Minecraft: The JRPG
I admit I’m not a hardcore Minecraft fan. I enjoy playing that 3D pixel block-crafting series but am not the kind of person who spends hours creating exquisite masterpieces. However, as a fan of RPGs, I was drawn to Dragon Quest Builders, Square Enix’s take on the sandbox craft genre and a spinoff of the long-running Dragon Quest series. As a goal-oriented person, I resonated with the game’s mission structure, role-playing elements, and overarching plot.
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Unlike Minecraft, Dragon Quest Builders sets up an intriguing story. Your character wakes up in a parallel world of the first Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in the West), where that game’s hero joined up with the final boss instead of defeating it. As a result, the world of Alefgard fell into ruin and the remaining survivors lost the ability to rebuild. That is, except for your character, who miraculously retains the power to create and now stands as Alefgard’s last hope. The setup is compelling, and the throwbacks will please fans of the series. The world map is based on the first NES game’s layout, and you are essentially rebuilding the same towns that once stood there.
The building process is straightforward. Making structures involves gathering blocks of earth around you and placing them back down however you like. To create the items that fill the rooms, you go to a designated workstation and choose what to make from a list, including decorative furniture and practical healing items. If you have enough of the required materials, you can craft the desired item. It’s a streamlined process that is fun to master. Rebuilding the town is also a guided experience, and you primarily do so by heeding your residents’ requests. Occasionally, you’ll have to follow a blueprint and build an entire structure exactly as it is on the design.
Indeed, the game holds your hand more so than a truly open game like Minecraft, and the experience may bore those who just want to jump right in. Conversely, for those like me who feel that those large sandbox games can get overwhelming, Dragon Quest Builders’ structured pacing is superb. I was always eager to craft the next item or build the next room, and the blueprints made great templates. In fact, the game’s guidance inspired me to improvise on the recommended designs to make the town my own. Aside from the blueprints, I didn’t feel creatively limited, and as long as I fulfilled requests, I advanced the story. Additionally, as I built, I helped repopulate the town, which was just as fun. In the same vein as the Animal Crossing series, the game makes you feel like you are both the creator and mayor of a steadily evolving town. As such, this game ends up feeling like a sim just as much as it does a sandbox builder.
Nonetheless, crafting is just one half of the game. The other half sets you forth into the ravaged land to gather materials. Resource gathering is an adventure in itself. Scavenging the blocky, destructible world is fun, even though the individual areas aren’t that huge. You have limited inventory space, but luckily, you eventually get a magical chest that items can automatically teleport into. As you get better materials, you learn new recipes. This includes stronger weapons, which let you break previously indestructible blocks, allowing you to craft better items. It’s an addictive progression loop that encourages the grind.
All that equipment is useful for combat, too. Roaming about are dangerous enemies, all of which will be familiar to Dragon Quest veterans. Instead of the series’ turn-based battles, Dragon Quest Builders approaches a real-time action RPG approach similar to The Legend of Zelda or Secret of Mana. It’s pretty simple, and hacking repeatedly at most enemies is as effective a strategy as any other. There were some occasions when my attack missed even though I was close to an enemy. But thanks to jump attacks and charge moves, I found my character agile and capable of fighting any enemy, even large bosses that required special strategies to defeat. My only peeve was how foes could destroy the buildings I worked so hard to make. This is even more discouraging while fighting on your home turf against bosses, who can annihilate your creations with one fell swoop.
This leads to my biggest disappointment: the segmented chapter structure. There are four chapters in the game, but after each one, you leave everything behind to move on to the next – your town, the people, and even your stats all disappear as you resurrect anew in another world. While you can at least go back and keep playing that chapter ad infinitum, the fact that nothing carries over is demotivating. It makes sense to restart supplies for a new scenario, but losing your character progress and previous town makes chapters feel too disjointed. I did like how your main goals changed with each chapter, for instance, shifting from merely rebuilding to creating infirmaries to heal poisoned survivors in Chapter 2. Nevertheless, I would have liked a more connected playthrough that incorporated elements from previous chapters in subsequent ones.
Each chapter takes about seven to ten hours, depending on how you pace your adventure and if you attempt the chapter-specific challenges. Upon finishing Chapter 1, you unlock a free building mode called Terra Incognita that lets you build whatever you want, which may appeal to players seeking more open gameplay. Alas, it’s not as engaging as it sounds. The positives are that you can build from your repertoire of recipes, and enemies won’t destroy your structures. Unfortunately, you can only share creations built within a specific patch of land that is slightly smaller than the typical town size. You can still make stellar creations within that limitation, and I was usually impressed after downloading others’ masterpieces. But that’s it: no visiting or interacting with others. There’s a missed potential without a robust multiplayer mode. A highlight is the new Sabrecub mount exclusive to the Nintendo Switch version. Aside from being an adorable, fast ride, the Sabrecub lets you obtain pixels, a material that can be used to fashion 8-bit structures, a fun nod to nostalgic fans.
Otherwise, there isn’t anything unique about the Switch version, besides the obvious portability, which fits perfectly with the sandbox nature of the game. Touch screen support would have been perfect for inventory management, but it’s sadly absent. The game performs well both docked and undocked, running at a smooth frame rate. The 720p resolution doesn’t look as nice as on other platforms, but the world and characters remain charming thanks to the colorful, blocky artstyle. The soundtrack consists of remastered songs from the original Dragon Quest, which is to say, old-school medieval music that is as catchy and grand as ever, albeit repetitive after a while.
Dragon Quest Builders is an engaging sandbox craft game that appeals to players who desire a more structured Minecraft campaign. It’s satisfying to build entire towns, and the RPG elements and addictive feedback loop may keep some playing for hours on end. Although I was disappointed with the segmented chapters and limited free build mode, I still had plenty of fun with the core campaign. The Switch version may not be the ideal version for everyone, but it’s still an excellent option, especially for newcomers. My only wish is that Square Enix can craft an even better experience with Dragon Quest Builders 2.
Note: A review copy was used for this article. This review was originally written for DarkStation in March 2018.
What do you think of Dragon Quest Builders? Are you a fan of Minecraft or any other games in the sandbox builder genre? Which ones are your favorite? What’s your favorite game in the Dragon Quest series? Please share any thoughts or questions in the comments below! Thank you so much for reading and watching!