Spinoffs are great. Whether it’s Donkey Kong Country, WarioWare Inc., or even Cory in the House – they all do something right. They allow series to take risks and can open up a new worlds where characters can do things that wouldn’t be possible in the regular franchise. This is exactly what Square Enix did with Dragon Quest Builders.
Combining the charm of Dragon Quest with a slightly altered version of Minecraft’s mechanics gives Builders it’s own distinct feel. It’s definitely a crafting game, but there’s a plot, which is kind of weird. Most crafting games give players an abundance of freedom, letting them roam wild and figure things out by themselves – even Dragon Quest games do that. But for some reason Builders decided to go with a more linear, constructed experience.
It was hard to get used to because I’ve grown accustomed to being without guidance in games like that. So, when I started up the game and an ethereal voice spoke to me from the skies to give me a bunch of orders, it shook me up. Soon after it gave me that little spooky list of commands, I found out the mysterious voice was named Rubiss. It basically serves as your tutorial leader and guide through this world. It also explains your situation, which is simple: some dragon guy put the world into darkness, everyone forgot how to build because of it, but you have the light, and you’re the only one who remembers how to build. Rubiss makes it very clear in its explanation: you’re not a hero – you’re a builder.
You’re given a banner full of light to start rebuilding a fallen city. You have to do a bunch of quests to level it up and make it livable. People start coming into town and giving you orders because they still can’t comprehend the idea of building. You have to explain it to multiple people multiple times and slowly they start to get the idea. They help out around the town too, which is nice. They aid by cooking meals, building furniture, and fending off monsters. Sometimes however, I was looking for a bit more support. The villagers offer a sense of fellowship but they also just feel like a bunch of walking orders. At one point your character even asks them to stop ordering him around because he’s starting to feel like a slave – it may be a joke, but damn does it get tiring.
Builders is full of witty dialogue and a wide and wonderful land, which are necessities for a crafting game. You need something that makes the rudimentary tasks more interesting, so that there’s incentive to actually do the quests, find the resources, and craft the items. Some games focus on the payoff that comes from crafting items, others on the character customization, but Builders’ niche is that it’s charming and diverse.
During one quest I travelled through a portal to another world. The place I travelled to was vastly different from where my town was. It was full of rocks and crevices, climbable plants, and full of dangerous hammer-wielding monsters. A big contrast from my friendly, slime-inhabited grasslands. The reason I was there was because I wanted to learn how to make this cool hammer. It seemed like it could break way more things than the stick I currently had equipped and I thought my dude would look pretty sick with it. In order to learn the recipe I had to find friendly versions of the hammer monsters and ask them for help. Most of them attacked me, but I found one in a hut that cooperated. I asked if I could see his hammer and he said, “You want to take a look at my tool…we only just met.” So I chuckled and looked for another source.
While I was looking around I saw a lot of different biomes and I sort of trailed off from my initial quest so I could explore. The world amazed me; I saw some gigantic mountains, poisonous swamps, and big angry trees that wanted to kill me. It was all so beautiful too. Unlike a lot of visually bare-bones crafting games, Builders had a goal to make things look amazing. Every block looks crisp and is full of personality. Many classic mobs from Dragon Quest make appearances and they look better than ever in Builders. It even made me feel bad killing those blue slimes – I know they didn’t do anything to me, I just needed some dye to make my clothes look fresh.
Dragon Quest Builders doesn’t have an amazing combat system, but it’s not horrible either. Anything you can equip can be used for either mining or fighting and the stats and benefits aren’t that obvious other than sword equals fight and hammer equals mine. Whenever I was fighting an enemy, there were a total of two possible things going through my mind: “Man, this is so easy” or “Holy shit, I’m gonna die and lose all of my things, I probably shouldn’t have went this deep. Why does this game hate me?” I wanted a sense of challenge that but I also didn’t was to feel like I stumbled upon an end-game boss at any point. You can tell Square Enix put most of their thoughts and resources into the building part of the game because the combat felt like something they just tacked on. I would’ve liked to see some sort of RPG combat similar to what Dragon Quest offers but Builders didn’t give me that.
The linearity in the game is a double edged sword. I appreciate everything it does for me and I probably wouldn’t have figured out a bunch of the things it told me, but sometimes I just wanted to do my own thing. Search around myself without having this quest in the back of my head the entire time. Following the main storyline is the only way to really advance. If you ignore it, you’re just going to be behind and it’ll take way longer to get anywhere. At some points it felt like I didn’t have a much of a say in anything and I didn’t like that. Your home is where the game tells you it is, you gather resources where the game tells you to gather them, and you fight enemies that the game tells you to fight.
It’s a contrived experience. It isn’t bad, but often I felt like I was being held back from having fun. There are times where you can have your freedom, like you can choose where you want to build the things it’s forcing you to build, but it doesn’t feel as satisfying as it would if you just walked around and built your own hut somewhere and called it home.
The music, while it has its Dragon Quest roots, felt monotonous and boring. Like a one bar loop that keeps repeating and starts to dampen your adventure while you’re out exploring. Music is crucial. It’s something Minecraft did right, and it doesn’t seem like Builders cared about it at all. There wasn’t a sense of atmosphere. The songs that were composed sound good, but they’re out of place. The music didn’t fit during any part of the game. It was like someone put the wrong soundtrack on by accident. Later in the game, I got fed up with it. I wanted to turn the game sound off completely and play music I liked through PlayStation’s Spotify app but the volume wouldn’t go any lower than one, so I was trapped listening to a really weird Denzel Curry feat. Dragon Quest Builders remix. I just wanted some fresh and appropriate building tunes.
Making a guided crafting game is hard to do, but Dragon Quest Builders takes an admirable stab at it. And all in all, Builders is a good game. It takes elements from a bunch of RPGs and crafting games, and it manages to combine them into a pretty fun time. Altering a bunch of classic crafting concepts to fit inside the Dragon Quest world is a good idea, but a few things like the music and combat could be improved to make it more enjoyable.