There’s a kind of ritualistic comfort in killing your first slime when you start a new Dragon Quest game. Meeting these iconic enemies, with their wide-eyed allure and dopey smile, signals that the game has begun in earnest. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the turn-based setting of the mainline series or the fast-paced combat of Dragon Quest Heroes. A similar form of real-time combat can be found in the upcoming Dragon Quest Builders--which, after almost 10 hours in, has proven to be a promising take on Minecraft-inspired world-building.
Even with Minecraft’s initial appeal of building without defined goals, it wasn’t surprising that updates like Minecraft 1.3's Adventure Mode and spin-offs like Telltale’s Story Mode would offer objectives and narratives to motivate players. Dragon Quest Builders is all about checking off quest goals, despite its distraction-rich, open-world draw. It’s also based on the original Dragon Quest--but it’s a world reimagined due to its original hero failing in his quest to defeat the Dragonlord.
Given my initial itch to start building, I was pleased to find that Dragon Quest Builders’ tutorial is equal parts informative and concise, teaching how to erect structures, craft, and survive outside the safety of your town. Placing a block above or below head level is a simple button press away, as is taking a swipe at a familiar series foe like the Skeleton. It’s also wise of Square Enix to give many quests JRPG flavor, whether it’s building a modest home for an NPC or searching for a rumored character who’ll end up as a valued party member.
Beyond the story and the rewarding nature of completing quest goals, Dragon Quest Builders is unsurprisingly abundant in grin-inducing, nostalgia-rich callbacks. Using the first Dragon Quest as its foundation gives new life to the many elements of the three-decade-old seminal JRPG, particularly with the music. It made me wish that these tunes were reprised more often in Dragon Quest sequels, and it's fascinating to see how Square Enix has adapted various elements of the franchise to this craftable world. For instance, killing enemies does result in loot drops but doesn’t yield experience. You also need to gather and eat food regularly so you have enough stamina to carve out more land block by block. Pulling the camera high above to show the overworld doesn’t reveal an exact replica of the original Dragon Quest map, but the blocky aesthetic hits the mark.
This high degree of familiarity equates to a world that, while new, is friendly and welcoming. A given fetch quest can unexpectedly include an hour-long detour of fighting enemies, item-harvesting, and resource-gathering--the only reason you might stop collecting cubes of earth is that you’ve reached your maximum carrying capacity--99 copies of each item.
For game that isn’t bereft of goals, it's a joy to encounter curious optional areas like a haphazard tower of blocks. Once such structure was tall enough that it was impossible to see what was on top. Naturally, curiosity set in, and I reflexively made my way up, navigating my way through, around, and up the tower, eliminating blocks when needed. My favorite (and most embarrassing) moment was when I struggled to find a foothold halfway up when I remembered that this game allows you to create your own stairs! After chuckling at myself, I took this as a reminder to get out of the traditional JRPG mindset. The climb was worth it, though: The top of the tower held a chest that contained a hit point-boosting Seed of Life.
As I continue playing, I’m curious to see whether Dragon Quest Builders will continue to motivate me to focus on its story objectives or give me unexpected incentives to repurpose the land with no set goals. Will the appeal of land-crafting remain after the last quest is complete? Will it matter? So far, I’m captivated by this interpretation of Dragon Quest, where it’s never impolite to loot homes of treasure because after all, I’m the one building them.