Dragon Quest Builders Review – Shaky Foundation

Dragon Quest Builders is a Legend of Zelda-esque ARPG with sandboxy, voxel-based building elements. If you’re wondering, “Who asked for this?” I’d have to say your question mirrors what most people were thinking when the game was first announced. The game was originally speculated to be a Minecraft clone, but one set in the world of Dragon Quest. Thankfully, it turned out a bit different than what was initially assumed, but it’s still far from perfect.

My first impression of DQB was fairly positive. The graphics are colorful, there are some retro jams that will be incredibly familiar to any DQ fan, and the character designs are in that all-too-recognizable Akira Toriyama style. Upon starting the first chapter of the game, it’s revealed that this title takes place in an alternate timeline, which branches off from a parallel ending of the original Dragon Quest.

In this universe, the Hero accepted the evil Dragonlord’s offer for each of them to rule half of the world. Of course, it was a trap, and the Hero was destroyed—which plunged the world into chaos. With monsters taking over the lands, most of humanity was annihilated, with only little pockets of survivors left cowering in fear and awaiting their own demise.

You play The Builder, a new hero revived by Rubiss, the spirit of the land. For some nebulous reason, the people of Alefgard have lost the ability to build things. So when you stumble upon the city of Cantlin, which lies mostly in ruins, the first human you meet seems bewildered to learn of your abilities. Apparently, taking a block of dirt and placing it atop another block of dirt is some kind of mystical power to these people.

So, I suspended my growing sense of disbelief and soldiered on, acceding to the many requests of my new friend. As most Japanese RPGs are, the tutorial segment is a bit too hand-holdy, going over stuff that even a neophyte to games would be well aware of. Thankfully, the character writing is very tongue-in-cheek, with some jokes that made me chuckle throughout.

Unfortunately, the narrative as a whole is incredibly weak. Besides occasionally being amused by NPC dialogue, I didn’t feel a single emotion throughout the entire game. Characters are charming, but never compelling. There is never a sense of urgency or danger, and—most egregious of all—there are a fair smattering of memes throughout the game. A “make Cantlin great again,” after building your first wall is the most noticeable.

To be fair, I think expecting an award-winning story out of a sandbox game is a bit unrealistic, but a well-spun yarn would have made being a glorified errand boy a little more tolerable. Indeed, ninety percent of the quests you do for NPCs in Dragon Quest Builders are errands. Run over there, get this material for me, beat up this monster; it just becomes tedious after awhile.

And you will be playing for a while. DQB is roughly 40 hours long, with a lot more time tacked on if you’re trying to complete all the challenges. It doesn’t all take place in Cantlin, however. Once you’ve beaten the big bad and “made Cantlin great again,” you’re given the opportunity to move onto the next area.

This is where I honestly turned the game off and went to bed. Once you go through the portal to Rimuldar, you lose all of your stuff and have to start over completely from scratch. So all the junk you collected, and all the structures you built over the course of the last 7-8 hours are largely irrelevant now.

The things you can build and the tasks you’re doing in the different areas vary, but not enough to suppress the inevitable tedium. I mostly recovered from the annoyance of having to start over in chapter 2, but it was about halfway through this arc that the boredom began to set in. By the end of chapter 3, I was basically just playing a podcast in the background and going through the motions.

Another reason why I listened to something else while playing is, well…frankly, the music sucks. Whatever nostalgia you may have for the remixed retro tracks in DQB is utterly smashed against the rocks of how repetitive they become after hours of hearing them.

The town and overworld themes do change with every chapter, but the fact remains that they’re looped infinitely. If you’re just hanging out in town building stuff, you’re gonna hear the same repeated track the whole time—and it becomes almost torturous. There’s a very good reason why games like Minecraft have relatively subtle, quiet soundtracks.

There’s not too much to say about the gameplay, either. You’ve seen it somewhere else a million times. The combat and movement are exactly like Legend of Zelda, and the building mechanics are exactly like Minecraft. [with a few frills here and there, like being able to mine multiple blocks with the charged spin attack]

There is next to zero challenge in the combat, with bosses rarely requiring any sort of thought to defeat. Additionally, mining blocks can become a real annoyance if you end up in an enclosed space, or anywhere with a blocked off ceiling. The camera has no idea how to handle this, and you’ll end up getting stuck for an extended period of time just trying to figure out where the hell you are.

So, with all that doom and gloom, what is there to like about DQB? Well, it may not innovate, but what’s there is done relatively well, if a bit spartan. The combat and controls are tight, even if there aren’t too many special moves or different gear you can use. There is also a certain satisfaction to building up a really cool-looking city, though that is quashed somewhat by the fact that it’s all gonna disappear when you go to the next chapter.

The way the NPCs in your cities function autonomously is kind of neat, in that they’ll craft things and make food/medicine while you’re out adventuring. I feel like this could have been realized a hell of a lot more than it was, however. It would’ve been great to be able to assign certain jobs and tasks to your townsfolk, and be able to prioritize the acquisition of specific types of goods.

That is seriously the long and short of Dragon Quest Builders, though. It tries to tackle a few different genres at once, but ends up oversimplifying them in the process. It has the building of Minecraft, but none of the freedom. It has the combat of Legend of Zelda, but none of the depth. It’s baby mode, essentially. Not too difficult, not too deep, and very rarely requires any thought from you.

The real question, though, is whether or not DQB is worth playing at all. It’s hard for me to recommend it to anyone who already enjoys these types of games, but if you’re just getting into city-builders and ARPGs, I suppose this would be a nice primer for what to expect from other titles. Even then, for the $60 USD pricepoint, I’d advise one to wait until it goes on sale.

It’s lots of fun from the get-go, but ultimately ends up being shallow and forgettable.

Dragon Quest Builders was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a digital copy provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 5

The Good:

  • Very pretty for a voxel-based game
  • The OST is nostalgic for a series fan
  • Tight controls and combat
  • Building up your city can be pretty satisfying

The Bad:

  • Barebones narrative
  • Incredibly repetitive music
  • Tackles a lot of genres, but oversimplifies them
  • Camera can be wonky at times
  • You basically start over completely every chapter
  • Becomes incredibly tedious after the first zone

FEATURED GAME