Dragon Quest with Minecraft seems reductive, but it’s the most succinct way to describe Dragon Quest Builders. And while there are definitely flavors of both in it, my early impressions of Builders left me feeling underwhelmed and wishing it had done a better job of blending both game styles together in a way that wasn’t contradictory or shallow.
Dragon Quest takes place in the fantasy world of Alefgard, the fantastical home to people and a host of creatures. Unfortunately, Alefgard has fallen into a strange darkness, and the fate of this world and everything in it rests in the hands of one young boy.
Many of its early elements are pulled straight from classic JRPGs. The unlikely savior hero, a world lunged into nondescript darkness, many NPCs demanding attention with exclamation marks above their heads, even the footstep noises made when a character exits a room into the main world.
But, it’s also a top-to-bottom Minecraft-style sandbox builder. Like a scene out of Idiocracy, the people of Alefgard are incapable of creating or building anything new. So, it’s up to the lone hero builder Brandon – yes, that’s his name, yes the game teases him about it too – to rebuild the world and restore light and hope to people’s hearts.
This is done by taking on quests involving the crafting and building of various items ranging from a simple healing cream to fixing up houses and collecting food. In fact, much of my time with the demo was spent speaking to a new citizen in my recently-founded town, whose nearly inexhaustible list of demands chained together tutorial after tutorial. I fixed up her house, built beds, and foraged for food, among other things. Although I understand the game’s earnestness to expose me to its basic mechanics, it didn’t leave me with the most positive impression, especially considering Minecraft’s strength is found in encouraging players to explore and discover simply by doing. Having every facet of a game explained to me in scrolling text is not nearly as interesting or engaging as simply walking out and interacting with the world on my own.
In order to obtain the necessary materials with which to build, Brandon will have to wander around his block-based world, violently smashing apart anything in his way until it bursts into a simplified icon representing the item or substance. Large plants break into grass leaves, sticks protruding from the earth are converted into broken branches, and the ground can be condensed into collectible cubes of dirt.
That said, a lengthy tutorial and near copy/paste world pulled straight from Minecraft didn’t add any personality to make Dragon Quest Builders stand out from its sandbox builder contemporaries. And, its adherence to its JRPG seemed to hold it back in a way, since it treats all of the game’s systems like intricate combat mechanics to be explained instead of a blank slate for creatives to enjoy. Merging both of these may prove difficult in the full game, since both the sandbox builder and the JRPG set out to accomplish very different goals.
Management was also a challenge, as controller menu navigation doesn’t even compete with the PC’s superiority of mouse and keyboard. Cycling through items and materials in Dragon Quest Builder’s menus felt cumbersome, with layers and layers to navigate. Perhaps things will have improved at release, but this preview build felt a bit hollow in its execution.
The world and characters of Dragon Quest Builders are charming, the landscape serviceably pretty, and the premise of a hero needing to rebuild rather than destroy to save everyone is a neat spin on typical conventions. It’s also a neat proof of concept showing how two very different games can be blended to create wholly new experiences. I’m hopeful the demo simply didn’t do the full game justice, since early impressions felt like the experience lacked depth and didn’t do enough to both integrate ideas from multiple sources while creating something fresh and new.
Dragon Quest Builders releases on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita in October 2016.
*NOTE: This preview was conducted at a press event with food and drinks provied by Square Enix*