Blocks and slime – what’s not to like?
Minecraft was a breath of fresh air when it first launched, offering players a massive sandbox in which they could gather materials and create a world containing whatever their creative hearts desired. It is like being given a massive bag of LEGO and then being told to go and build. Of course, with anything this new and successful, the inevitable clones and “inspired by” titles popped up in their droves, some trying to simply replicate Minecraft’s success, while others try to refine the experience or offer something new.
And now we have Square Enix’s Dragon Quest Builders, the first title from a major publisher that has openly taken the Minecraft template and added their own twist. Dragon Quest Builders take on the block-building game is to combine some JRPG flavour and a much more focused, guided experience. If Minecraft was like a bag of LEGO, Dragon Quest Builders is like a shiny new LEGO kit, complete with instructions to sweat over in a quest to build something magnificent.
The instructions come in the form of a story which gently guides the player through the game. The Dragonlord has brought darkness to the world of Alefgard and his army of monsters roam the land. To add insult to injury, Humans have lost the ability to create things from other things, the ability to build. But along comes the player, controlling the Builder, a young character who has been given the ability to build by a mysterious voice and charged with rebuilding Alefgard and bringing the light back.
From there, the player heads into the ruins of the first town and gets started. It is explained how to gather and where to find the most basic materials and then the player is allowed to get started. As things progress, NPCs will turn up in the town and offer the player quests which will inevitably lead to more complex materials and more interesting items to build. These NPCs will form the majority of the guidance for the player in DQB, pushing them ever forward as they rebuild and improve their first town.
Gathering materials is quite straight forward. Swing whichever tool the Builder happens to have equipped and whatever is in front of them will be broken up into raw materials. As play progresses, more powerful tools will be unlocked that can break down more resilient materials. The Builder can focus above or below them to aim at specific blocks with the touch of a button. Gathered materials are dropped into the inventory, which is very limited to begin with, but can be expanded back at the town with chests and later the Colossal Coffer which collects items even when the inventory is full and can be accessed from anywhere.
Materials are everywhere in the game, gathered from the very earth in the case of building blocks and minerals, to trees, plants and even the monsters that roam the wilderness. Building blocks are the most simple to use, just select them in the inventory and press a button to place them, quickly creating the walls that will become rooms. But as new materials are gathered, recipes become available which can then be created at the various crafting stations. These recipes allow the creation of more complex items, such as doors, stairs, beds and the like, which are necessary to create specific rooms. These rooms will bring bonuses to the NPCs that inhabit your town, such as the Basic Bedroom which requires a straw bed and a light source to increase your residents HP by 10%.
There is a certain amount of combat in DQB, but fighting monsters is mostly down to gathering the important materials they drop. However, occasionally the monsters will attack the town, so mashing the button to swing whatever the Builder has equipped will have more focus. The combat does become more varied as the game progresses, with things like a charged attack and projectiles. But it is never a primary objective of the game. The Builder is often reminded that they are not a hero and, aside from the Seeds of Life which are often given as rewards and grant the Builder a few extra hit points, do not become stronger or more powerful. Instead, the player has to rely on building ever more powerful armour and weapons, all of which degrade through use.
Eventually, as the player levels up their town through adding new rooms or improving the aesthetic, they will come up against an end of level boss. This will generally involve building a specific item to counter the boss working out how to defeat them. The boss encounters are fun and bring the game back to a more JRPG feel, offering a nice break from the gathering and building. After the celebrations from defeating the boss, the player will be encouraged to leave their town and new friends to head off to a new area and start again. This involves losing everything gathered and made, and forgetting most of your recipes, which can be a bit jarring the first time it happens. But it doesn’t take long to get into the swing of things, and each new town will give the player brand new materials to gather and items to build.
Aside from the Builder’s hit points and the level of the town, there are a few other things that the player has to keep track of. There is a day night cycle in the game, with monsters chasing the player after dark. There is also a hunger gauge that gradually empties, requiring food to top up frequently or suffer the consequences. There are also goals to be reached in each of the towns, but these remain secret until after the player has completed the town, giving great incentive to go back and replay towns to gain the rewards, which come in the form of special recipes that cannot be found elsewhere in the game.
While there is a certain path the player will move along in the main story of Dragon Quest Builders, they are also given plenty of freedom to explore as they wish and create what they want. However, for those who are more interested in the complete freedom of games such as Minecraft, after completing the first town, players can enter Terra Incognito. This is a new map specifically for players to set their creativity free, with no threat of monsters destroying their creations. It may not be as massive as the game from which DQB is inspired, but it is an empty canvas for the player, and the ability to share creations with the community is reasonable compensation for the lack of multiplayer.
Visually, Dragon Quest Builders is a bright and colourful game that is as highly polished as you would expect from a Square Enix game. However, the game is released on both the PS4 and the Vita, so when playing on the big screen it is perhaps not as sharp and detailed as it could be. It is one of very few places where the game could have been improved. Another is the camera, which works flawlessly most of the time, but really struggles when the player is underground or in a room with a roof. These are just little niggles mind you, and nothing that takes away from the sheer joy of the game.
Dragon Quest Builders could have been just a Dragon Quest based skin of Minecraft, but instead manages to be something of an evolution. The JRPG features add direction and focus, while the Dragon Quest setting brings charm and personality. Dragon Quest Builders is a game that is simply as big as the player wants it to be, and is an essential purchase for both fans of Minecraft and Dragon Quest.