Dragon Quest Builders

Square Enix stacks a JRPG on top of a Minecraft-like sand­box

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Square Enix For­mat PS3, PS4, Vita Ori­gin Ja­pan Re­lease Jan­uary 28

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.

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