Having spent plenty of time questing, building and defending its virtual settlements on myriad other platforms - including fellow portable, PlayStation Vita - Dragon Quest Builders has finally brought its masonry wares to Nintendo Switch. Question is, can Square-Enix’s genre mashup add anything new to the handheld’s growing library? And can it offer enough to distinguish itself from a certain Swedish crafting sensation?
Let’s deal with the blocky elephant in the room first of all. With its focus on resource gathering, tool crafting and structure building there’s no denying how similar Dragon Quest Builders is to Minecraft. Both use the same basic blueprint to offer depth relevant to the broadness of your imagination, but while Minecraft can ultimately offer too vague a canvas, Square Enix’s offering builds on those principles and refines them into something far more tangible.
It’s this distinction that proves Dragon Quest Builders is far more than a Minecraft wannabe while simultaneously justifying the inclusion of the Dragon Quest licence. Drawing from its RPG source material, you get a building simulator funnelled down the familiar channels of questing and resource gathering. On paper it seems like a bizarre fusion, but in execution both genres mesh so cleanly you’ll soon be lost in smooth symbiosis of it all.
It’s very much an RPG, but one that uses the palette of a creation simulator to empower you in all the right ways. The world of Alefgard has been wiped clean of sense of creativity, and as its diminutive hero it’s up to you to head out into the wild and start rebuilding the lives of its people. Your abilities - including a flag marker that creates the foundation of a new town - are unlocked at just the right pace, with the basics of resource gathering, building and repairing all fed to you in the familiar guise of quests.
Across its four chapters you’ll rebuild a town into a veritable fortress, gather resources and unlock new blueprints as you go. You’ll encounter many an enemy and creature from Dragon Quest lore (yes, there are plenty of Slimes) both as a means of resource gathering and as part of the game’s tower defence-esque mechanics, where you’ll need to protect and ultimately rebuild your current outpost home. And it’s here we encounter one of the few issues present in Dragon Quest Builders: combat.
Fighting enemies and bosses isn’t inherently broken, but it’s still as clunky and unintuitive as it is on other platforms. You’re very much a gatherer and a miner first and foremost, and while some attacks can be upgraded, they too often prove to be better at speeding up the process of mining than helping empower your warrior spirit. Thankfully the inhabitants of each settlement you repair and expand are a dab hand at helping you out, but it’s still a glaring issue that really should have been improved two years on from the original Japanese release.
Still, issues with combat doesn’t diminish the satisfying feedback loop at the heart of Dragon Quest Builders. Explore each of its four chapters, mine everything you see for resources, build tools, buildings and more, defend them from attack and eventually face off against that region’s local boss. That's just the right amount of RPG tropes to keep the construction mechanics constantly at play. The rules of said building are rigid, but simple enough to empower your inner architect. As long as a building is at least two blocks high, has a roof and a door, it becomes a habitable space and can house new inhabitants. So you’re effectively free to build up and out as broadly or as tall as you like.
Your town can earn a grading too, so building the right kind of structures unlocks certain perks. So you could just mock together a barebones homestead, but it won’t hold much stock with your village’s population. But if you experimenting, and let that inherent creativity run wild, you can turn your new settlement into a medieval utopia. And with the colourful art style (created by series artist Akira Toriyama) coupled with the orchestral charm of Koichi Sugiyama’s score, you end up with something that feels distinctly Dragon Quest at all times. You know you’re playing a spin-off, but it still feels like a faithful one that’s embracing its source material without letting those tropes strangle the open-ended nature of a Minecraft-style template.
Once you’ve beaten the well-paced story, there’s plenty of replay value to be found in the Terra Incognita mode. Here you’ll find a free-form canvas far more in line with Minecraft’s Creative mode, which will enable you to build and rebuild without the hand-holding of the story’s questlines. You can even travel between the various regions to mine and farm unique resources to help build the more refined resources you’ve learned to create in the campaign. It’s further proof of just how harmoniously almost every part of the game functions.
Both classic Dragon Quest RPG and Minecraft-style building sim, Dragon Quest Builders takes just enough ingredients from each side of the developmental kitchen and gently stirs them into a dish that never manages to overpower either of its core mechanics. If you’ve ever wanted to try Mojang’s ubiquitous hit but found it a little too intimidating in its vagueness, then this is the alternative for you. Fun, empowering and Dragon Quest to a tee; Its combat and camera can be a little erratic, but they never manage to derail your new building adventure.