Dragon Quest Builders serves as the jumping-off point for a new tale in a new period using an old setting–the storied land of Alefgard from the first Dragon Quest. It’s an alternate reality that begins where the original game ends, but with a twist: the hero from the first game didn’t defeat the Dragonlord. No prior knowledge of the series is required, but having a familiarity with the its jingles and diverse bestiary helps to invoke a strong sense of nostalgia
Given that the world-crafting genre is uncharted territory for Dragon Quest, Square Enix was wise to make the tutorial equal parts concise and informative. This allows you to start building within minutes of launching the game, and it’s satisfying to get the hang of building complete houses, crafting items, and surviving the Alefgardian wilderness. A seemingly menial task like bricklaying is made easy when it only takes one button to set the brick above, below, or at head level. Moreover, the process of upgrading a wall with higher-quality bricks works in one convenient, single-input motion.
It’s almost as easy as adapting to Dragon Quest Builders’ combat, which isn’t as frenetic as fighting in Dragon Quest Heroes–but it moves more quickly than the main series’ turn-based battles. This orientation period also showcases the game’s heavy emphasis on RPG-inspired questing. Building a bathhouse feels less like a chore when there’s a checkmark, a congratulatory jingle, and a grateful NPC who has a reward for you.
Supporting Dragon Quest Builders’ story and its objective-intensive draw is a foundation built on 30 years of franchise nostalgia. No, you can’t explore settings in later mainstream installments like Zenithia (seen in Dragon Quest IV, V, and VI) or Dragon Quest VIII’s Trodain. Still, coming across familiar monsters, such as metal slimes, and well-known items like chimaera wings, will make any Dragon Quest fan smile. It’s surprising how well all these elements–running the gamut from the music to the bestiary–have been adapted to this malleable world. Enemies drop crafting ingredients rather than experience. Energy from digging is replenished by eating food. The overworld, as revealed by the camera positioned way up high, won’t show the original 1986 map, but the blocky art style will resonate with old-school JRPG enthusiasts.
It’s not Alefgard as we’ve known it, but it’s no less inviting–thanks to the familiar aesthetics and the classic low-level enemies who litter the land near your town. Exploring simply for the sake of it isn’t time wasted here. Going off in one direction can yield a wealth of resources for crafting items. The only variable that would devalue any free-roaming excursion is when you’ve maxed out your capacity for an item type–a tough task, since you can carry 99 of something.
Even though the world’s terrain is open to manipulation, the maps remain faithful to classic JRPG world design. For example, the farther you venture from civilization, the more likely you’ll run into tougher enemies. The journey to a quest destination is seldom a straight line, as Alefgard presents myriad distractions, often with worthwhile rewards. The forests, deserts, and towers have their share of obscured secrets–the kind you often reveal by swiveling the camera. It’s doubly rewarding when using visual clues to hunt for treasure underground and inside mountains. A missing block or a brick that looks out of place can be a hint to a nearby prize, such as a useful set of 25 windows for your future buildings.
Advance through the story enough, and all manner of slime and golem will turn the tables and perform a siege operation against your town. You and your comrades work to protect all four sides of your base while you reinforce the perimeter with barriers and automated fire-breathing gargoyle statues. In other words, Dragon Quest Builders plays like a tower defense game at times, putting a delightful twist on the popular genre. You’re defending a square area rather than a winding route, and not all of your support options are stationary; this only enhances the diversity of activities in a game that throws plenty of goals at you.
Invasions can do significant damage to your towns, and even if the resources to rebuild are plentiful, repairing your inns and workhouses can be time-consuming; but you can avoid this process altogether if you wish. Dragon Quest Builders’ Free-Play mode saves you the grief of hostile monsters and offers more peaceful islands where you can get your architectural juices flowing.
Dragon Quest Builders is full of opportunities to take breaks from questing and defending your town. The franchise’s endearing aesthetic, defined by Akira Toriyama’s character designs, can make the simple process of building and designing rooms around town fly by. To customize an inn, you need simply place a torch, and get to work laying out beds and other furniture as you wish. Although you can share your personalized building creations, it’s not possible to visit your friends’ worlds. It’s also disappointing that there’s no cross-save support between the PS4 and Vita versions, despite the fact that they feature the same content.
The excellence of Dragon Quest Builders illustrates the versatility of this 30-year-old franchise as much as it speaks to the engrossing appeal of Minecraft-inspired creation. The story-advancing draw of quests goes hand-in-hand with the depth of a crafting system that cleverly uses monster drops as some of the game’s building tools. Whether you want to focus on completing assignments or build with no specific purpose, the game is feature-rich enough to suck up untold hours, even if this happens to be your first Dragon Quest experience.
Editor’s note: Dragon Quest Builders’ re-release on the Nintendo Switch proves to be a splendid fit for the hybrid console. Its downgrade to 720p on the Switch is negligible when the framerate is smooth and comparable to the other platforms. The Dragon Quest series’ loveable art style, anchored by Akira Toriyama’s character designs has never veered toward hyper-realism, which is why this port’s visuals easily flourishes even at lower resolutions. And whatever your preferred Switch control and viewing setup, navigating your industrious hero and crafting complex structures becomes intuitive over time.
The Switch-exclusive features–limited to the free-building non-story mode–adds another layer of endearment to a game already brimming with charm. You’re now paired with a Great Sabrecub who–despite its preciously compact size–is mountable for swift traversal across your custom maps. This feline who first appeared in Dragon Quest V isn’t the only new throwback, though. Free-building also features retro customization options, allowing you to make 2D landscapes in the style of the original Dragon Quest. It’s the type of well-designed fan service that will bring smiles to the faces of fans of the franchise.
The flexibility to mold the land and vanquish endearing monsters on a large screen and on the go offers a welcome level of convenience the PlayStation versions lacked. While this is obviously a benefit of all Switch games, the involving nature of Dragon Quest Builders, particularly the sense of player ownership in carving the land to your liking makes this game a strong match for the Nintendo platform. – Feb. 7, 2018, 11:00 AM PT