The magic of Minecraft wasn’t lost on me, but it never had staying power for me. I could spend hours building houses and castles, filling in every detail and hunting rare materials, but where some saw freedom, I saw aimlessness. Minecraft’s livelihood is artificial; no matter how grand my abode or vast my voxel-based empire became, it was empty. Interaction was limited to multiplayer servers, where you would have to roleplay to get the desired effect, with a band of willing participants. Otherwise, I could build all the houses I wanted, but they would never be inhabited.
Dragon Quest Builders unashamedly lifts concepts wholesale from Minecraft, and even from other block-based imitators like Cubeworld. Yet it all fits together better than any prior attempt to add direction to Minecraft’s massive sandbox. Set in a world where the bad end of the first Dragon Quest came to fruition, you are tasked as Builder to resurrect the empires and cities destroyed by monsters.
There’s a tongue-in-cheek element to the player happening to be the only one who knows how to build on a scale larger than trinkets, but it plays out well. Where Dragon Quest Builders shines is its lived-in city that you build up over time. You are tasked with a reasonable plot of land that is yours, and anything built within the light of your banner will be recognized as part of your city.
When you build a room with a bed, light source, chamber pot and door, the game will recognize your construct as a bedroom, and permit NPCs to sleep there at night. This is the core loop of Dragon Quest Builders: expand your city, attracting more citizens with your buildings, and defend it from the monsters. As your village expands, your citizens make requests of you, often to create new buildings for them to use, or will create the next crafting station you need for better gear and items.
These NPCs are your people, though. They live in your city, and help to defend against invading monsters who are unpleased with humanity’s second wind. When you build a masonry studio, villagers will shuffle in and out throughout the day, constructing extra resources like doors, chests and pots for you to use in building new rooms. In the kitchen, they will cook food, and a watering hole might provide you with purified water.
It’s a little daunting at times, how many different buildings you can construct for your denizens. There are many ways to go about leveling up your city and bringing in more villagers, though many of the optional buildings are more cosmetic. You’ll always need a crafting room, a kitchen and some sort of bedroom. What about your villagers, though? Do you build each a private bedroom, designated and discrete? Or do you construct an inn instead, everyone sleeping in close proximity and quick to react when monsters strike?
The type of anxiety I imagine only civil engineers experience sets in, as you build bigger and grander buildings, counting out blocks and laying out physical blueprints to fill in like a Lego-by-the-numbers set. As your city expands, the third-person camera can become a hindrance, as it struggles to adapt to snug ceilings and tight corridors. (A hint: I learned early on that it’s best to make roofs at least four blocks above ground level, to avoid claustrophobia.)
But that evolving, shifting home is what makes Dragon Quest Builders so engaging. In Minecraft, the impetus was on me to find new ventures. This mostly involved digging through wikis and YouTube tutorials, scrubbing video to find redstone machines I could imitate or strange farming automation methods. My focus was always on the end result; I could imitate and share, celebrating my own accomplishment, but that TNT cannon was never going to be put to any real use. The world was ambivalent to my presence, and didn’t care that I had built a massive castle. No army of creepers and skeleton archers would try to surmount my walls, and no wayward NPC would find a home within one of the many lavish bedrooms I had built.
Every objective in Dragon Quest Builders is for the betterment of your creation. The game actively pushes and pulls you, enticing you to build greater monuments while also trying to crush it with routine invasions and massive boss battles. When a golem attacks my village, it isn’t just tarnishing my handiwork—it’s blowing a hole in the side of my armory, scattering the ornamental decorations and armoire I had spent several hours crafting.
Boss battles force you to build and adapt as well, constructing adaptable defenses and preparing to defend while also expand. At one point, I had a fire-breathing idol and rows of spike strips just a block away from where I slept at night. Chapter bosses require specific buildings to tackle, like a portable shield-wall that will block incoming boulders from hitting your town, or ballistae to knock a colossal condor out of the skies. Minecraft may have its Ender Dragon, but Dragon Quest Builders brings the bosses to you, as they seek to tear you down, rather than you seeking out the optional challenge.
The greatest example of Dragon Quest Builders’ lack of adhesion to norms comes at the end of chapter one. After building Cantlin castle from the ground up, over hours of questing, searching for better tools and resources, gathering a village together and holding out against the storied monsters of old, you are tasked with a new chapter, a new village that needs to be rebuilt. You will carry over little of the resources and room blueprints you’ve accumulated. It’s essentially a new game plus in an entirely different region with its own challenges.
Sandbox games preach the importance of building an empire, presenting a colonization fantasy of growing from a scared, powerless alien to the master of elements, automating the world to your rhythm and laughing at previously dire situations. Those walls will stand tall unless you say otherwise, and eventually you reach a point where survival gives way to thriving, and thriving gives way to tedium.
The chapter-jump of Dragon Quest Builders takes this away, and forces you to adapt. You jump from a common plain to shoreline ruins, beset by poisonous waters and resources unfamiliar to you. The comfort zone is dropped, and you’re back in survival mode, trying to find out what’s edible, and where you can find resources that will make a bed, lest you stay awake and have to survive the ghouls that strike in the night.
Dragon Quest Builders succeeds because it focuses on the process, rather than the end goal. There’s a beauty to opening up a world and telling a player “go, build, create,” but the world must be adaptable to the player’s whim. Dragon Quest Builders pushes back, asks you to build a city and defend it, inhabit it, live within it. Yet the game also gives you a reward for doing so, one that keeps me coming back after the splendor of initial creation: it lets you see your works fulfilled. You don’t build a masonry studio because it’s necessary, you build it so you can see your city grow, let your villagers craft their own goods and eventually subsist on their own.
When you leave at the end of chapter one, onto the next challenge and region in need of rebuilding, your city has become practically autonomous. Your walls are high, defenses secured, gates unbreakable. Each villager can cook and craft, and has a warm bed to crash into at night. Dragon Quest Builders lets you create, but it also breathes life into that creation. Eventually you have to let go of that life, like a mother bird watching her chick leave the nest, and find a new frontier to conquer. I mastered my domain, but my clockwork castle will continue without me. Where Minecraft leaves you as Ozymandias, a lonely king overlooking an empty empire, Dragon Quest Builders finds joy in the journey, and provides all the right nudges and motivations to keep you moving on, to build a legacy that will outlast your presence in it.
Dragon Quest Builders was developed and published by Square Enix. It is available for Playstation 4, Playstation 3 and Vita.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.