Square Enix takes a JRPG classic fuses it with elements of Minecraft in Dragon Quest Builders, creating a unique spin on the genre that enthralls even when it stumbles.
The Dragon Quest franchise can be a bit of an enigma for Western gamers who aren't well-versed in the JRPG genre. Despite Square Enix consistently localizing and repackaging games - look no further than Dragon Quest 7: Fragments of the Forgotten Past for the Nintendo 3DS to see the process first-hand - the Dragon Quest series has remained well-behind other giants like Final Fantasy when it comes to coverage exposure in North America and Europe.
While that's a shame, as the Dragon Quest series has produced some of the greatest JRPGs of all-time, it's the reality of Square Enix and the franchise's situation in the West. It's no surprise, then, that Dragon Quest Builders was created, a game that looks to fuse the Dragon Quest series' charm and historically crisp gameplay elements with the open-world sandbox promise of Minecraft. It's clear that Square was looking to do something different with Dragon Quest Builders, and the end result is a game that is both refreshing and familiar to fans of two wildly different titles.
For those unfamiliar with the Dragon Quest storytelling method, it's nothing particularly special - amnesiac hero wakes up, is immediately tasked with continent-spanning, life-encompassing quest to defeat evil villain, and is joined by several notable if not two-dimensional characters over the course of their journey. The story's delivery in Dragon Quest Builders, however, is an example of how the fusion of two gameplay styles works in the game's favor. Because there are less RPG elements as a whole, the characters are rarely heard from, and because the player character is a builder and not a warrior, they often interact in a refreshing and often funny manner.
That isn't to say that Dragon Quest Builders' narrative is going to be memorable to anyone in particular, as it's forgettable even as the game is being played and is completely based around a what-if scenario from the first Dragon Quest game. In that title, the hero chooses to defeat the evil Dragonlord after turning down his offer to rule half the world, and in Dragon Quest Builders, players find out what would've happened had the hero taken up the Dragonlord's offer after all. If that sounds like something a hero wouldn't do, that's because it isn't, and even Square Enix has difficulty reconciling that fact - much of the game's dialogue is taken up by characters wondering why on earth the chosen one would have accepted such an obviously bad offer, and none of the explanations are particularly compelling.
Those looking for explanations for much of anything that happens in Dragon Quest Builders are out of luck, to be quite frank. The game has players rebuild a city in a specific area, relying on teleportals to provide variety to each one's landscape, and then whisks players away to start over again in a new area that's predominately a re-skin with some new enemies and new ensemble of characters. The first few times this happens, it is incredibly frustrating, while the last do-over is a perfect example of how Square Enix could have gotten all of them right. This inconsistency also makes it so that players never really get to know any character or area particularly well, which would be a problem in a traditional RPG.
Luckily, Dragon Quest Builders, by its very nature as a sandbox game with only enough interest in its narrative to advance the depth of the player's ability to build, isn't hindered by its basic storytelling and forgettable characters. There's enough tongue-in-cheek humor in both the gameplay and the writing to indicate Dragon Quest Builders only takes itself seriously when it comes to the player's gameplay experience, and the title is much better off for it.
When a game decides to make building its main focus, the comparison to Minecraft is inevitable, and that's certainly true of Dragon Quest Builders. Those looking for the depth and possibility of Minecraft will be sorely disappointed, but that isn't to say Dragon Quest Builders is lacking the ability to design and build as a player chooses - merely that Minecraft is designed solely to present those options, while Dragon Quest Builders also gives players things they need to accomplish in between their exploration.
That sense of direction actually makes Dragon Quest Builders compelling as a kind of hybrid between its two obvious inspirations, as sandbox games can typically feel overwhelming due to the number of choices new players are bombarded with from the very start. Dragon Quest Builders slowly lets gamers get a feel for its world and its combat as they learn new recipes and are able to design and build new things, and it never threatens to become so complicated that its impossible to understand where to go next. The Terra Incongito mode, which is essentially a free-build mode that removes story elements, is a great way of side-stepping the RPG factor for those who aren't enjoying it - just be ready to spend time in the main story anyways, as progressing the story unlocks new elements in the free-build mode.
If the crafting and design elements are fun and innovative, however, then Dragon Quest Builders combat is where the title takes a few steps back. It actually feels as though this is the rare modern title that would have benefited from turn-based combat rather than action-based, as slaying monsters on the game's various maps is often reduced to simply mashing the attack button a couple of times, side-stepping an obvious attack, and then repeating ad nauseam until the player retrieves the necessary materials to get on with the more fun part of the game.
That being said, there are elements of the game that truly shine as a result of its stubbornness in remaining an action-based RPG - every boss fight, save the first one, are exceptionally fun and feature level design that emphasizes the new things players were able to build in a given level. One fight in particular, which makes heavy use of a rocket car and a Mario Kart battle-mode style layout, is an absolute blast, and it's regrettable Square wasn't able to capture that entertainment value in the mundane world map fights that make up most of the game's combat.
Dragon Quest Builders demonstrates that a JRPG can think outside of the box and successfully incorporate elements out of games like Minecraft, although the experience needs a little refinement before it becomes perfect. The game's story is likely to bore some, but its execution on its main premise will enthrall most, and there are many hours of entertainment waiting within Dragon Quest Builders for those who embrace its weird, hybrid, and utterly compelling experience.
Dragon Quest Builders will be available in North America on November 11, 2016 and Europe on November 14, 2016 for the PS4, PS Vita, and PS3. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.