Before you bury yourself with Starbound and No Man’s Sky, take a look at the answer from an aged giant to this new trend of gaming. What Dragon Quest Builders brings is a polished and caring experience which patiently guide you through its world and reward you constantly, together with the best narration and character ever seen in the crafting/building/mining sub-genre. However, unlike its RPG big brothers, this game provides few interesting challenges and lacks the depth to keep anyone engaged for a long time.
[This article is based on the Dragon Quest Builders released in Asia earlier this year, the western release might be different. And the translated terms could be different.]
First of all, it is a proper building game in every sense. There is a free roaming mode unlocked after you beat the first chapter (out of four). There you have all recipes you gained from the campaign along with some extra cool stuffs to build your creation and share it online. It will be as good as your imagination is. However, campaign is always what I care more, so let us jump into this.
The King of Dragon dooms the land and you find yourself to be the only person in the world who knows how to put a dirt block on top of the other, cut a branch into a stick, bake mushrooms on the fire, etc. Despite your inability to fight (as reflected in the game, there is no leveling up of combat abilities), you become the only one everyone is looking at.
Many people ignore what a big impact third person view has on the control when they compare Dragon Quest Builders to Minecraft. Dragon Quest Builders is a very different game when you grab your controller. The combat feels much safer and no longer startle you with attacks from back. However, camera can be a big problem in narrow places. As a result, all the houses the NPCs ask you to build have no rooftops by default which is weird before you get accustomed to it. You also have various limits on manipulation of blocks, like you cannot jump and place one under your feet, or dig the one right above your head. Mining can be tedious if you are in some uncomfortable positions.
You need some extra time to accept the structure of this game whether you are a fan of JRPG or Minecraft. It is divided into four chapters, each of which features a special theme and a medium sized open world. Though they have close contact in terms of story, their separation is greater than you might think. You enter each chapter loosing every single item, every extra health bar and most recipes you have earned in the previous chapter. The reason behind this is that each chapter has a unique crafting list accommodated to its own theme, story and map. For example, in the second chapter you build a hospital and help save local infected people, and you have a list of food and medicine recipes which is richer than any other chapters. Even the same item could require different materials or have different importance in the new chapter. Every chapter forces you to say goodbye to the previous experience as they look more like four independent games using the same engine, save for the story, of course. This keeps the game fresh even in later part as it surprises you with some interesting toys every now and then. But it is not totally pleasant for people who enjoys cultivating a strong character or a prosperous town through a long journey.
That said, each chapter shares some same element. You need to re-build an abandoned site and bring back people scattered everywhere by disaster. Villagers come up with quests for building and crafting. These quests are very carefully designed to lead you into the world and progress step by step. You can go on your own pace and build whatever you want of course, but you need to answer most of those quests in order to push the plot. Building is supported by a recipe system which recognize whether you have a “room” (a closed region with two squares of wall surrounding it) and what you have in the room. Once a certain condition is met, it will become a room of a special category (kitchen, workshop, etc) and provide some advantages for you and your villagers.
Sadly, there is no real town management or resource management here. Villagers will “pretend” using them randomly daily, and pick up any bed they can reach in the evening, but that is on a superficial level and you cannot dictate them to do any meaningful things with these building. Also, there is not a great variety in there and you will soon reach a point where you cannot expect any more from building except if you have a high passion for designing things for the look of it. However, I recommend sparing your creativity in free mode, as you might spend a great amount of time building your own castle only to receive a design later from your dear villagers which is at odds with your own and MUST be adopted. What’s more, most of the things you build has no dynamics, except a few simple devices in Chapter 3.
That brings out the biggest disappointment about this game: After spending some considerable time before crafting station, I cannot find the satisfaction of progression, whether you are talking about building, equipment, food or combat. The vast range of items you can collect through the world do not manifest themselves on the battlefield, which is mostly a simple check of armor rating and number of medicines. Almost everything related to combat can be described as “lacking depth and variety”, be it weapons, armors, skills (both yours and enemies), enemies or medicines. You will find a little tension in a few points in the game if you are not prepared enough but that is mostly due to enemy’s unregulated respawn rate.
The story of Dragon Quest Builders walks on its own rather than being simply a placeholder. It is linear story about beating devil and saving the world which is not going to win any awards. But form time to time it takes a break and some touching moments which either do nothing but amuse you or make you ponder the weak side of humanity. These are based on the great characters and superb writing. Everyone of your villagers has a name and a personality. Despite the cartoonish presentation, these personalities are usually deep and even negative, serving a dark picture of an apocalyptic world. The dialogues are carefully crafted. It is a fun to just walk around and talk to them to see their view to you and relation between each other. Notably, there is a sustaining atmosphere of black humor from start to end. The protagonist is not the typical hero people expect as he is good at building rather than fighting, giving everyone the reason to underestimate him. You will enjoy being “pissing off” by your villagers in unexpected funny ways till the final boss battle.
Other than that, you can find trace everywhere saying “I am still an RPG”. There are locations hiding treasure chests (the maps are not procedurely generated), though do not expect many of them nor any treasure that will make you happy for a day. There are some bonus monsters out there, they are not many, not very challenging, and do not have many wonderful loots to take. You will also encounter some tiny puzzles/side quests in the wild, again, again, do not expect much out of them. However, these quests are more worthwhile to check as the quest givers are usually the monsters you fight with in common days and this gives a chance to see their second face. For example, a monster will ask you build a campfire for him to warm the food because he loves it too much to eat it quickly.
I often come across the sentence “This game has a lot of potential but is executed poorly” in reviews of other games, Dragon Quest Builders feels just the opposite: It is executed with great experience and skills those indie developers cannot match without a marathon early access period, but it stays in the safe zone all the time and barely scratch the fascinating system laying outside its realm. That is not necessarily a bad thing, you get most of the things you love about Dragon Quest (only if you do love it, of course), plus some not so dull activities to keep you busy for 20+ hours, without worrying never fixed glitches, developers abandoning the game, sudden shifting of development direction and all those dirty things on Steam.