Since it's impossible to talk about Dragon Quest Builders without referencing Minecraft in some way, let us start early on by saying that there are indeed similarities, because Dragon Quest Builders is a title that pays tribute Mojang's game in a lot of ways. It's a third-person game, admittedly, but one that's strongly based on Minecraft's mechanics, using the same ideas except this time set in the amazing Dragon Quest universe.
Surprisingly, though, it works. Unlike Minecraft's rough pixel-art graphics, Dragon Quest Builders boasts Akira Toriyama's famous design, borrowing characters and enemies from his popular saga and offering an aura that can calm any soul. Dragon Quest Builders, unlike Mojang's masterpiece, isn't a journey into something unknown, as what we see here, in one way or another, is something we have already come across in our lives as gamers. The result is that, surprisingly, the game pushes us to explore and deal with the issues we'll face during our journey. These actions, needless to say, include the extraction and use of resources, in addition to building safe places where we can hide from monsters.
The plot is pretentious but effective, as we wake up in a sort of grave in a world where humanity is now at the mercy of awful monsters, scattered on various islands and unable to organise themselves. We soon discover that we are endowed with a power that allows us to build things, and we're henceforth known as 'The Builder', a sort of messiah who has come into the world to awaken human beings from chaos and bless them with structures. So among the ruins of this world we begin to set up our first mud house to attract the attention of the lost humans. Then we build a forge, a place to cook food, and a bedroom to rest, and slowly our small community begins to take shape, quickly forcing us to cross the borders of our island to recover other materials with which to build other increasingly complex and useful rooms.
Dragon Quest Builders's map, based on islands, isn't like the infinite world in Minecraft, as there are very clear borders. In the game, we move mainly through portals that unlock new places where, usually, we discover resources, enemies, and mysteries that help us to improve our skills and our village. Once the portion of the narrative linked to the very first built city is completed, the game pushes us into a second chapter where we're forced to start all over again, but this time with all the crafting we learned from the previous chapter in place. The result is a layered game which accompanies us through the various chapters to enable us to be ready for each new adventure. Of course, the mysterious charm of the discovery in Minecraft is lost here, but in general, this more structured approach is fun and helps players understand the fundamentals of the game alone and with a softer learning curve.
The limitations of Dragon Quest Builders, however, is not only in regards to the mechanics of the islands and its division into chapters, as the game is much smaller than Minecraft structurally as well, only allowing buildings to reach a height of 32 blocks. What's more is that we also don't have the user-generated content that has helped other sandbox titles become hits with the community, so it's clear that Dragon Quest Builders is more focused on narrative and quests, consistently assigned by the NPCs as we arrive in our settlements.
Regarding the construction of the buildings, the players can use their imagination as they see fit, but in many quests you come across projects that need to be followed with extreme precision in order to create a specific room or a defensive wall and complete the task assigned. This way you get extraordinarily well-designed places, but certainly reduces player agency in the creation of all the houses and buildings around you.
Similarly, the huge number of quests (which surprisingly makes the length of this game similar to the Dragon Quest JRPG games - around 100 hours) moves the focus away from mere exploration. In other words, you get a mission, go to the place indicated on the map, complete your task, and return to your base. Digging in search of treasures is often inconvenient, as these are often hidden in places, and the huge map size means that finding them becomes ever harder. You can always dig, of course, but you'll hardly ever find anything really exciting or obscure.
Yet despite these limitations, Dragon Quest Builders is fun. You have to experience this as an adventure game rather than a Minecraft clone as it won't scratch that Minecraft itch. There's a sense of satisfaction in seeing a devastated place slowly turn into a populated city where people start to live again. The Nintendo Switch version is even more fun than the others too, as playing it in portable mode, even for short sessions aimed at collecting some rare material, is really rewarding.
While the Nintendo Switch version guarantees a great experience when out and about, the same can't be said when you put the console in the dock and play sitting in front of your TV. Unlike the next-gen versions, the Switch version has rough graphics and suffers from aliasing issues. These issues don't compromise your experience entirely, as we're still talking about a game that's not too demanding in the graphics department, but it's a shame that what we find on TV is basically an enlarged version of what you see in handheld mode.
Although far from the freedom of Minecraft, Dragon Quest Builders is still a fun game, able to capture some of the best aspects of this genre that became popular among younger players. The focus on the plot is perhaps more accommodating than its most important competitor, and from this point of view the game could open up to a wider audience. If you're among those who are still suspicious on Minecraft-esque games, this game could push you to reconsider your position.