Review: Dragon Quest Builders, or how I spent dozens of hours rebuilding civilization
Minecraft: Story Mode
Platforms: PS4, Vita (Reviewed on PS4)
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher
If you had told me five years ago that a Minecraft-like game set in a Dragon Quest universe was coming out, I'd probably tell you to stop smoking whatever it is that you're smoking, because it's a little too strong. Internally, I'd be freaking out because Minecraft was totally my thing back then, as I spent countless hours either building structures of my very own, or trying to survive the harsh wilderness filled with zombies, skeletons and other Minecraft staples.
While my need for mining and crafting has surely died down over the years, thanks to an oversaturation of the genre filled with clones, I couldn't help but be excited for Dragon Quest Builders. It wasn't because I was a hardcore fan of the DQ franchise or anything. It just had a certain, undeniable appeal. Of course, my excitement was justified once I actually started playing it, because the game was a lot deeper, and yet so player friendly, that I simply couldn't put the controller down.
You play as the legendary Builder, the one prophesized to rebuild civilization after a great calamity. Apparently your knowledge of placing down blocks and combining items to craft new ones is unique to your character, hence your importance in the overall storyline.
Build, craft and survive
These three pillars should be familiar with anyone who has played Minecraft, or any other survival game with building mechanics before.
The game thrusts you into building rather quickly, as you come across your first settlement that's left in ruins. As you find more crafting materials and build rooms, you'll start to attract villagers, who will in turn need more rooms built, and the cycle continues. The villagers are your main driving force, pushing you constantly forward by needing more things done, whether it's building a forge, or constructing them a personal bedroom, or crafting them a specific type of furniture. Everything you make to enhance your base will continually award you with points, that raises your bases overall level.
Building itself is easy, but might take some time to get used to, especially since the game takes place exclusively in third person. Placing down a block and holding down the button to do so, will automatically build a second layer on top. You can also hold modifier buttons to build above or below you, when you only want to build on a plane that's below or above. It's intuitive once you get used to it, I promise, but it can surely be a bit odd for those first coming in.
Crafting is also made extremely easy. The game doesn't even require you to have items on hand, but can be directly used from within your communal storage. This is fantastic, since you won't have to keep running back and forth from your chest in order to make sure you have the right items on hand to craft a new weapon or a piece of furniture.
Survival is present but I wouldn't say it ever hinders the experience. You're expected to keep your Builder well fed at all times, which can be viewed by a hunger bar at the top of the screen. The game makes sure this is never really an issue as there is plenty of food always readily available, and even when the hunger bar fully runs out, you still have ample time to eat something. I guess you could say that if it's so trivial, why even include it, and sure, I'll agree, but on the flipside, at least it's not as annoying as it is in We Happy Few, where the threat of starvation and dehydration is constant, at least in its current state.
Walls don't make a room
The are certain requirements for rooms to be considered rooms, and then those rooms to be specialized further. For example, for a basic room, you need a wall that's at least two bricks high, a door, and a light source. Once you have those, the game acknowledges you build a room and awards you points. Place a pot, a bed and a nameplate inside that room, and it becomes a Personal Room, designated to whomever you choose on that nameplate. However, add a forge and a furnace to the room instead, as well as a chest for storage, and it becomes a Blacksmith Studio.
These templates permeate the building experience, and while these rules dictate what a room becomes, you're still free to build them however you like. You can make a room as big or little as you want, as long as it contains the items within that define it as a room.
This sort of building becomes much more complicated as you progress through chapters, though always retaining its freedom for freeform building, and its accessibility.
Go out, explore. Don't worry about item management
DQB is set on an entire continent that's split apart by bodies of water. To access lands out of your reach, you'll have to progress the storyline and build various teleport stones. Each location comes with new monsters to slay, and more importantly, different resources to collect. Each time you collect something new, you'll automatically unlock new recipes that use that particular item, so picking up everything you find is an absolute necessity.
The game further makes picking up items and materials a stress-free process, as items you can't pick up due to low inventory space, get automatically teleported to a giant coffer in your base, which means you never really have to worry about inventory management. What's even better, is that you can freely swap items between your inventory and the coffer, no matter where you are. So if you happen to have some food in your coffer and you're running low on energy, you can pull up a menu, swap that food from your coffer right into your inventory, and use it, even if you're halfway across the entire world.
It's a genius solution for managing a large amount of items in a game that continually asks you to pick them up. It's one of the (many) reasons players had a problem with No Man's Sky, which constantly had them running out of inventory space. Here, you don't really have to play for very long until the coffer gets unlocked, and once it does, it makes the gameplay that much more enjoyable.
There's combat, just not great combat
I'm sure this won't come as a shock to most, but the combat in DQB is pretty simplistic and rather bland. You'll come into combat under a few different scenarios. Either you'll be fighting monsters out on the field, whether it's smaller monsters like slimes, or bigger boss monsters like dragons, or you'll be defending your base from waves of attacking monsters. The formula is the same for both though; You attack a few times, move back when you see them winding up, dodge their attack, and move back in to attack. You can also block with a shield, but I found that dodging is more effective. It's a shame then that even bigger encounters, like the ones with said dragons, are rather uneventful and can be exploited this way.
I came across a dragon rather early in the game, just be exploring a bit out of the view of my base. Obviously underpowered, I only ever did 0 to 1 damage to the dragon, whereas he could kill me with two hits. All I really had to do was move in, swing a few times, then move to the side to dodge his fire breath. After the fire breath, I moved in once again, swung a few times, then moved back further to dodge his spin attack. Rinse and repeat, literally no change to that formula. Sure, it took 15 minutes to take him down, and I was awarded with a pretty sweet couch for my base, but it doesn't change the fact that the encounter was pretty dull.
Defending your base is a pretty neat idea, and I liked that having built up my base from dirt walls to stone walls made it much harder to penetrate, but in the end, the combat is just as bland. At least your villagers help out in this case.
There's a ton to do
After I successfully built up my base to Level 5, and explored three locations (my starting one and two accessible through teleporters) I already put in nearly 10 hours. Sure, I could have achieved that much quicker, but I decided to be really thorough and made my base as exactly as I envisioned it. I thought, "what now?" It was only then I realized I was in the first chapter of the game, and there were a bunch of other settlements to restore. It excited me, because the apparently small slice of the game I played seemed huge, and it turns out I was only scratching the surface.
Dragon Quest Builders is an incredibly strong title, both in gameplay and presentation. It might not be pushing the PS4 hardware to its limits by any means, especially since this is also available on the Vita, but its gorgeous color palette and cute character designs make it very pleasing to look at for extended periods of time. For those that like that typical DQ soundtrack, will find a lot to like here as well.
If by chance you already got rid of Minecraft Fever, I still say give DQB a shot, it might just jumpstart it all over again. It's Minecraft in many ways, but includes a narrative that's compelling and endearing. More than many can say for Telltale's Story Mode.