Dragon Quest Builders Review
I've never kept my distaste for Minecraft a secret; I guess I just don't get what is fun about playing with virtual LEGOs in a game without any real progression or storyline. With Minecraft's immense popularity, it is no wonder that games with the same basic premise are popping up quicker than 3rd Bass' weasel (obscure '90's hip hop reference alert!). The standout among these is easily Dragon Quest Builders, the latest spin-off in the long-running Dragon Quest series. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes a game with borrowed mechanics actually outshines its' source material. This is one of those times.
The main difference, among tons of little differences here and there, in Builders is there is actually a story pushing the game along. Even better, it references the events of the first Dragon Quest game pretty spectacularly. At the end of that classic players were given a choice; join the Dragonlord and plunge the world into darkness, or reject him and fight again another day. The Builder, as your character is called, picked the former. Now, years later, the Builder is brought back to life and given instructions on how to fix the damage done and restore the world. Not only is the plot based on a reference to a previous game, which is awesome, it also stays front and center as you begin and complete your journey. In my book, that alone knocks Minecraft off its throne.
Dragon Quest Builders one-ups Minecraft on the visual and auditory side as well. As you might imagine, the game has a very "blocky" feel to its visuals, but this never stops the graphics from impressing. Better yet, the soundtrack plays like a greatest hits of Dragon Quest music, with remixed versions of the old tunes you know and love. And despite the aforementioned visual style, the word that the presentation brings to mind is "nostalgia". The graphics and music will be serviceable if you've never played a DQ game before, but longtime fans will get so much more out of Builders' presentation.
Aside from one stunning misstep, the good news carries right over from story and presentation to the gameplay itself. Players are tasked with a single settlement, which they must literally rebuild from the ground up. This includes not just the physical act of erecting structures, but having new settlers move into your town and taking requests from them to open up more materials, quests, etc. The progression feels a lot like if Animal Crossing was tossed into a blender with the Minecraft style of construction and a generous helping of Dragon Quest charm (like all DQ games, character design falls to Akira Toriyama, author of the Dragon Ball series - so it has to be good).
Another wrinkle in the gameplay becomes apparent a bit after you get your settlement moving and growing. You must also fortify your town against monsters, who mostly come at night. Mostly. So in addition to the games Builders borrows from, you get a little tower defense in there as well. I'm not usually a fan of that style of gameplay, but it's a simple enough version of it and it doesn't steal focus from the main settlement building very often. Combat is what you'd expect, with all the DQ tropes - different and better weapons become available as you progress and fights turn from one note encounters to challenging, bruising battles at around the halfway point. Boss battles, also encountered during the tower defense cycle of gameplay, are simple enough at first, but become real tests of wits; normal RPG preparation won't be enough to succeed here. Instead, your defenses will have to be equally as beefy as, say, your gear or weapons, melding the different styles of gameplay into one very intriguing and fun whole.
As I was getting into the game, making all settlement an absolutely perfect haven for all my little villagers, Dragon Quest Builders took a turn, one that almost made me want to quit playing altogether. After a certain boss battle, the game informed me that - guess what? All that hard work you've done? Yeah... forget about it and start over. That's right; after a dozen or so hours building my little town to perfection, the game makes you begin fresh with a brand new and totally undeveloped settlement. WHAT?! Sure, all the weapons and materials you've unlocked stay that way and make building settlement #2 much quicker and easier, but this comes literally out of left field and is the emotional equivalent of being kicked down a flight of stairs. Even as I was watching the closing credits, I still had major reservations about how I'd rate the game that let me progress to a point before pulling the rug out from under me. It's tough to say that this one misstep ruined the whole experience for me (it didn't), but I can see lots of players hitting this point in the game and simply putting it down. Losing tons of progress for seemingly no good reason is a sure way to discourage players, and this instance is among the most discouraging I can remember.
There is no doubt that it's a good time to be a Dragon Quest fan. Main series entries 7 and 8 have both just gotten stellar remakes on the Nintendo 3DS, a sequel to the DQ Heroes game is on the way (I loved the first) and Builders manages to outshine the material it's based on, but erasing hours of hard work is no way to keep even the most invested series' fans around. I loved everything about Builders up to that point, despite not really previously enjoying many of the play styles and genre conventions it incorporates up to that point. So the decision to play this game is left to the reader. Do you mind doing the same thing twice? Is it easier if you know the reset is coming? As much as Builders charmed me at first, this stumbling block was a little bit too much for me to just excuse. Still, in the end, Builders is a very solid title with the perfect mix of genre-bending to make it unique.
Final Rating: 79% - Builders has the perfect mix of genre-bending to make it unique.