Dragon Quest Builders (Switch) Review
Dragon Quest Builders is one of those bizarre games that tries to marry one genre with another. In this case, it’s the RPG-like qualities of the Dragon Quest series being married to block-based, world-constructing, survival qualities of a game like Minecraft. The latter is something I have a lot of experience with (heck, I even reviewed Minecraft when it came to the Switch). The former, however, is where I’m a little bit shaky; I haven’t played a Dragon Quest game since Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2 came out all the way back in 2004. Thankfully, that did not provide much of an issue. That aside, Dragon Quest Builders manages to pull off this mashup of concepts in a spectacular way, but some frustrating and questionable design choices detract from the experience that could have been.
Set in an alternate reality following the first Dragon Quest game, Dragon Quest Builders has the player take control of the titular Builder, the only person left in the world capable of building anything. The world is shrouded in darkness, monsters wander freely, and humans, who again, cannot construct a single thing, are left hiding in dirt huts in fear. The Builder’s quest is a simple one — build a town for people to live in, teach the people to survive together, and banish the evil taking hold of the land. And then do it again. And again. And again. But we’ll come back to that later.
I mentioned Minecraft in my introduction, but the comparison is a bit unfair. While, yes, the world is all blocky, and yes, you spend a lot of time, well, mining and crafting, but the similarities start and stop at face value. Dragon Quest Builders is an RPG first and a building game second. Throughout your journey, you’ll spend more time exploring and gathering resources for a quest than you will building – everything you do is to progress the story. That’s a good thing, because while you lose a lot of freedom in aiming to tell a story, the end result is a more focused, well-rounded experience that rarely gets boring. The problem with a game like Minecraft is that the lack of direction can be freeing, but it can also get boring very quickly. Dragon Quest strikes a fine balance between the two, and the little tedium on offer never outstays its welcome.
That said, there is an option for those who would rather spend their days building magnificent castles, and that comes in the form of the Terra Incognita mode. In Terra Incognita, there are no quests, no nagging NPCs to push you along a story. Unlocked after the first chapter, it offers you a whole new land, filled with all of the resources and monsters you find in the story mode, but with none of the obligation. Here, you can compete against monsters in the arena, explore to your heart’s content, and build whatever you like. You can even share your builds with other players using a sharing stone, which captures a snapshot of an area and whisks it away to a random player’s world. If comparisons to Minecraft need to be made when discussing Dragon Quest Builders, Terra Incognita is the mode that fits the bill as the closest experience you can get.
And now we get to the prickly part of the review. Being an RPG, I figured that once I’d finished the first chapter, I could go straight into the next while keeping my progression, my upgraded health bar, my crafting recipes. It’s par for the course, and progression is an important part of RPGs. I even spent a couple of hours collecting food, just to be prepared. And then I stepped into the final portal, selected chapter two… and I had nothing. My health upgrades were gone, my recipes forgotten, and all that food I’d collected, it was all gone. It was then that I discovered that Dragon Quest Builders was not a game, but rather, it was four separate games in one big package.
Now, I understand that, for many people, there’s a lot of appeal to this. Starting over isn’t always a bad thing, and the challenges that each chapter brings are certainly interesting enough. But it very strongly throws a spanner into the works for those who like a clear sense of progression. If the game had ended after the first chapter, roughly 15-20 hours in, I’d have been perfectly content. It was a solid, discrete little story, and between that and Terra Incognita, there was plenty on offer. Throwing me into the next chapter and immediately having me do low-level crafting quests like I was back at the start of the game was frustrating and could have been handled much better. In a book, the second chapter is usually a continuation of the first; in Dragon Quest Builders, it’s nothing of the sort.
That said, each chapter does have a neat little challenge to it. For example, in the second chapter you visit the Kingdom of Rimuldar, a once great land that has been infected by a poison blight. Because of that, food you find on the ground can’t be eaten right away, it needs to be cooked. Where in the first chapter, if you were low on hunger you could always find a berry or two to top you up before you make it back, chapter two requires a much finer balancing of cooking food, eating food, and having that energy from eating last long enough to gather more food and complete quests. Later chapters make certain resources impossible to obtain, requiring you to come up with more creative ways to complete tasks, or requires you to bring villagers along with you in a party. It’s certainly an interesting idea, and the challenges add a lot of freshness to the core gameplay, which is a good thing considering how many times you’ll have to do the same thing each chapter.
As for performance on the Switch, Dragon Quest Builders is fairly well optimised. It runs at a smooth and consistent frame rate both handheld and docked, the text is clear and readable no matter how you play, and the draw distance is perfectly acceptable. That said, it suffers from a lot of jagginess in docked mode, and appears to be running at below 1080p, leading to a less than pretty game. It looks absolutely stunning in handheld, however, and there’s always a chance of the resolution being bumped up a bit in a future update when docked — though I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. Aside from that, though, the game is largely bug-free, save for some minor jankiness in combat, which, considering how minor combat is to the experience, isn’t too big of an issue.
It’s easy to have a love/hate relationship with Dragon Quest Builders. Mechanically, it’s a brilliant experience, with some of the best gameplay and aesthetics of any game in the genre. But the decision to break the game up into four separate parts with no sense of progression between them is jarring at its best, and downright frustrating at its worst. It could have been so much more, but what’s here is worth celebrating too. It might not be perfect, but it’s fun, there’s a tonne of content, and most importantly, the monsters are cute as heck.
+ Four games in one
+ Incredibly strong gameplay
+ Looks fantastic in handheld mode
- Four games in one
- Repetitive past the first chapter
- A bit jaggy in docked mode