Dragon Quest Builders
Square Enix stacks a JRPG on top of a Minecraft-like sandbox
PS3, PS4, Vita
The sense of shock at Square Enix’s seemingly brazen act of plagiarism with Dragon Quest Builders soon dissipates if you recall that Minecraft was itself built upon a template established by the earlier and far less successful Infiniminer. And while this Japanese take on the Swedish phenomenon shares a general likeness in the arrangement of its HUD and brick-laden world, there have been some significant alterations to the formula beneath the blocks.
For one thing, this is a thirdperson-only take on the survival-builder-crafter narrative. It’s a choice that provides more of a top-down view on the world, offering a clearer angle on your constructions. But this view comes at a cost: working in blocks is often fiddly and occasionally frustrating as you struggle to wrangle the cursor to highlight your chosen cube. It’s also best not to put roofs on buildings, lest you obscure what’s happening inside. This practical concern, forced by the choice of camera angle, undermines the fiction somewhat. The homes and castles you’re building look unable to withstand the weather, let alone an enemy assault.
Still, control foibles aside, this is far from a poor man’s Minecraft clone, and the Dragon Quest trappings provide more than mere decoration. Mojang’s own, half-hearted quest structure, introduced to Minecraft as a way to provide an ending for players who needed one, is swiftly bettered here through Square’s experience. The premise is designed to tie into the series’ 30th anniversary next year, imagining what might have happened had the player, at the end of the first Dragon Quest’s story, decided to broker a deal with the final boss to rule half of the kingdom of Alefgard each, instead of challenging him to a duel. Your task is clear: mend the kingdom by reconstructing its towns, homes and workshops, and aid the citizens who live here.
Your creative endeavours are necessarily more structured than in Mojang’s game. In a short demo at the Tokyo Game Show, an NPC roaming a derelict village implores you to clear the rubble and construct some housing. The rhythms of interaction are familiar to any Minecraft veteran: you dig, chop and harvest, fending off nearby slimes with your sword. Then, using these gathered materials and a workbench, you craft the necessary materials as specified by the building’s blueprint. Everything is laid out far more clearly and explicitly than in Minecraft. Structures have a shopping list of required materials; once they’re collected, the blueprint can be placed on the ground, showing you where to put the walls, beds and fireplaces. It’s more of a paint-by-numbers approach than Minecraft’s deliriously open-ended proposition, but for some this will be an alluring positive. The formal questing structure has allowed Square Enix to introduce much more storytelling into the world, too. In the demo, we meet a man who, after fleeing a gaggle of monsters, has built himself a hut so hastily that he’s forgotten to include a door. He asks that you break through the wall to help out. It’s a short vignette, but shows the potential ways in which the Minecraft template and the Japanese RPG can meld and align.
Arguably, Minecraft’s popularity derived precisely from its lack of formal structure. By freeing players from a quest-based framework, they’re free to set their own goals, something that’s allowed those of all abilities to express their creativity, be that through laying down a higgledy wall or building a scale replica of the Taj Mahal. Dragon Quest Builders is not only a reimagining of the conclusion to the first game in its series, then, but also a reimagining of how Minecraft might have played out had its designers followed a more formal tradition of game design. The result appears to be a tidier and cleaner experience, as reflected in the pristine blocks that replace Minecraft’s antiquated style. The question now is whether or not this constraining of formula results in an equivalent constraining of audience.