The Minecraft comparisons can't be avoided, so let's get them out of the way: Decades old trad-fantasy roleplaying series Dragon Quest reimagines itself as a blocky sandbox that has players cobble together elaborate edifices and contraptions to survive. As in studio Mojang's opus, you wander and excavate, fight and fine-tune, obsessing over the extraction and placement of gobs of geological primitive cubes. Boutique businesses and boarding houses emerge, coalescing into bustling villages as the world gradually metamorphoses, made over by your busy labors.
But—and you knew there'd be one—Minecraft's obligations are minimalist and its parameters capacious, inviting players to embrace the preposterous. Its story is whatever you did while playing it, and you can erect stratospheric or subterranean confabulations completely off the leash. It's information distribution meets Into the Wild—a Thoreauvian excursion to a perilous-slash-paradisiacal wonderland liberated from the hobgoblins of narrative gods.
Dragon Quest Builders, out for PlayStation 4 and PS Vita on October 11, is by contrast a game of quests, godlike foes and geological constraints. Instead of rolling a mathematically unique world each time you play, it drops players into handcrafted zones, then trots out quest sequences that hew to the 1986 original. Everyone starts in the same spot, interacts with the same characters, has to perform the same tasks and winds up building more or less the same things.
The game loads you up on plot before you’ve tiptoed an inch. There’s a big bad called the Dragonlord who's turned the world into a dilapidated, monster-riddled wasteland (and apparently made everyone too dim to rebuild for themselves). You're the hero-builder who can reverse course by assembling stuff like eateries, hotels, infirmaries and occult labs. And you learn to do so by gathering items, recipes and sometimes even forlorn citizens, each stint prefaced by buckets of text to ground you firmly in a fantasy world replete with Dragon Quest staples, from smirking slimes and bat-winged drackies to habit-clothed nuns. It’s antithetical to Minecraft‘s vacant, Rambo-like survivalist ethos.
And yet it's the pliability of the world itself that keeps any of this from straitjacketing the gameplay. While you're generally told what to build and where, the "how" is left to you. Are you prepared to venture into an area overrun by easily antagonized nomadic creatures as you burrow for precious metals like copper, iron and steel? Equipped to explore a set of pyramidal ruins haunted by cultish worshippers and harboring crucial components for an elaborate defense-works build recipe? Inured to the busywork of quarrying extra piles of dirt or stone to upgrade a town's walls, whether preemptively or just because you like the way something looks?
The point being that Dragon Quest Builders shows how you can have a more distillate sandbox that's still enthralling by dint of thoughtful constraints. At the start of each chapter, the game directs you to the planning site for a town, asking you to build rooms or contraptions based on blueprints or recipes. You can vary the particulars, like where things go, how many rooms should be residential or artisanal, how high to build walls and what sort of material to build them out of. It's a bit like one of the Sims spinoffs, where you're creating things to meet goals that generate points, in turn required to pass certain thresholds that advance the story.
All this unfolds in beautiful, high-definition cubist vistas those weary of vanilla Minecraft's intentionally pixel-art-ish vibe should appreciate. You control the hero from a distant third-person view, which works great when you're exploring topside, doing battle with classic goofball Dragon Quest creatures that paired with the blocky scenery put me in mind of Gottlieb’s iconic 1982 arcade hopper.
But delve into a dungeon or bore into the side of a hill, and the camera freaks out, unable to cope with transitions from open spaces to extreme close quarters. There’s no first-person view, an unfortunate omission that makes interior mining a chore because the field of view gets screwy. You can click a button to reset the camera, which helps, but only after you’ve hollowed out an area big enough to give the camera hovering room.
Acclimating to the controls in general takes patience. In Minecraft, you act on whatever you’re looking at—true point and click. In Dragon’s Quest Builders, since you’re having to maneuver a square selection cursor around terrain in third-person, you'll sometimes fumble the thing you’re trying to break or build. And you're only able to interact with whatever’s immediately below, above or adjacent to you, which adds menial labor to large scale construction—a difficulty Minecraft sidesteps by giving you invisible appendages capable of stretching like Plastic Man’s out to four or five blocks away.
It's also important to note that Dragon Quest Builders' world has much lower spatial highs and higher lows than Minecraft's. You won't stumble onto an underworld flush with lethal enemies patrolling resource-rich otherworldly ruins if you opt to explore downward. You can’t dig down much at all, in fact, hitting the equivalent of Minecraft‘s bedrock bottom after just a handful of layers. Most of Dragon Quest Builders‘ mining game transpires aboveground, probably because the game controls best when you’re clambering around atop surfaces, not tunneling through them.
Then again, you're trading algorithmically repetitive biomes and a handful of enemy archetypes for haunted castles, treacherous eyries, deceitful demons, sinister cemeteries, slumbering dragons, crumbling way stations, giant nook-rich castles and more. And your newfound pals are much more than window dressing, cooking and building things for you, even rallying to help fend off attacks from waves of skeletons, hulking knights and mutant scorpions. Yes, the game's all-seeing third-person view eliminates the horrifying-slash-thrilling threat of volatile Creepers. But the game finds other ways to startle you, like enemies that unleash plumes of flame, or others that can teleport past barriers to torment you.
Do I wish the world-building leaned more toward unbounded? That I could explore to Stygian depths or erect cloud-piercing towers? That each time I loaded the game it spooled up a procedurally unique setting just for me? Not really, because the exemplar for that already exists.
Dragon Quest Builders is instead a beautiful, voxel-informed, crafting-focused, thematically relatable fantasy roleplaying extravaganza that's better because of its constraints, not in spite of them. It's the sort of thing those who've bounced playing Minecraft but still find its crazy everywhere appeal intriguing should pay attention to—an exquisite, Lego-like builder deftly equipoised between structured and freeform play.
4.5 out of 5
Reviewed on PlayStation 4