Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 2/9/2018
Developer: Square Enix
Admittedly, the combination of Dragon Quest and building never seemed too intriguing. When Dragon Quest Builders first released in 2016, I recall rolling my eyes, thinking it was just another weird cash grab, aimed toward kids. While the correlation of this and kids is fair, I was proven wrong and realized that not only was I intrigued, I had a decent time with it. With the recent release of the Nintendo Switch port of the PS4 version, all of my creations could be taken on the go. It seems like many games suit the Switch nicely, Dragon Quest Builders included.
Dragon Quest Builders is an RPG in which creation and building are the focal points. In addition, exploring an open world and gathering resources to craft better, more useful items is a driving force. It’s clear that Square Enix drew many inspirations from other games of the same genre, so jumping into this feels all too familiar.
Perhaps “slapping” the building mechanic on anything would sell, but having an established IP certainly makes it better. As someone who isn’t familiar with Dragon Quest, I didn’t have much of a connection to this game beforehand. Being creative and building is something that I do connect with, and that’s what grabbed me in Builders.
After the tutorial, players are thrown into the world to gather resources, fight enemies using light combat, recruit villagers, craft items, and most importantly, build.
The game starts off simple enough, but complexity ramps up quickly as quests are completed. Many players will be familiar with the formula of gathering parts in the environment and bringing them back to base to expand. It’s a loop that hooked me, despite feeling like the design was missing something.
The quests give the game direction, but they aren’t as satisfying as one would hope. Many times, exploring the world is better than the reward received for completing quests. It’s an odd issue, but having some direction is better than none at all. Still, quests like these made me wish they were more fleshed out. Most of them felt like fetch quests, which didn’t necessarily contrast with the idea building, but still left a lot to be desired.
Tasked with the role of rebuilding the village discovered in ruins, the player must use blocks to create rooms and buildings, which level up the base. Unlike many RPGs, Dragon Quest Builders has the player leveling up the base instead of the character. This is a welcome mechanic because it creates a focus on building rather than combat.
That being said, combat takes a backseat in this game, which is fair, considering “builders” is in the title. Focused mostly on one-button attacks, the game feels almost unfinished. There is a spin attack that is unlocked shortly into the game, but I often found myself sticking to the main attack. There isn’t even a way to block or counter, so enemy attacks will always land if the player is in range. It’s frustrating because many of the quests involve combat, but I never wanted to engage enemies because of the lack of polish. I almost wish the combat would have been totally removed, or that it was deeper.
Even stranger is that there is no real consequence for dying. The only penalty is that half of the items are dropped, but players may retrieve them if they choose. It’s a strange amalgamation of feelings because combat is barely functional but there isn’t much need to worry about death. It’s as if the developers ran out of time when creating the combat/death system, a noticeable flaw in the game.
Above all else, there are some issues when traveling throughout the levels. The poor excuse for a map in Dragon Quest Builders hindered me to the point of having to look up the location of many items throughout my journey. The downside of the map is that the player cannot scroll past a certain radius, making distant destinations impossible to track. There is no other way to locate destinations, causing much frustration when attempting to complete quests. Perhaps this was a way for the developers to encourage less reliance on the map, having the player focus more on exploration. It’s a missed mark, considering I had trouble finding items half the time.
Building and Crafting
The main fun and arguably the most addicting part of Dragon Quest Builders is the sandbox portion. Watching a construction come to life with only the limits of one’s creativity is so satisfying. At first, there was confusion with how the base-building worked, but after that hump was overcome, the gathering and building loop was a blast.
Having the village rely solely on the player to find resources and expand gives a sense of responsibility that most games don’t have—that structure is there because of YOU. Something about that kept me going, and seeing my village turn into a huge structure made this hard to put down.
Even on a smaller scale, I found item crafting satisfying as well. Looking at what ingredients were needed for a particular piece of armor or food had me excited to go out and explore. Food plays an integral part, as the player’s hunger meter constantly depletes. As bad as that sounds, it rarely caused any problems since food is plentiful in the land. The game also rewards the player for recruiting other villagers. Once far enough in the story, these villagers will craft items of their own volition as well as fend off enemies that attack the base.
The base defending is another interesting idea with Dragon Quest Builders. Every so often, a swarm of enemies attacks the base and the player and villagers must defeat all of them to proceed. Unfortunately, these instances weren’t as fun as they could have been, due to the overly simplistic combat. I almost wish these sections were done in a turn-based, tower-defense style, like Plants vs. Zombies.
After clearing chapter one, the game gives the player access to Free Mode, in which the world can be explored without having to worry about objectives. It works like a survival mode, something for fans who don’t need direction when playing.
Aside from the many issues with this game, it does have its merits. For example, the writing is strong, making me look forward to character interactions. Some of the dialogue had me laughing out loud. Since the game does not feature voice acting, strong writing carries the narrative here. It’s a treat to come back from a quest and talk with a funny, witty character.
Other than the benefit of having this on the go (the best way to play), there aren’t many advantages to playing the Nintendo Switch version over the others. There is some exclusive content, the Dragon Quest Game Pak, which features retro customization options. Performance wise the game never gave me any issue, running at 60 frames per second while docked with a 720p resolution. Interestingly, the game runs at 30 frames per second while in portable mode.
Dragon Quest Builders is guilty of having various intriguing ideas executed poorly. The combat is dull; trying to locate objectives is obtuse, and the lack of rewards from quests make it hard to want to progress. Despite all this, exploring the world and building bases was some of the most rewarding gameplay I’ve experienced in a while. And having it on the go made it even better. I only wish the other ideas were more fleshed out to make this a better package, especially at the $50.00 price point.