April 21, 2021

Dragon Quest Builders: Build and battle

6 min read

An action-adventure and sandbox building game that you’ll want to take everywhere with you on your Nintendo Switch.

If you’ve enjoyed playing sandbox-style games with survival, building, and crafting mechanics yet thought to ­yourself, “gosh, this would be even more fun if I had a story to give context to my actions, a goal to works towards, and characters to make the world feel alive”, then boy oh boy, do I have a game for you!

TASTE OF DESERT - You'll be spending a lot of your time in the great outdoors, like this desert, looking for increasingly more valuable tiers of resources and fending off increasingly more dangerous monsters.

You’ll be spending a lot of your time in the great outdoors, like this desert, looking for increasingly more valuable tiers of resources and fending off increasingly more dangerous monsters.

Dragon Quest Builders is essentially Minecraft if it was a classic fantasy JRPG (Japanese role-playing game). It was originally released for the PlayStation 3, PS4, and PS Vita back in 2016, but recently re-released for Nintendo’s portable home console, the Switch. And a good thing too – if you’re like me and enjoy grand epic adventures as much as building a comfy little town for your NPC (non-player character) pals to live in, then you’ll want to bring this game everywhere you go.

Put your crafting hat on and get ready to whack blocks for their resources, because we’re going on …

A Dragon Quest

Dragon Quest Builders is a spin-off title in the venerable Dragon Quest series, and if you’re not familiar with the franchise, don’t worry – it’s exactly what you think, when you think of a JRPG. Dragon Quest was one of the ­earliest Japanese fantasy adventure games, and it helped define the template for the genre – a heroic warrior takes up a sword and goes on a quest to save the world from evil monsters.

Except, in Dragon Quest Builders, you’re less of a heroic warrior and more of a DIY craftswoman/craftsman; your weapon of choice is a construction hammer; and the world you’re trying to save has, erm, already been doomed and the monsters have overrun the entire kingdom of Alefgard. Oops!

BUILD OR BASH? - Just because you're not a warrior doesn't mean you don't need to fight. Good thing you swing a sword as well as you do a hammer!

Just because you’re not a warrior doesn’t mean you don’t need to fight. Good thing you swing a sword as well as you do a hammer!

Dragon Quest Builders may have a really cute art style – with character designs from Dragon Ball’s Akira Toriyama, no less – but the ­adorable visual aesthetics really belie the fact that you’re in a post-apocalyptic setting where humanity is barely ­clinging to life amidst the ruins of their once great civilisation. Yeah, there’s a surprisingly grim and dark backstory for this otherwise ­optimistic and cheerful-looking game.

Fortunately, this is where you come in. You’re the last remaining person who’s blessed by the goddess Rubiss with the power of creation, and you’re going to restore light to Alefgard by rebuilding human civilisation, one town at a time. The world may have gone down the toilet, but as the ­legendary Builder known as Bob once said: Can we fix it?

Yes we can

Your quest to rescue humanity takes place across several self-contained story chapters (plus an optional “free roam sandbox”, but more on that later) and it’s these distinct chapters that give Dragon Quest Builders its special appeal.

You see, at the surface level, each chapter might look similar, where the gameplay is largely divided into two parts.

Dragon Quest Builders

The worlds in Dragon Quest Builders aren’t fully randomly generated, meaning you’ll occassionally be surprised by buildings and secrets hand-crafted by the game’s designers. Oooh, what’s in this abandoned hotel?

Half of the time, you’re exploring the world, collecting resources and uncovering puzzle-filled old ruins filled with treasures; the other half, you’re in your home base (the chapter’s main town), erecting walls to protect from monster attacks, building houses to shelter the NPCs who flock to your town, and ­crafting better adventuring gear.

Dig a bit deeper though, and you’ll quickly realise that each chapter has its own narrative arc which adds twists to the survival and exploration mechanics. The first chapter, for example, is a fairly tame introduction to Town Building 101, set against the pleasant backdrop of forests, hills and deserts.

The human survivors you meet in this chapter are mostly interested in rebuilding their town, and they’ll send you on quests to build them a bedroom so they have a place to sleep, or a kitchen so they can prepare food for you. (Incidentally, this chapter also shows how the NPCs actually participate in and react to the town you build, which adds a nice degree of verisimilitude.)

Dragon Quest Builders

Dragon Quest Builders isn’t just about making towns, but also about making friends – and good news, these NPCs are actually helpful!

In contrast, a later chapter lands you in the middle of a disease-infested swamp, introduces RPG status effects (poison, paralysis, etc), and pits you and your new allies in a desperate race to find a cure for a plague that’s wiping out the human survivors.

This means that there’s always something new and exciting to look forward to in Dragon Quest Builders, and the sense of achievement you get when you reach a new ­milestone – whether it’s uncovering a hidden crafting recipe, or ­progressing the story, or unlocking a whole new adventuring zone – is incredibly satisfying.

But is there a catch?

Well, there’s always a catch. As I’ve extolled, Dragon Quest Builders is a treasure for people like me who love Minecraft but want a more goal-­oriented or narrative-driven gameplay experience.

However, if you play games like Minecraft primarily as a means of ­creative expression – meaning you just like to build awe-inspiring (and/or hilariously bawdy) monuments and don’t want to worry about things like a hunger meter or rampaging monsters – then you may want to stick with Minecraft.

Dragon Quest Builders

OK, this isn’t a death trap-filled dungeon; I just got overzealous setting up defences around my town.

One major issue is that the “free roam” sandbox mode in Dragon Quest Builders, called Terra Incognita, is only unlocked after finishing the first chapter, and – fair warning – that involves a rather challenging boss fight. Even then, you still need to gather building materials manually. Sorry, there’s no “Creative Mode” (ala Minecraft) for you, so you can’t fly around and build your magnificent skyscraper with an unlimited supply of obsidian blocks.

Another issue is that the game assumes you’re really zen about letting go of your material possessions and any progress you’ve made. You see, since each chapter is self-contained (often with its own unique building materials and crafting recipes), this means that every time you start a new chapter, you’ll leave behind the ­previous town you spent countless hours building, the equipment you crafted, and the ­materials you’ve amassed.

Now, as painful as that sounds, this design decision actually turns out for the best and really adds to the unique experience of each new chapter. Plus, each chapter comes with its own save slots, so it’s not as if you can’t revisit previous chapters once you’re done.

Dragon Quest Builders

Terra Incognita may not have a central story or plot, but on the plus side, you can befriend a kitty who you can ride!

But that said, I won’t lie: the first time I realised what was happening to me when I entered chapter two, I screamed for a solid 20 minutes at my TV screen, one minute for every hour I spent turning the ruined town of Cantlin into a thriving, art-filled, ­cosmopolitan metropolis that’s now disappearing in my rear view mirror.

(This is why I play videogames, folks: they’re so relaxing.)

Keep on building

Dragon Quest Builders is one of my favourite games for the Nintendo Switch, and how can it not be? It ­combines two amazing things – the ­creative freedom of Minecraft and the evocative story-telling of JRPGs – to create something unique and memorable.

If you’re still unsure what to make of it, then don’t worry – you can try out the free demo from the Nintendo eShop, which lets you explore the first section of Chapter 1.

Dragon Quest Builders

Adventure is out there!

The demo was what got me ­interested in Dragon Quest Builders in the first place, as it gave me a taste of the game’s delightful mix of action-­adventure and town-building.

Pros: It’s Minecraft but with a story you can get invested in; each self-contained chapter in the story introduces unique twists to the gameplay.

Cons: If you’re just here to build, you’ll be disappointed at a lack of a full “Creative mode”.

Dragon Quest Builders
(Square Enix/Nintendo)
Sandbox action RPG for Nintendo Switch
Rating: ?????
Price: US$49.99 (RM195)

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