In the 30 years since Dragon Quest first released, the Japanese role-playing game series has had many entries. Builders, while not a pure RPG in the traditional sense, is also far from the only spinoff title in the storied franchise, which has included strategy titles, card games, and even an arcade variant.
Builders is set in Alefgard, the same world as the first game in the series, and in fact follows on from that game as if the player had chosen an alternate ending, splitting the world with the bad guy rather than beating him. Things don’t work out so well in this scenario, however, and the hero of that first game is killed by the bad guy who then goes on to rule the world.
You play the part of a mysterious person who wakes up in this post-apocalyptic Alefgard to find its few human citizens spread out, hiding from monsters, and unable to build things. You must literally rebuild society, one block at a time, helping people that you meet remember how to make things for themselves.
The mechanic by which you go about this seemingly daunting task will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played Minecraft. The world is split primarily into quite large cubes of various basic materials like earth, stone, wood, and you’ll need to quite literally bash at these blocks with sticks to begin with, turning them into things you can pick up and put in your pocket. There are also creatures who roam the world, and you’ll need to harvest materials – including from the creatures – in order to construct an increasingly impressive home base for your ever expanding population to live in.
In addition to basic, farm-animal type creatures (including Dragon Quest’s signature “slimes”), you’ll also encounter other aggressive monsters from the franchise. You’ll not only have to handle these often very strong foes while out and about, but they’ll also periodically attack your town, necessitating some strategic thinking and almost arms race style improvement of your technology as you progress.
Fortunately, the structure of the game is such that you won’t need to be too worried about attacks at home except while you’re there, and the only time these attacks warrant a huge amount of your attention is when a quest triggers a large-scale encounter. Otherwise, so long as you sleep during the night and work only during the day, the monsters are generally pretty passive.
Finding new recipes to build is as simple as finding new material, and that material is smartly gated behind simple progression. The staged way in which content is introduced (including repetitious, simple instructions that even a fairly young child should be able to follow) means that the game’s quite complex mechanics are introduced at an extremely sustainable rate.
About the only things in this part of the game that I was disappointed by are the lack of a quest log to review, and that sub-quests aren’t actually tracked on the map. Given the game’s nature, however, neither of these issues is as severe as they might otherwise sound, but they might prove to be an issue if you play the game only occasionally and have an average memory.
The RPG elements in the game are simple, but they definitely add to the sense of both purpose and progression you get from playing. Characters in your town will offer you a good variety of mostly interesting quests, and your town will level up based on stuff that you build, which challenges you to actually decorate things and take advantage of non-functional recipes in a way that feels rewarding.
One interesting design element is that, on completing one of the game’s lengthy chapters, you step through a portal to the next part of the story, which wipes almost all of your recipes and empties your stockpile of resources. Initially frustrating, I actually came to like this idea in that it gave you the chance to start over with a blank slate, with only your real-world experience to guide you. Add in the fact that each level’s material theme and available recipes change, and you have a chance to effectively experience the whole thing over again.
Completing the first chapter unlocks not just the second but also a free-roaming anything-goes mode, in which an island – not entirely unlike that seen in the first chapter – is unlocked for you to draw resources from. Playing through the rest of the story mode unlocks more islands for the free-roaming mode, and hidden recipes and extra challenges that can be found in previous levels give you some impetus to repeat them. You can brute force your way through the game’s missions fairly quickly if you want to, but the joy of exploring, finding new things, and building the best town you can is tempting enough that it will likely take you a very, very long time indeed to explore everything that’s on offer.
Dragon Quest Builders is a lot of fun. Its simple sandbox is given welcome structure by the questing and gradual unlock framework laid on top of the basic building mechanic, and genuine, well-rounded NPCs add real character to the moment-to-moment exploration / survival / building gameplay. If you are looking for a more story-driven version of Minecraft, you really need to look no further. There’s loads to do, and you’ll likely love every minute of it.