story! That’s right, the game’s opening brings you right in with some traditional RPG-like exposition. Low and behold, you’re the chosen one! It’s up to you to set forth through the land of Alefgard and rebuild the world that has fallen into the depths of darkness. Ruled by the Dragonlord, Alefgard is a place where humans have forgotten their way and their capacity to build.
That’s where you come in. As the “Legendary Builder” you’re bestowed with the gifts of the goddess to restore the will to build to the people. It’s a simple, straight forward story (as Dragon Quest games tend to be) but it gets the job done well enough. In its simplicity lies a level of charm that evokes the RPGs of ages past and sets the stage for a game that’s deeper than its surface suggests. As the world’s creator you shoulder a certain responsibility and it’s here the player is given a chance to connect to the things they’re building.
Despite having its hooks in the sandbox building genre, Dragon Quest Builders tends to take a different approach. Rather than dropping you in and letting you have a go at it, the game opens up with a RPG-like story as it guides you through its tutorial and finally out into the main world. From there you’ll head to your first town, take on quests, meet new NPCs and discover and gather new items that eventually take you from chapter to chapter in the story. You’ll even battle fierce monsters as they attempt to take over your creations.
Rather than a command-based setup, Builders uses a basic action RPG format. By basic and action RPG, what I mean is the game lets you equip weapons (which you of course craft from available materials) and tap one button near an enemy to initiate combat. There’s no battle transitions or anything, you simply start striking whatever is there until it’s defeated. If you need to heal yourself you can create and equip items to be consumed at anytime provided they’re in your inventory.
Similar to most RPGs, you’ll start out small – slowly gathering basic items like wooden sticks, earth and grass. As you progress these items will become more worthwhile and complex and you can discover more and more recipes throughout the game. It’s an interesting contrast to its contemporaries. Rather than an aimless direction, Dragon Quest Builders does its job to make sure the player has distinct goals right down to easy-to-follow blueprints courtesy of a NPC.
Dragon Quest Builders isn’t necessarily a grinding RPG, however. The game straight up tells you this and it’s important to note you won’t be going around farming slimes for hours to level up or anything like that. Essentially you’re only as good as the equipment you end up building. If you want to improve you’ll need to build up your towns piece by piece, earning you more and more goodies as you go on.
It’s this slow build up that really drives home the game’s roots in the Dragon Quest series. While those series elements are indeed light, it’s just enough to lead someone new to the genre through in a meaningful way. My only complaint would have to be the inventory system, which like a lot of early RPGs, has a decent restriction on the number of different items you can carry at one time. Luckily you can build chests to store the collectables you gather.
Anyone familiar to the series will instantly recognize the colorful artwork provided by Akira Toriyama and the music, which doesn’t stray too far from the typical Dragon Quest flavor. Other series nods exist in the world itself – from enemies such as slimes to the items you can gather, it’s clear a lot went in to the presentation here.
On the technical side of things, Dragon Quest Builders is fairly solid. Aside from the occasional frame hitch on PS4, the game runs smooth throughout. Most of these issues are noticeable when a large amount of enemies are on screen or you’re running across the field. It’s not necessarily a game breaker but it’s one of those things you wouldn’t expect in a title with somewhat simplistic graphics for its platform.
Despite its simplistic nature, Dragon Quest Builders is a pretty big game – and an addictive one at that. Often times I found myself wanting to explore and find new materials. Without realizing, the hours really started to stack up. The first few chapters alone would make some RPGs blush given the time investment here. Despite the inclusion of the main story and quests, the game truly offers an endless canvas to the imagination.
I came away from Dragon Quest Builders a bit humbled. After getting past my initial hesitations, I was hooked into to everything the game had to offer – from building to story and even its action RPG elements, it’s certainly deeper than any first glance can give. Minor technical issues aside, it’s a blast to play and a perfect companion to the Dragon Quest series.
Dragon Quest Builders is now available for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita for $59.99 and $39.99 respectively.
Disclaimer: A review copy of Dragon Quest Builders (PS4) was provided to Nova Crystallis by Square Enix, the publisher. The advertisement(s) below benefit Nova Crystallis.