Dragon Quest Builders review

Game Info
Platform PS3, PS Vita, PS4
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Square Enix
Release Date

Dragon Quest Builders, a spinoff of the long-running Dragon Quest series from Square Enix, takes the open-world, freeform material collection, crafting and construction of games like Minecraft and Terraria and makes it, well, a little less freeform. By mixing in action-RPG gameplay and a classic JRPG storyline, Dragon Quest Builders gives those who might be overwhelmed by the limitless potential of virtual crafting and creation a (often literal) blueprint to find joy in the genre.

I've always been one of the overwhelmed. Put me in front of a box of Lego and I've got no idea where to start building; put me in front of a computer playing Minecraft and I outright panic from the possibilities. Dragon Quest Builders gave me hope, though — maybe given a little guidance and a reason why I should be building imaginary structures, I'd finally understand the appeal.

The game takes place in an alternate version of Alefgard, the world of the original Dragon Quest, where instead of vanquishing the evil Dragonlord, the hero was defeated, leaving the world to fall into darkness and the human inhabitants to live a cursed and confused existence. After years of suffering in this darkest timeline version of events, a new hero must arise, and that, of course, is where you come in.

Ah, but you aren't a hero. That's what you're informed by a mysterious voice shortly after your (very limitedly customized) character awakens in their tomb. The disembodied voice tells you that you are instead the Builder, a different sort of chosen one, one with the power to create and change the world, one who can reshape and save Alefgard, one who... By this point in the recitation of your destiny, your Builder has nodded off from boredom; Dragon Quest Builders is not exactly heavy or overly serious in its plotlines.

But plotline is what drives you, and it's what drove me to be engaged by a primarily crafting-based game for the first time in my life. Your invisible friend guides you to the dilapidated shell of a town where you set up a beacon to guide the lost and desperate humans of Alefgard to what you'll transform into a sanctuary. The people of the world reveal that they've lost the ability to create new things from raw materials — even the word "build" is foreign to them. They hand over the raw materials they've collected to you, in hope that you can finally do something useful with it.

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This raises the question: If the inhabitants of Alefgard don't know how to do anything with base materials, why are they collecting them in the first place? For all that the bright and broad characters that fill your towns charmed me and their dialogue occasionally made me laugh out loud, the underlying image of them wandering the earth picking up sticks and rocks and reeds for no clear reason unsettled me a bit. Dragon Quest Builders' storyline is light enough to be appropriate for all ages, but it's not without hints of deeper things if you take the time to explore.

The Builder must build, though, and Dragon Quest Builders guides that building through townspeople's requests, keeping me from falling into the state of paralytic overabundance of choice that my brother's box of mixed Lego and Minecraft put me into. Build a bedroom, one will request; here are the requirements for what counts as a bedroom (presumably due to ancient legal zoning codes that Alefgardians have been puzzling over for years, with no ability to build themselves). The bedroom requires beds? Well, you'll need to build the beds, then! And to build the beds, you'll need to go out into the dark scary world full of monsters and find the raw materials that make them.

dragon quest builders review screen 1

The world of Alefgard is vast, spread out over four different chapters featuring different types of terrain and crafting materials to be hoarded. For all that the game's landscape is made of pleasingly retro voxels, I found myself impressed by its scale and scope. Looking out over the world from a high vantage point lets you see distant islands and tall mysterious structures rising in the distances, things you can't reach without the teleportation pads that are unlocked as the game's story progresses. To my surprise, it reminded me of games such as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus — a huge world left mostly empty, with only scattered ruins as any proof that civilization once existed.

Only mostly empty, of course. It's full of monsters. So not empty at all, depending on where you count slimes and skeletons and giant scorpions on the scale of valid lifeforms. Armed with whatever weapons and armor you can craft, you must fight your way to get to the important ores or other materials you're looking for — and sometimes get them from the monsters themselves. The combat in Dragon Quest Builders is of a fairly simplistic action-RPG sort: Hit monster until they die, avoid getting hit by a monster until you die, and occasionally charge up a power attack to make the monsters die faster. There's no benefit to any combat grind other than material collection; experience for leveling up is only gained by building and improving your town. I never found any of the combat particularly challenging, and death itself is not much of a threat; you lose some of the items you had on hand and are teleported back to your town, but you can return to the site of your monster-murder to retrieve them.

With the threats not too threatening and the world massive and ready to be broken down to its component parts with a big hammer, I finally understood the meditative pleasure to be found in crafting games. I easily lost myself collecting massive stores of raw materials of all types. Early in each chapter you gain the ability to build a large chest that automatically stores more items than just your small starting inventory capacity, so you're never left worrying about carrying too much and having to drop something or return to base to drop off a load of blocks of sand. I found myself in the fugue state I'd been in junking items in Fallout 4; I would strip the world clean of its valuable parts and use them someday, maybe, if I got around to it.

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The point is that I had a lot of them. This lead to a severe shock when I completed the first chapter and learned that none of my items, materials or level progress would carry over to the next. Each chapter clean-slates you, starting you back on the bottom to build your way back up again.

I had to put myself to bed after that reveal, too aware of the time cost of virtual accomplishments. But when I returned to continue on into the next chapter, it made sense. The path you build in each chapter has different methods made of different materials. One chapter sees you seeking metals and progressing through mining and smelting; another is more plant and cultivation based, focusing on growing by making medicines and food for your villagers. The raw materials in the different chapters may be the same, but the way they're acquired and used fits the thematic tone of each chapter. The completion of the first chapter also unlocks a more Minecraft-esque mode, where you're able to build to your own desires without any plotline to guide you, and can share your creations online.

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The chapters end with boss fights, which are on a grander and more complicated scale than regular battles. Building is the key to defeating them, of course, and not just your regular weapons; each extra-large boss requires unique weapons and defenses made from the rarest materials and used only against them. These boss battles were the only place I found myself frustrated with combat, as learning the specific technique to defeating them lead to many a deaths — at no major setback or loss, though, other than my time and personal annoyance.

Dragon Quest Builders is not without other annoyances. The third-person camera, while excellent in combat or exploration, becomes nearly useless in enclosed areas like, say, a mine. When in particularly tight spots, it switches to a disorienting first-person view, which lead at one point to me literally spending 20 minutes stuck in a hole I dug myself into. The camera also makes building roofs on your structures less than desirable, and since your village is limited to one square plot of land, expanding your real estate vertically becomes difficult. The music is a dull spot as well; after several dozen hours of hearing the same repetitive bland JRPG tunes I now have them stuck in my head, painfully. Feel free to hit mute and crank some music or a podcast while you explore; you won't be missing much.

Another flaw I found may have been less with the game, and more with my own modes of thinking. I kept finding myself stuck and wasting time trying to navigate the world through dramatic platforming stunts, which I failed at again and again. Because, of course, Dragon Quest Builders is not a game for jumping over gaps, it's for building bridges. It's not for hopping your way awkwardly up a cliff, it's for building an easy set of stairs. You're the Builder, damn it, start building! It's in the name of the game!

Wrap Up:

This Dragon Quest experiment gives players a great reason to build

But perhaps that's just an issue that someone like me, the Lego-perplexed and Minecraft-averse will run into. It's worth it, though, to finally experience joy in creating and crafting. I just needed a little guidance and a reason to build. As I played Dragon Quest Builders, I remembered that there had been one Lego set I liked as a kid: a little moss- and ivy-covered hut that fit a tiny wizard figurine. I built one like it in Alefgard; the villager who settled in it wasn't a wizard, but he seemed happy nonetheless, and I was happy to have been the Builder to make it for him.

Dragon Quest Builders was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" PS4 download code provided by Square-Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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