With how varied the medium of video games can be, there’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when games combine established genres to make something unique. Video game genres are often fuzzy at best, especially when considering the literal definition of the role-playing game genre can be used to describe 99% of the industry if you stretch a bit. Experimental use of combining genre tropes and mechanics can result in some of the most unique experiences in the entire medium. Movies and literature dabble in this, but not in a way that’s so clearly obvious. Video games are granted with the distinct feature of being able to do this fairly easily, adding in mechanics usually associated with other genres to enrich another. Dragon Quest Builders is one such game, one that clearly emulates the construction elements of Minecraft with the traditional RPG roots of Dragon Quest.
Dragon Quest Builders stars a hero with the unique ability to be creative, making him the only one who can build structures and tools. The world around him has been cast into a Dark Age, where monsters rule and humans are left wandering in broken societies. The people have no drive to build communities and lack the knowledge to do so, many forgetting even basic survival skills. Luckily, the player, through use of the game’s mechanics, inspires the villagers to fend for themselves, while also rebuilding society and banishing the evils created by the Dragonlord.
Even in its very outset, Dragon Quest Builders has the player making small advancements in learning the mechanics of the Minecraft variety, all to drive the narrative of teaching villagers to build and defending the town against monsters. It starts slow, but steadily eases the player into the complexities of the world they’ve been given the keys to. While all of this is happening, players will be fighting off classic Dragon Quest creatures and building better gear, constantly getting stronger like a traditional RPG. Couple this with the classic Dragon Quest visual style, sound effects, and score, makes for a charming game that just works so well.
Dragon Quest Builders basically added to what Minecraft established, morphing it into a new experience. I love the player driven stories found in these crafting games. Those little moments create fun experiences to share with friends, all with no spurring on, but often being driven by player choice. Dragon Quest Builders has this in spades, with the added advantage of the final goal of liberating the world from evil and completing quests. It gives drive to the player’s actions, adding something to always be striving for, but never takes away from the freedom.
Dragon Quest has always been about tried and true turn-based combat, existing in a realm separate from actually exploring the world in a battle screen. The hero finds gear, levels up, and slowly makes their way across the world in an adventure, usually driven by simple plots of good vs evil. Later entries did make the plots more complex, but at its core, many Dragon Quest games reflect a basic narrative structure and gameplay. Dragon Quest Builders lets the player interact with monsters in real time, without going into a battle screen. This works really well for the franchise, even if the combat lacks the complexity and is boiled down to simple space management, timing, and item preparation.
Players can see the monster coming, learn how much of a threat they are, and decide whether or not to attack. Killing monsters in Dragon Quest Builders drops items, which may lead to new crafting recipes, as picking up an item often results in the character learning how to build with those components. This creates a reward for those who pursue battles with these monsters, rather than them primarily be a way to gain XP. There are no levels in Dragon Quest Builders, only improved armor and weapons.
Exploring any part of Dragon Quest Builders follows this pattern. Finding new things gets the player more options, creating an addictive loop of going just a bit further, or a bit deeper underground to find new things. It’s simple, but focused. I was constantly striving for little goals like getting a new building type, or upgrading my weapons. Even these small victories felt like big accomplishments, all because I set out to do them. Players are guided with the quest system, that teaches new things as it goes and unlocks more variety to play with, but I usually enjoyed them just as much as striking out on my own. It never felt like a railroad, even though the quests are mostly designed to only have one outcome.
Of course, Dragon Quest Builders uses a similar block system to that found in Minecraft as its foundation. Blocks are made up of different materials like wood, copper, or earth, which gives players different components to play with. Sure a house of dirt is considered a house, but one with a straw roof, or maybe even metal walls will provide for more protection in case of a monster raid. In the case of Dragon Quest Builders, I did spend significantly more time above ground, which is mostly due to the third-person perspective instead of Minecraft’s ability for first-person. I enjoyed this a bit more, as I was exploring a vibrant world, instead of living underground with the monsters in the dark.
While Minecraft does have its fair share of tough bosses to tackle, Dragon Quest Builders has boss scenarios at the end of each chapter. The game has the player teleporting to new biomes with different challenges for these chapters, with the first starting out in a forest and the next starting in a poisonous swamp. Adapting to these changes, and losing all of the gear and progress in between chapters creates another level of challenge that I haven’t found in similar games. The bosses are usually built up to be super formidable by the dialogue given by the town’s people, making that confrontation all the more powerful. These fights have the monster ripping up what the player has so lovingly built, driving the player that much more to take it down in an awesome display of wit and smart preparation.
Now, while Dragon Quest Builders does do an excellent job of blending genres and driving the player, it’s not without its faults. The controls can be a bit awkward at times, mostly because of that third-person view. Locking into a strafe ends up with the player holding too many buttons, often resulting in placing blocks in the wrong places. Things being classified as rooms (having a door, walls that are at least two blocks high, and has a light source) doesn’t always work as it should seem to. Combat can get repetitive in its simplicity. Needless to say there’s definitely room for improvement if a sequel ever occurs.
Yet, I enjoyed my long hours with the game and its addictive structure. Upgrading the little towns and making the most out of that space was a giant puzzle that had multiple solutions. Making sure everyone in town had a nice place to sleep was a high priority for me, connecting me to the characters even more. That first town held a special place in my heart and leaving it for the next chapter was a bit more touching than I expected.
There is heart in Dragon Quest Builders.
Finishing each chapter does unlock more content in a free-play chapter, so its worth mentioning that this more open way to play isn’t available until after the first chapter has been beat. This mode is where players who enjoy building with every tool available to them will find themselves spending the most time. Personally, I prefer the staged chapters and their quest lines. Players even get a rating on how long the chapter took and what they may have missed, which could lead to some interesting replays.
One can also argue that Dragon Quest Builders is filled with life lessons as well. We could compare the Dark Age in the game to what could happen to an individual, losing their creativity. This game promotes being creative and staying busy as a necessity to life, especially considering not being creative and giving up sparks such a dark atmosphere. I would love to see someone actually take a more academic approach to this scenario; there are definitely some interesting lines of thought to play with.
Once again, Dragon Quest Builders is nowhere near the best game ever, but its playful use of two established video game concepts makes it worth keeping in the overall discussion of the medium.
Find Dragon Quest Builders on the PS4 and the PSVita.