That Dragon Quest Builders openly imitates the impossibly popular Minecraft should come as no surprise; the developers have said as much. Making the comparison ceases to be clever when you're just restating the creators' mission statement.
The Builders team views building games as a genre unto itself, and they hope that Builders' relationship to Minecraft will work the way the original Dragon Quest's relationship to Wizardry panned out. That is, to make it more accessible to a general audience... or, in this case, to make the construction concept more palatable to players who balk at aimless sandbox gaming and need a little more structure in their lives. Builders approaches the do-it-yourself genre with a format reminiscent of a classic RPG, gating off progress behind quests and doling out new elements as you journey to new lands and grow in power. And it does so while thoroughly embracing the spirit of Dragon Quest.
On the surface level, that means precisely what you'd expect. All the familiar Dragon Quest iconography is here, wrapped around a Minecraft clone. You start out fighting blue Slimes with a stick, which you also use to break down dirt and trees for resources. Those resources can then be used to create more powerful weapons and armor, beginning with an oaken club and a leather shield, which you'll need for taking on deadlier monsters like Ghosts and Hammerhoods, who will in turn surrender better crafting resource drops, which you can use to produce even nicer gear. In other words, Builders marries the gameplay progression loop of two disparate genres, and it does so quite seamlessly.
Synthesis sits at the heart of Builders, and it fittingly takes its fusion of game types beyond the standard RPG fare of improving your hero. In addition to kitting yourself out with ever more powerful weapons and tools, your young builder also has to wrestle with the daunting task of rebuilding the world. Not just any world: Builders takes place in Alefgard, the kingdom which served as the setting for the original Dragon Quest, back when Americans knew it as Dragon Warrior. Here, too, does Builders lay on the Dragon Quest fan service with a trowel. The game's first chapter sees you restoring the town of Cantlin from a burned-out ruin to a thriving metropolis... and, just as the original game forced you to defeat the town's guardian Golem before you could enter, so too does your restoration of the city culminate in a Golem battle.
The idea of merging RPG and Minecraft chains of progression shines as a brilliant one on its own, and it makes for a natural fit with this RPG franchise in particular. The elements that make up Minecraft's mechanics have lurked in the background of Dragon Quest since before Minecraft was just a glimmer in a future billionaire's eye. Gathering resources for crafting first appeared in Dragon Quest VIII in the form of the Alchenomicon synthesis tool, and mastering the crafting arts could easily have stood as its own objective in Dragon Quest IX. Meanwhile, restoring ruined worlds served as the central premise of Dragon Quest VII, and the Street Pass elements of the series' portable remakes over the past decade have generally consisted of gathering together a makeshift village. Outside of its real-time combat mechanics and completely dynamic world, Builders doesn't do all that much new with Dragon Quest but rather rearranges familiar pieces into a new configuration. Not unlike the way you go about reconstructing Cantlin here.
While those elements alone more than justify Builders' existence as a spinoff of a popular franchise, they actually don't get to the heart of what makes the game a genuine Dragon Quest adventure. Sure, it plays differently in a lot of respects, but Builders accomplishes a feat the tends to be rare outside of core, numbered Dragon Quest games: It captures the spirit of the series.
Builders follows on the heels of the original 1986 adventure by asking the question, "What if the Hero had said yes?" This game begins with a reprise of the prelude to the first Dragon Quest's final battle, in which the Dragon Lord tempts you with power, offering you the chance to rule Alefgard by his side. Canonically, of course, the Hero said, "No" and defeated the Dragon Lord. Builders works like a "What If" story, exploring what would happen if the Dragon Lord had swayed Loto's descendent.
The results of the Dragon Lord's conquest of the land evokes one of the defining traits of true Dragon Quest tales: A sense of profound melancholy. Most RPGs involve a terrible threat to the world, but few have the writing chops to explore what the rise of an ancient evil means to the common man. At its best, the Dragon Quest series permeates its story vignettes and random non-player character dialogue with a sense of hopelessness that truly drives home the severity of the world's crisis and fuels the player's determination to help put an end to the poisoned villages and mysterious afflictions that go hand-in-hand with the rise of evil. Builders doesn't just capture this existential woe; it begins at ground zero.
In the opening moments of Builders, you find the world shattered. The hero him- or herself begins the adventure by literally emerging from the grave, stumbling upon the ruins of Cantlin — once an indestructible fortress town — and gaining a sense of just how desolate Alefgard has become. The few humans remaining in the land have scattered to the winds and live solitary, selfish existences as they fight to survive.
The more you explore, the more you come to appreciate the bleakness of the situation. The Dragon Lord's rise has reduced humanity to a state of profound helplessness. Literacy has been lost, along with the ability to create. The bridges that once connected and divided Alefgard have crumbled, and many of the NPC notes you find scattered about are written in a childlike scrawl with terrible spelling. And you experience all of this as a mournful rendition of the original Dragon Quest overworld theme plays in the background, driving home the sadness of it all.
At the same time, Builders also captures the series' intrinsic sense of hopefulness — its goodheartedness. Your hero or heroine (who, the game takes pains to mention, is not the Hero) is summoned by a disembodied voice who establishes you as an avatar of hope. You begin to rebuild Cantlin by placing a banner of light in the center of what remains of the town, and this becomes a sort of beacon that acts like a magnet upon survivors, drawing them together in a way that defies their understanding. As you begin to pull more people into the city and advance to more sophisticated crafting techniques, your progress inspires the other villages to rediscover the lost art of creation themselves.
So, too, does Builders capture Dragon Quest's gentle good humor. From the very beginning, the writing mitigates its overwhelming bleakness with warmth. The mysterious voice that raises your avatar from the grave tries to explain the situation with ominous portent, but your character's a bit scatterbrained and slightly indolent and keeps nodding off or interrupting the divine voice. The power does its best to keep its exasperation in check, though not always with complete success. Meanwhile, the NPCs you encounter tend to be slightly rude, self-involved, or just plain weird... but always in a charming way.
Hitting the tone and spirit that makes Dragon Quest great can be tough; sometimes even the core games have a bit of trouble with it. The series' spinoffs rarely make the effort. Builders, however, genuinely does combine Dragon Quest and Minecraft, and not just in terms of play mechanics. This is not simply Minecraft with a skin and texture pack loaded with blue Slimes and Drackees; it's Dragon Quest first and foremost. The construction elements simply exist as the vehicle to complete the adventure. But at the heart of it all, Builders is a melancholic exploration of restoring hope to the world. It truly doesn't get more Dragon Quest than that.