As I played through the opening hours of the hotly anticipated Mafia 3, I couldn't help but think, "this game is great, I like it a lot, but honestly... all I want right now is some light hearted fun." Boy, am I glad I decided to go pick up a copy of Dragon Quest Builders.
Now, I'm going to preface this by saying that Minecraft has never been my thing. I totally understand why kids love it, I know that if I still hadn't hit puberty I would be really into it, but as much as I try, I just can't. Minecraft is such an open ended game - while the idea of being able to build just about anything makes me giddy with excitement, the idea of being able to build just about anything makes me feel totally overwhelmed. I like direction in my game experiences - I'm happy for a game to dish out task after task, following a happy progression from moment to moment. Dragon Quest Builders, the newest spin off of the long-admired Japanese RPG series, bridges the gap between the two.
Far from being simply a Minecraft-a-like, DQB takes the blocky formula of it's inspiration and builds it's own entirely new style around the idea of simply building stuff. You start off with nothing but the clothes on your back, from which you begin mining and collecting resources from both the world and the monsters that inhabit it. Through specialized construction tables, you can fashion 100s of different items - ranging from new weapons and armor to essential building materials like doors and beds; from various types of building blocks to food and health recovery items. You are given the tools to get you going, then gently nudged in a direction to keep you building. All the basic building blocks are, in Minecraft fashion, exactly that - stackable blocks. The game smartly recognizes buildings you create based on it's design - build an enclosed wall 2 blocks high containing a door and a light source and you have a room, which can then be moulded into a bedroom, kitchen, day spa, throne room... The posibilities are expansive. It would be overwhelming, if not for the clever ways in which the story structure helps you effortlessly create entire towns.
The game is broken up in to a number of chapters, each of which function as a guiding hand on learning how and why to construct various items and buildings. Each area has you working with (or for, really) a bunch of NPC's full of personality, taking requests to build certain buildings, upgrade the town, collect certain resources or defend against the monsters. DQB thankfully knows exactly what it is, in that it doesn't take itself too seriously throughout it's decent story - pointing out several times how strange it is that you are the only person capable of even thinking about the idea of building something, for example. The dialog woven through this structure is both informative and charming, often leading me to laugh out loud at the various quips thrown my way. The particular focus on my ridiculous face was quite enjoyable.
While the playing of any other game in the Dragon Quest universe is completely unnecessary, those that are familiar with the series will be delighted by the various callbacks and connections. The monsters are quite obviously pulled directly from Dragon Quest lore, while the story is cleverly woven as an alternate timeline based off of the final events from the very first game. Dragon Quest 1 gave players a choice - take the Big Bad's offer for half the world, or smite the evil down and save the day. The way this game reflects on that choice ended up being surprising despite the light hearted (even if dark at times) nature of your adventure.
If building to your heart's content is what you so desire, the game does open up a vast island for you to do so unhindered once the first chapter is completed. This is essentially a separate game mode, containing no quests or structure - just open ended play. The area is granted new portals to various arrays of new materials for each extra chapter you complete, so it serves as a great end game reward to doodle around in. Unfortunately, there are a few aspects of this mode that the devs could have culled but didn't - the need to eat food to fill your hunger meter would do better to not exist, and the ability to turn off monster encounters (especially at night) would have been quite welcome. There are also built in sharing functionalities, allowing you to not only see other players' creations, but bring them in to your own world to play with.
Dragon Quest Builders ended up being quite the surprise hit for me, being a light-hearted romp through a clever and fun narrative built around the foundations set by it's inspiration. Far from a Minecraft clone, DQB will stand out as one of the more fun experiences I've had in 2016 - given the fantastic year this one has been for gaming, that should indicate to you just how great this game turned out to be.