Brad Shoemaker of Giant Bomb infamy said it best: “It’s like Minecraft if you replaced the freedom with quests”. In a nutshell, Brad’s Bombcast comment is the easiest way to convey what Dragon Quest Builders is. In reality it’s so much more but, as with most package deals, not all of it is what you’re looking for. For more details, read our full Dragon Quest Builders review.

Look and Feel

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I can’t fault the visuals of Dragon Quest Builders. The art style is awesome. If Dragon Ball characters were miniaturised and left to grow up in cartoon United Kingdom, this is what you’d get. Dragon Quest has always had an obsession with England, after all. The water effects are stunning as are the familiar, iconic monster designs. Builders is a visual love letter to its core franchise in the best way. The Day/Night cycle transitions are memorable and seeing the shadows cast by the sunlight meld in to the darkness is a treat amongst many.

There are so many cool touches to the visual style, not to mention the soundtrack. Riddled with nostalgia, Dragon Quests fans will undoubtedly recognise the majority of the music and sound effects throughout the game. Beginning to end, Dragon Quest Builders hits the nostalgic nether regions so hard, fans of the franchise will throw up a blue slime.

It’s Not All a “Goo”-d Look Though

As with most products, Dragon Quest Builders’ presentation has its flaws. First of all, the camera. It’s terrible. Zoom controls are practically non-existent and that makes the third-person perspective a problem when mining deep in to a cave. The game even acknowledges this issue by offering a white outline for your character when your view is obscured. That doesn’t solve the lack of a manual zoom, however, requiring the player to adjust the camera angle in such a way that it’ll swing and auto-zoom in on your little buddy.

Don’t even get me started on the birds-eye view mode limitations. Even though the entire map around your character is uncovered, and birds-eye view mode DOES help, it’s oddly restrictive. The camera won’t stretch far beyond the player’s current position. This can lead to dead-end adventures, requiring a total run around the other side of a mountain, or even a longer trek through said mountain. Just unlock the camera! Dead-ends aren’t an adventure, they’re an annoyance.

But it’s Still Gorgeous

The flawed map and camera systems aren’t enough to downplay Dragon Quest Builders’ undeniable charm. Even outside of the Dragon Quest fandom, the art of Builders should be enough to draw players in. Without question though, it’s a fan-service feast and aims to take advantage of a starving demographic.

Story

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Surprisingly, Dragon Quest Builders has a hefty amount of story content. Spread across four chapters, the Builder – your created character – is awoken by the goddess Rubiss and informed of his ability to create things from other things. The Builder is also given an important note: “You are not a hero”.

There’s no voice acting in this game. Bare in mind, Dragon Quest VIII on the Playstation 2 had loads of voice acting, so this came as something of a disappointment. Instead, there’s a massive amount of dialog to skim through. So much so, the game even makes fun of its own lengthy dialog via the medium of – you guessed it – even more dialog. These moments definitely tickled me the first or second time, but around the fifth time it pokes fun at its tendency to chatter too much, it transitions from a funny joke to a painful experience.

I’d argue that the game’s campaign drags on for too long. It took me an entire week to get through Dragon Quest Builders, though I’m not the most efficient gamer in terms of time-keeping. Regardless, there’s a lot of pointless questing and repetitive battles that pad out what could have been a more stream-lined experience. Given the endless mode, there was no need to pad out this game. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a time-sink Minecraft variant, it’s right here.

Memorable Characters But Please; Stop Talking.

Aside from their want to bore you with endless text, the main characters you’ll meet throughout the game are varied and well-written. They’d have hit home with some quality voice acting, but they’re memorable all the same. From jovial mayors and pious nuns to cockney body-builders that love a good old bath, Dragon Quest Builders is great at creating a world you want to be in, all taken from the core franchise.

The writing, when not over-done, is fantastic. The way people react to you being able to build things and light-heartedly insulting your “dopey” facial features doesn’t get old. In fact, the game skillfully downplays your ability to be a “hero” that the climax feels all the more satisfying. Of course, you aren’t a hero. Remember that.

Gameplay

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For those that haven’t played Minecraft, I’ll break down what Dragon Quest Builders is for you right now. By breaking down and collecting the many materials around you, your character can craft new goods. Build stronger tools to break down tougher materials and forge even better things. All of this is done with the Dragon Quest assets, a popular Japanese RPG franchise, that add a dose of personality to the package.

We’re going to break down the game modes and moment-to-moment gameplay of it all in the following moments of the review, so buckle up: it’s time to get nasty.

Game Modes: Campaign Chapters and Terra Incognita

In terms of story, there are four chapters in the main campaign of Dragon Quest Builders. Each chapter can take about four to five hours to complete. If the mood strikes, a player can spend more time than needed in one chapter completing side-quests or building whatever they want. In my experience, the main quests are so tedious and drawn out that I’d rush as quickly as possible to the next chapter.

Campaign: Uninspired Questing System

The structure of each act is the same bar the beginning of Chapter 4. Grab the banner of hope, place it in the middle of your eventual town and await the first settler to begin their quests. The quests usually involve the player gathering the items they’ll need to craft another item(s). A basic workbench is provided and the materials are always within reach for the quests in question, although the directions given for some quests can be annoyingly vague and the quest markers on the map misleading.

For instance, the quest marker says *blank* is located “here”: you make your way to the marker, but it’s buried or above you. You think you’ll be able to build or break your way in, but hit an invisible force-field or unbreakable block. Turns out, there’s an obscure entrance somewhere nearby, but you’d never see it from that birds-eye view option on the map.

Other times, a character might ask for a fish. They might say it’s through the red portal or whatever, but the particular fish isn’t biting. For some reason, this particular fish is located on the opposite side of this island in a near-identical bed of water. There’s a lot of unwarranted trial and error that’s frankly obnoxious. Maybe commuters on their Vita handhelds won’t mind as much. I couldn’t say for sure.

Campaign: Quest Rewards

What’s worse is that most rewards for questing are objectively disappointing. I don’t even classify that as my opinion. Imagine that your base is surrounded by orange slimes, all of which will drop orange goo upon death. Now envision a 30 minute misleading quest that tested your patience. Wouldn’t you be thoroughly displeased if the reward for your quest was 5x Orange Goo? The answer is objectively yes. Unless you REALLY love orange goo. I, myself, prefer blue.

There is one particular quest line that leads to a vehicle in the mid-to-end game (third chapter). I think this vehicle is the best thing you’ll find in Dragon Quest Builders. Why? Because it breaks the game. Given that the combat is generally a lackluster grind anyway, smashing in to these enemies with a vehicle is far more fun. It also makes area traversal more enjoyable – it actively encourages exploration.

I always thought I wanted a more structured Minecraft, but not like this. Not a mundane grind with little-to-no reward for the effort invested. As much as I like the story, it’s not worth enduring the dull quests and frustrating lack of guidance to see the end of, even though I did.

Terra Incognita is Where Dragon Quest Builders Shines

Terra Incognita is the place to play. It’s Builders’ free mode that allows you to gather and build to your hearts content. All the usual broken branches, mud blocks and stones are available to you. For the wider array of content, you’ll need to unlock the extra islands via the campaign. In all fairness, this might make the campaign worth tearing through. By completing campaign islands, you can travel to them and gather their area-specific materials.

People will move in to your town in Terra Incognita mode. Unlike in the story mode, they don’t have demands. They’re just looking for a place to live. For those like me, seeking an alternative to Minecraft, Terra Incognita is the mode you’re looking for.

This mode has a share area that’ll allow for anything with its boundaries to be shared to other Builders’ worlds. You can also invite other builders and feature their work in your town. It’s the most versatile mode and offers everything I personally want, I just wish it didn’t force me through the story for the good stuff.

Moment-to-Moment: Build, Craft, Quest, Repeat.

Assuming you’re playing the campaign, the first thing a player will likely do is build a perimeter around the light-covered area. A two-block height helps protect from outside attacks. Monsters will attack periodically, so upgrading the block type is vital. Fortunately Minecraft does offer an intuitive solution for that: cladding. By investing a type of block, you can access forge cladding, which will turn mud-blocks in to that type of material. It spreads across a wide enough area to be worthwhile and makes reinforcement a breeze. Unfortunately, it only works on mud. It’s odd that it doesn’t just upgrade any block lesser than its defensive value to its type.

Secondly, you’ll likely be building rooms. They usually require light sources, storage and a place to sleep. As you progress, you’ll unlock recipes for rooms that’ll be stored in the menu for convenient access at any time. I feel I’ve been pretty hard on Builders, so this is where it gets good. By building service rooms, villagers will work inside of them and store goods in the chest. Going off on an adventure and returning to some fresh-grilled mushrooms is pretty cool.

Finally, quests. I’ve spoken a lot about my distaste for the quests in this game already. All that aside, it does offer a level of structure other building games don’t. If a more defined experience with a goal at the end is your desire, you might not feel the same way as I did. Even so, the quests are still dull with poor rewards for completion. The game lacks a quest log also. Make of that what you will. A game with quests lacks a quick and easy way to check your current quests.

Moment-to-Moment: Meter Management

Speaking of mushrooms, there are two meters to keep track of: health and hunger. Hunger is wonderfully represented by ever-decreasing loaves of bread. Health is the standard green bar that can be upgraded by Seeds of Life, as is tradition in Dragon Quest.

In an effort to protect your health meter, forging armour and weapons is vital. This makes the general experience easier and rarely grants anything of note other than increased basic attack and defense. Naturally, the base resources must be acquired (iron, silver, gold and later a few gems) before they can be forged.

Moment-to-Moment: Countless Amounts of Combat

For a person being told they’re not a hero, you sure do spend a lot of time hitting things. The combat itself is nothing notable. It’s basic action gameplay: one attack button, no defend button despite having a shield (an odd choice). It’s fine. It gets the job done: kill enemies to advance past certain areas, unlock chests or retrieve their materials.

The disappointment begins with how often it forces the combat upon you. During the day, monsters will occasionally ambush your base, wrecking the walls and forcing you to slowly rebuild the wreckage after the battle. At night, ghosts will randomly spawn out of the ether, walls or no walls, to cast fire spells at you. There’s no reward for defeating them and no way to stop them. They just turn up and cause havoc if you’re awake at night.

Granted, you can sleep to forego the night-time nonsense, but you shouldn’t have to. The ghosts and monster invasions are the biggest reason for the weak combat becoming apparent: it over-exposes you to it. The Builder shouldn’t have to fight, and the game acts as if it knows that at all times. The combat feels like a weak attempt to make it more of a perceived “game”. They should spend more time implementing a larger storage system with an intuitive sorting method rather than the mess the user interface currently is.

Moment-to-Moment: Beloved Boss Battles

If the boss battles were the only battles, I’d have been happy enough. They feature familiar monsters that aren’t necessarily difficult but feature an engaging mechanic. The first boss, for instance, requires a special device to prevent a hurled boulder from destroying your town. Then it spins and the device acts as a barrier between you and the attack, exhausting the boss and creating an opening to attack. Similar to a simplified 3D Zelda boss system.

In the lead up to the boss battles, you undergo a horde-mode. A few waves of enemies crop up and attack the town. This I didn’t mind as much as the sporadic attacks because it’s actually leading to something. It grates when you have to do this three broken-up times before fighting the boss, but it wouldn’t be so annoying were it not for the aforementioned grievances.

Gripes aside, the bosses are simple but enjoyable and visually captivating. You won’t see these enemies elsewhere, after all.

Hints and Tips:

  • Progress in story chapters doesn’t carry over. When starting a new chapter, everything you’ve crafted disappears. New chapters will start you off with a basic weapon, maybe a hammer, but for the most part it’s square one.
  • If a crafting item is unobtainable, chances are it’s something you’ll get in a portal to a new area of that chapter. Get the quests you can do out of the way before exhausting yourself searching for something that may not be there.
  • Extra challenges are revealed upon completing a chapter, but they can be completed on your first run. Look them up if you don’t want to re-run chapters. The quests are, as is the theme with DQB, obscure.
  • Always have a few extra hammers or swords on hand as and when you can. Weapon degradation can leave you in a bad spot otherwise.
  • Keep Chimaera Wings on hand at all times. They’re made from the feathers of the bird monsters with slug bodies. (appropriately called Chimaera). These items can transport you back to base instantly and are vital for long trips.

Overall

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I wanted to love Dragon Quest Builders. Instead, I just like it. It’s good but it’s not great and at its current asking price, it should be. It’s a superior Dragon Quest off-shoot compared to Dragon Quest Heroes and it should definitely get a second shot, I just hope they refine that quest system, fix the camera and navigation tools as well as stream-line the campaign.

For me, the adorable art style was overshadowed by a clunky interface and prolonged campaign. There’s a lot to love about it, but Dragon Quest Builders has players investing too much time in uninspired quests for mostly terrible payoffs. Even its free build mode “Terra Incognita” has much of its content hidden behind campaign unlocks. Nevertheless, its charm and reverence for its source material is unquestionable and that does a lot to redeem its weaker points.

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