"Hook 'em when they're young," the old saying goes. That's why Camel cigarettes targeted its ads to kids and McDonald's introduced the Happy Meal. And now, the latest application of that tenet, in video game form: Dragon Quest Builders.
Interestingly, Bob's take on Builders is basically the opposite of mine: Where he sees it as "the Minecraft gateway for old people," I suspect it's more like "the Dragon Quest gateway for young people." Or it could be, at least, if Square Enix plays its cards right.
The Dragon Quest franchise has had a rough time making headway outside Japan. For every success, there seem to be three setbacks. We were thrilled to see the surprisingly excellent Dragon Quest Heroes make its way to the U.S.—but even as Square Enix unleashed it upon the American public, they made it quite clear that any future prospects for localizations of the franchise would be highly provisional, contingent in many ways upon Heroes' success.
So maybe someday Americans will get to play Dragon Quest XI, and maybe we won't. For my money, though, if the publisher wants Dragon Quest to make it big in the West, they'll find a way to get Dragon Quest Builders over here. The upcoming PlayStation 3/4/Vita game's similarities to Minecraft are not subtle, and they don't seem to be accidental, either. I managed to score a brief hands-on session with the PS4 version a few weeks ago at Tokyo Game Show, and it absolutely plays like Mojang's globe-spanning construction adventure hit. Loving Minecraft seems to be mandatory for anyone between the ages of six and 10, and in my experience kids who obsess over Minecraft are constantly thirsty for new and interesting games in a similar vein. Dragon Quest Builders has the potential to become a preposterously huge hit among that age group.
The genius of Builders, however, is that it's still very much a Dragon Quest game. For starters, it's based on the very first game in the series. The entire premise of Builders hangs on the famous final battle of Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior on NES): When you finally reach Charlock Castle and face off against the nefarious Dragon Lord, the villain gives you a choice before the battle begins. Join him and rule the world, or face his wrath? If you choose the latter option, the fight ensues and you get to enjoy the very first mid-battle final boss transformation in JRPG history. Say yes, however, and the game ends on an ominous note: The Dragon Lord puts you to sleep and the game freezes as eerie music plays.
Dragon Quest II took place generations later; not only do you return to Charlock, you meet the Dragon Lord's descendent (a much friendlier chap than his grandfather). Builders, on the other hands, works from the alternate angle: What if the hero had said yes? What would have happened after that? The answer, it turns out, is "nothing good." The Kingdom of Alefgard lies in ruins, and your task is to use your Minecraft skills to rebuild it.
In light of this premise, Builders appears to have a concrete end goal and even something akin to linear progression. While I can't really say to what degree that holds true based on 10 minutes of demo gameplay in another language at a trade show, I wandered freely through a completely open space between my hero's base camp and a mountain range and stumbled into a cave in the process. Inside the cave was... nothing. The demo attendant apologized, as apparently there was meant to be a monster and treasure inside, but they'd forgotten to reset the demo after the previous session; so, the game would appear to offer an element of persistence with key locations and enemies. Presumably the adventure eventually takes you to the Dragon Lord himself, where you'll... fight him? Free the ensorcelled descendent of Erdrick?
Along the way, of course, you'll spend a lot of time chipping away at the landscape with a pickaxe, foraging for resources and food, and occasionally engaging in simple combat with familiar members of the franchise bestiary, e.g. Slimes and Drackies. And perhaps most importantly, Builders takes the same approach to Minecraft and its offspring that the original Dragon Quest did with classic role-playing games: It takes significant steps to simply pain points and make the experience friendlier and more accessible. For example, I was able to lay down a blueprint for a small home base and construct it according to a preset plan. I don't believe I had to follow the blueprint to the letter, but it helped me understand the basics of construction, e.g. that a building requires closed walls and a certain number of doors in order to work properly.
Meanwhile, the visual style strikes a perfect balance between Minecraft's gigantic cubes and Dragon Quest's verdant landscapes and iconic creatures. Environmental elements are more elaborately textured than those of Minecraft, and monsters within the world appear as voxel-based 3D renditions of Akira Toriyama's 8-bit illustrations (rather than consisting entirely of a few simple cubes as in Minecraft). Both its lineage and its inspiration shine through clearly, creating a bridge between perpetual Japanese role-playing giant and the lingua france of kids in America and Europe. If Square Enix has any desire to establish the series in the U.S. once and for all, it's hard to imagine a better tactic than to hook 'em while they're young by stealthily sneaking in under the guise of a series they already love. Like mixing little bits of healthy food into their snacks, eventually they just might acquire a taste for it.