Since the dawn of time, mankind has utilised one technique to propel themselves throughout history; building. Well, there’s probably two or three other techniques, but they don’t relate to what I’m talking about, so I won’t talk about them. From the humble wheel, to the ultimately pointless iterations of the Rube Goldberg machine, people have endeavoured to create, innovate and make their lives easier…or cooler, that also governs a lot of decisions made throughout time. How else do you explain video games?
Venture, if you would, into the long spanning franchise of Dragon Quest, filled to the brim with characters and creatures designed by Akira Toriyama, one specific example of which being dragons, though you probably gather that from the title. However, before you make your way into the heart of the series, pivot slightly and walk a different path, a voxel based path. That’s right friends, similar to the Minecraft your mind will immediately compare it to, Dragon quest Builders takes place in a cubular environment that just begs to be shattered by Giant Hammers and repurposed into whatever you heart so desires…within reason, but more on that in a little bit. As far as plot goes, you assume the role of The Builder, legendary figure and the only human capable of creation after the vile Dragonlord sapped that particular skill from humanity. Thus, despite the disparagement of literally everyone else in the world of Alefgard, The Builder makes strides in empowering humanity and freeing the land of an all encompassing evil. Pretty standard heroic stuff really, well, slightly different, but standard nonetheless. That being said, the game does stand out in its unabating insistence that you, The Builder, are not a hero and are not destined to vanquish the Dragonlord. No, that station falls to another. Who that could be is absolutely up in the air and apparently even the deity of Alefgard herself is unaware. Solid planning god lady.
As one may infer from the comparison to Minecraft, the references to “The Builder” and the hanging statement regarding repurposing, Dragon Quest Builders centres around breaking and making. Punch a tree, grab some branches, build a hammer and break more stuff. Simple. After that, you can mix things up by breaking minerals, smelting them, building a better hammer and breaking stronger stuff. After that…you’ve pretty much grasped the concept of the game, the name of which is repetition. Of course the game covers this up by changing what the aforementioned broken blocks combine to become, though all avenues lead to one destination; rooms. Divided into four distinct chapters, the game places you within four ramshackle towns in which to base your adventure. Upon entering, you slowly repair the tattered structures and in turn gain small perks for your struggling locale. Building a kitchen, for example, allows you to cook surrounding flora and fauna in order to stave of starvation, a nasty status ailment that will slowly drain your health bar…which is also something you have. Completely inconsequential to building, unless you decide to test how quickly you can leap from a roof, said bar comes into play upon clashing with the various monstrous denizens of Alefgard’s four islands (Cantlin, Rimuldar, Kol and Galenholm and Tantengel for those curious). Challenging said monsters also ties into your fledgling town, as forges, workbenches and armouries are needed to outfit yourself, and your townspeople, with weaponry. The power of said weaponry then loops back around to the environment, as they are only as powerful as the materials used to create them. that being said, even possessing the correct materials is not always enough and you must acquire the recipes from a townsperson by building another structure and receive them as a reward. It’s a simplistically intricate web that culminates in the single idea that to do anything in this game, you have to build stuff. Swords, walls, floors, signposts, cauldrons, tables, chairs, ornamental suits of armour, different chairs, buckets, shovels, clothes, grilled cactus steaks, steel ingots, bricks, shields, doors, spikes, pistons, buttons, cannons, magic cannons, statues, water filtration devices, cosmic altars…the list goes on. Honestly, that isn’t even half of the buildable list I saw and I know I didn’t find everything available within the game. So, if construction floats your boat, then float on happily.
Curving around to combat once more, allow me some time to detail my biggest gripe with this game…the combat. Though parsed down to a simple “hit bad guy with stick” formula, the attacking mechanics of this game leave some to be desired. As the range of a stick/hammer/sword is historically short, you are forced to place yourself rather close to your selected target. Unfortunately, this also means that you may accidentally touch said foe physically, which will cause you damage, stagger your attack and bounce you slightly backwards. As you may have already guessed, this is extremely annoying and can lead to numerous situations wherein you are forced to flee, if you did not bring enough healing items. Though this may seem like yet another minor inconvenience, the enemies of Builders possess an unnatural motivation to chase you down. As in they will rarely, rarely ever stop. So do your best and try to make it as close as you can to your base because that skeleton will not leave you alone, that Hammerhood will follow you home and that goddamn night spawning ghost will incessantly attempt to destroy you. Did I mention that nighttime spawns super annoying ghosts? Because it totally does. An understandable deterrence of the later hours to be sure, along with the near zero visibility, however these spectral villains take their job even more seriously than their daytime brethren. Capable of besting your top speed, possessing access to painfully damaging strikes and able to spawn damn near anywhere, they will make you despise half of this game. The night half. Honestly, it’s nearly pointless to do anything during these hours, unless you feel like fending of monsters every ten seconds. Of course sleeping until morning could fix this, but if the ghosts are too close to your base you can’t even do that. Many a time I found it easier to just get killed and respawn. No word of exaggeration, I hate those ghosts. This also ties in to how much I was frustrated by the speed at which you can move in this game, which is slower than you would like. The game even attempts to trick you by providing craftable armour that boosts movement speed, the trick coming from the omission that it is nowhere near worth the drop in armour class, especially since the boost in speed is just a touch above noticeable. On this topic, the game also tries to trick you by separating itself from other RPGs, outwardly stating that your job is to build, not fight monsters…before immediately forcing you to fight near every monster in the game in order to build. Not to mention the boss fights…
Let’s mention the boss fights. Not too far removed from standard combat, these climactic, chapter ending clashes throw a few rules at you that force your hand. Luckily, the game tells you exactly what these are and situations rapidly unfold into the traditional single sequence repeated three times. Defeat the bosses minions, block the bosses strike, attack them whilst stunned. Done, world saved. Moving on. These battles do however ramp up the difficulty by removing your townspeople from the equation, leaving you to fight alone…not that you’re a hero or anything. Also, make sure you’ve bolstered your town’s defences before you initiate boss battle mode, as the vast majority of the world will also be removed from the equation, relegating the fight to the immediate space around your town. So, expect to rebuild some bedroom walls, Knights Aberrant hate walls and the like. However, despite all of this being said, the simple fact that boss fights rely on the culmination of your knowledge and building skills is a nice touch and do lead to a sense of accomplishment. The experience is slightly cheapened however when the game removes your crafting abilities upon travelling to another chapter…every time you head to another chapter. This leaves you firmly back on square one, having to repeat the same climb to prosperity again and again and again, ultimately creating a single plot that feels as if it is divided into four distinct parts, a la episodic gaming. So take that as you will, but go in to Builders knowing that there is more (and less) to this experience than the game itself reveals.
As a whole, Dragon Quest Builders is a charming experience. It’s simple, it’s cute and it’s repetitious mechanic leans more into the realm of calming than monotonous. However, in trying to include its more traditional RPG roots, it combines this experience with one that lacks in positive aspects. Despite countless mentions that The builder is not the one who is destined to fight the evil that encompasses the world with sword and shield, but rather hammer and nail, there is zero way in which combat can be avoided. Aggroing an enemy through the simple act of walking too close to it will lead to either a clash or cross country run that will end only if the monster in question gets caught in the environment. The more difficult night enemies may also overlap with the more scripted events, leading to a town assault made all the harder by a never ending stream of ghosts on top of the pre-determined waves of enemies. Navigation also somewhat fails in that the compass marker that guides your way back to base, along with any current quest markers, do not take into account portals, the method through which you access different islands. Thus following said markers will lead to the edge of an island, where you will find yourself “blocked by a mysterious force” that prevents building and travel. The simple solution would be to have the marker lead to the return portal on whichever island you stand on, but alas, this is not the case. So keep some Chimera Wings (which warp you back to base) on hand, or prepare for a frustratingly slow walk across an island filled with monsters who hate you. But, on the plus side, you will end up back home eventually and that’s where all the cool stuff you built is. Like that forge, or that barbeque or that one block of earth that you used as a substitute in a brick wall because you were one brick block short and it drives you crazy every time you see it but you always forget to fix it so it drives you crazy the next time and then you forget the next time as well…it’s a vicious cycle. I will say however that there is an option to build cladding in this game, which transforms earth blocks into other materials, allowing you to strengthen a room without demolishing it and starting over. Which is awesome. It doesn’t prevent your rooms from being violently destroyed by monsters, but it’s still a pretty dandy feature. Did I mention how much I hate those night ghosts? Because it’s a lot.
Square Enix created Dragon Quest, Dragon Quest created The Builder and The Builder created the world of Dragon Quest…are you as confused as I am?