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

  • KoriCongo

    >There’s a very good reason why games like Minecraft have relatively subtle, quiet soundtracks.

    Really? You’re using Minecraft as your example of “exploration music done right”

    This Minecraft?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FYimjldf7g

    This is less repetitive?

    I don’t disagree with the idea the music gets repetitive, BUT DAMN DID YOU CHOSE THE WRONG ONE TO COUNTER WITH. It’s saying water tastes bitter, so hardtack rations are better.

  • Cody Long

    I’m more referring to the ambient music that plays in the background, not the music discs. I’ve honestly never even built a jukebox in that game.

  • Chocolate ISISCream

    I hope this doesn’t get release on PC.

  • Kain Yusanagi

    Jukebox music is not the constantly playing ambient music in the background.

  • Kain Yusanagi

    I hope it does, because it does look somewhat interesting, and might be a good transition for kids from Minecraft into ARPGs.

  • Ramirez

    A couple of notes. This review does not touch on the Terra Incognita mode, which is basically free build mode. Completing the challenges on each chapter unlocks unique recipes in Terra Incognita, which already offers you the option of multiple colored blocks so you can build anything your autistic heart desires. You can also share the structures that you have built online.

    While the city you built does not remain for the next chapter, you are always free to reload the same chapter and keep on building so it is not all lost, in case you grew fond of the city you built.

    Each chapter also offers different recipes, so while you start over, you will find that some things work different in one world than another. For example, wood is not easy to come by in Rimuldar as it is covered in poison, and instead of building a Stone Hammer (like you did in Chapter 1: Cantlin) you will build a Stone Axe. It is not a huge difference, but it offers a small gasp of fresh air from how repetitive things can turn out for you.

    Finally, while I agree the narrative is barebones, you can find small details scattered all over the world. There are books that briefly tell you the story of how the city was destroyed, what the lives were like before, what caused a sickness to start spreading, etc.

  • sanic

    “You basically start over completely every chapter”

    That’s fucked up man.

  • Cody Long

    I could have gone more into detail, you’re correct. I think the Terra Incognita mode is a good feature, but the fact that you have to complete the main story/challenges to unlock all the junk in that mode was pretty annoying to me. I guess having a free mode with everything unlocked from the get-go would be broken, but it would also be more fun.

  • Tristan (Chili1)

    Can’t you stop shitposting for one day and go back to discussing video games proper? You were pleasant in the Nintendo Switch articles.

  • dogmentation

    Since it seems to have slipped under a lot of people’s radar…if you’re eager for this sort of experience except on the PC, just grab Portal Knights.
    Sure, it’s maybe not as pretty just yet, but you don’t have to own a PS4 or play it with a gamepad.
    For starters, it’s a quarter of the price of DQB.
    Second, it’s single and multiplayer.
    Third, you can toggle 1st/3rd person view cameras.
    Fourth, it’s still in development, so they are adding new features every month and actually listening to player feedback.

  • Dr. Roswell. W

    >Fourth, it’s still in development, so they are adding new features every month and actually listening to player feedback.

    So, it’s Early Access?

  • dogmentation

    Yep, it’s EA, but I only ever endorse EA titles that are eminently playable in their current state, and are actively progressing.

  • No_Good_Names_Ever

    5 out of what? Don’t tell me you guys use the 10 point system.

  • Uncle Slick

    >Incredibly repetitive music

    I could listen to the DQ1 soundtrack ALL day long.

  • Cody Long

    Different strokes! Thanks for reading though.

  • Dr. Roswell. W

    Fair enough.

  • No_Good_Names_Ever

    You’re still paying full price for a game STILL IN DEVELOPMENT.
    Call me when that shit has gotten to a full version or whatever you call it.

  • Madbrainbox

    *You don’t have to play with a gamepad.
    Sold.

  • Kaijuu

    Here is their review policy:

    http://nichegamer.com/review-policy/

    If not the 10-point system, what would you suggest as a replacement? Surely it’s better than the incredibly flawed letter-grade system.

  • goodbyejojo

    i dunno man, i generally despise and stay away from games like minecraft, but i played the demo and i really liked it.

  • Michael Richardson

    I didn’t even bother downloading the demo. Just seemed like a weird, unlikable idea. Glad to hear my instincts were probably right.

  • ProxyDoug

    One of the reason why I hated Dawn of Mana on the PS2.

  • ProxyDoug

    I’m starting to think Square Enix weird business decisions should be a meme by now.

  • Minuteworld92

    you have to start over each chapter? BULL. SHIT.

    FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU

  • totenglocke

    They use the vastly superior 11.37 point system.

  • Grampy_Bone

    I’m enjoying the game but I can’t argue with this review.

  • alterku

    Seems like an ideal short burst, comfy time, turn off the brain type of game. Also seems like that’s where it lost all the points with the review, it doesn’t ask much of or challenge the player, aside from the complaints about the music, which I think I agree with. Not sure if I’d say it’s a 5, for those worries, but I understand why with the direction the review took.

  • sanic

    Guess I’ll avoid that one.

  • No_Good_Names_Ever

    5 points; you got your shitty one your kinda shit 2, your playable but mediocre 3, your it’s good not great 4, and you’re perfect 5. There’s also the chance the smaller amount of numbers will force them to think harder over what they got out of the game.

  • Pilebunker

    No grade or letter system. The number or letter grade shouldn’t matter over the pros and cons. They just make people skip over what’s actually being said.

  • Kaijuu

    Don’t get me wrong; I actually prefer reviews that opt out of using a scored system to rate games. While I think Niche Gamers’ review policy is quite fair, there’s an inherent bias (in both readers and reviewers) to interpret a scored rating differently depending on the person. For example, IGN’s review scores are seen as extremely flawed due to their tendency to skew much higher than what is written about the game might suggest.

    On the other hand, providing a score is an easily relatable way for a reader to compare the quality of a game to another. I don’t think such comparisons are necessary, but I believe it’s a much more palatable thing to look at for your average reader (of which you and I are not).

    In the end, I don’t believe a perfect review system exists. The pros and cons that NG offers are a good compliment to their numbered score if you prefer that as well.

  • Kaijuu

    Wouldn’t you agree that a higher score system allows for more accuracy when rating a game? Even in your example, one could just multiply the numbers by two and get a score out of 10.

    I personally disregard scores when reading reviews, preferring to judge based on the written content about the game, so take my suggestions with a grain of salt.

  • CrownedKing623

    Was the reviewer aware of the R3 button, that fixes the camera while in enclosed areas? I don’t find it an issue. But I guess it bothered some people.

  • RockstarRepublic

    You want them to have less sales?