What does it mean, exactly, for something to capture the "spirit of Dragon Quest"? That seems like such a vague assertion to make as part of a review — and yet, I can think of no higher praise for the series' latest spinoff. Dragon Quest: Builders may not be a numbered entry in the long-running franchise, but it truly does embody everything I love about this unassuming juggernaut of the role-playing realm.
No two Dragon Quest games play exactly the same, or share an identical narrative structure. Builders does a great job of assimilating one of the series' most popular formats, though: The vignette storyline. Back with Dragon Quest IV, developers Chunsoft and Enix put a new spin on the RPG by dedicating the first half of the game not to the hero's journey but rather on the stories of the hero's companions. The opening chapters of the adventure turned the supporting cast members into fully fleshed-out characters with their own motives and histories — a far cry from the typical generic, replaceable soldiers of other RPGs. Since then, many Dragon Quest adventures have gone back to that same thematic well: The idea that the most interesting story to be told is not that of the player's journey, but those of all the people in the world whose lives are impacted by the rise of evil and the player's quest to destroy the villain.
Builders takes this concept to a new level. Like the venerable Dragon Quest IV, it too operates within a chapter-based structure. In effect, it combines the character-based chapters of DQIV with the town-based vignettes of Dragon Quest VII and IX into a set of four chapters that each revolves around the reconstruction of a different city. Each chapter stands alone, as did the ones in DQIV, and each one follows a single central narrative thread into which both NPC stories and a logical progression of play mechanics have been woven. It all fits together wonderfully — and it also makes Builders much less daunting a task to complete than, say, the recently remade Dragon Quest VII. You can easily spend 20-30 hours on a single chapter if you choose to complete each one's optional side quests, but because each town's tale is a self-contained play experience, you don't really need to complete Builders in a single playthrough.
In fact, Builders probably works best if you don't marathon it. Each new chapter resets your character's progression: Your hero (or heroine) is reverted to novice level, forgetting the construction techniques they learned in the previous village and forced to rebuild their skills and stamina from scratch. Played in rapid succession, these four chapters can cause you to feel somewhat like you're spinning your wheels as you go back to zero with the advent of each new town.
That said, it's not as though each new chapter thrusts you back into tutorial mode. Where the first chapter doles out new construction techniques as a sort of slow drip, you come into your own far more quickly in the subsequent towns. Once you set up your base flag, you'll almost immediately gain access to tools, weapons, and creations that took hours to acquire in the Catlin phase. Because the nature of the resources available to gather in each region vary from chapter to chapter as well, you don't follow the exact same progression each time around. And on top of that, each village poses its own distinct objectives and challenges — making every chapter its own little mini-RPG. Honestly, I wouldn't be shocked to discover that Square Enix had originally intended Builders to be part of its recent move toward episodic content; each Builders chapter plays like a rich, substantial episodic release.
On top of that, once you've completed the first chapter, you unlock Terra Incognita mode. Simply put: A free-building mode without the narrative structure. A pure Minecraft experience, basically. The more chapters you complete, and the more optional objectives you fulfill without those regions, the more territory and materials you unlock for Terra Incognita. This makes for a far more impressive 100% completion bonus than simply racking up a Platinum trophy — by mastering the main game, you unlock an effectively endless sandbox. In other words, if you love the game, your reward for playing it is more game. That's a pretty appealing feedback loop!
While my criticisms of Builders' small flaws remain (especially regarding boss battles, which aren't unmanageable but definitely abrogate much of the game's central concept), they remain modest issues at worst. On the whole, however, what I discovered in Builders was the rarest of treats: A game for which I had high expectations... yet which somehow managed to exceed them all. It turns out RPGs and construction games have a lot in common, and that the predominant story theme which drives the Dragon Quest series — restoring hope for humanity in the face of oppressive evil — provides a brilliant hook for a sandbox adventure.
Builders manages to make a complex concept fairly simple, but more button customization would be ideal.
The core game can easily run anywhere from 60-100 hours, and that's before you take the true Terra Incognita sandbox into account.
Wonderful music and iconic sound effects... though the grunts of your avatar's exertion can become annoying.
While some might complain about the sub-60fps framerate, Builders offers a huge, persistent, completely destructible world with a lovely plasticine sheen. It's great.
Striking an almost perfect balance between RPG and construction game, Dragon Quest: Builders manages to hold fast to the best parts of the series whose name it bears while creating a guided, structured format for the Minecraft concept. The end result works brilliantly, with top-notch visuals, music, and writing that help drive home the appeal. There's room for improvement here... but not much.