The old adage of "don't judge a book by its cover" doesn't just apply to printed matter. When you first see images and screenshots of Dragon Quest Builders 2, it's easy to write the game off as yet another blocky-building sandbox game. But Dragon Quest Builders 2 is more than just your run-of-the-mill material-gathering, object-crafting, block-laying game. Its virtual community-creating gameplay stands out among the crowd, jam-packed with the warmth, joy, and charm that makes the Dragon Quest series so delightfully memorable.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 begins with your player character, a Builder with the ability to move and create objects, winding up stranded on a strange archipelago. Long ago, these islands flourished with a great civilization--up until a cult called the Children of Hargon gained power, destroying all that existed and forbidding those in its thrall from creating anything new. It's up to you and your mysterious friend, a snarky, aggressive boy named Malroth, to destroy the cult's hold on the people and restore these islands to their former glory, one block at a time. Much like how the original Dragon Quest Builders was a take on a what-if ending for the original Dragon Quest, Dragon Quest Builders 2 takes the ending of Dragon Quest II and turns it on its head--but you don't need to be familiar with that game to get a lot of enjoyment out of this one. (You will appreciate several of the callbacks, though.)
The core gameplay loop in Dragon Quest Builders is immensely satisfying. You have a central island, the Isle of Awakening, that acts like one big sandbox, along with several other islands both large and small that you can visit to gather materials and advance the main story. The larger islands all feature a big, overarching quest to restore a destroyed population center, which you'll accomplish by completing numerous smaller sub-quests to build facilities, find new materials, help individual NPCs, and explore different areas. Completing these quests rewards you with the gratitude of those you've aided, which in turn yields new item-creation recipes, improves the skills of the NPCs at the base, and brings more characters to the area to help with building, farming, mining, and monster-slaying. When you finally complete the lengthy main quest on each of the bigger islands, several of the NPCs will return with you to the Isle of Awakening, eager to aid you in building your own unique city and letting you run absolutely wild with your creative town-building concepts.
Part of what makes this gameplay loop so fulfilling is that doing these dozens upon dozens of small errands for NPCs rarely becomes tedious. The characters you meet in Dragon Quest Builders 2 are lively and full of personality (and funny accents), and helping them out with their needs to receive their heartfelt thanks just feels really, really good. You also get the joy of watching a town transform from a barely-functional series of ramshackle hovels into a thriving community thanks to your persistence and kindness. When you finish a new building or complete a task, the populace gathers around to showcase their elation and shower you with gratitude points--a simple reward that nonetheless feels wonderful to get.
It also helps that the world itself is tremendously fun to explore. The varied settings you encounter in your quest offer a variety of things to discover: towering hills, sandy beaches, secret underground caverns, ancient ruins, waterlogged bogs, and so on. You'll find plenty to do out in Dragon Quest Builders 2's expansive environments, and by exploring, you're amply rewarded with rare materials, optional side quests, some new NPC companions, and even a few simple puzzles that yield nice rewards upon completion. There are even a few randomly generated small islands you can sail out to that offer fresh experiences every time you visit, allowing you the chance to see interesting procedurally-made environments, collect lots of unique, rare materials and bring them all home to build the city of your dreams.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Dragon Quest game without many of the series' beloved monster designs. While a few non-humans are friendly to you, most of the monsters you encounter are strict adherents of the Children of Hargon and want nothing more than to destroy you and everything you've made. You'll have to fight them off if you want to keep on building. Unfortunately, you're a Builder, not a fighter, so your combat prowess for a lot of the game feels quite lacking.
As a result, combat winds up being the weakest part of the game. While it's a marked improvement over the original Dragon Quest Builders, offering you a lot more control over your character and bringing NPCs into the mix to aid you in fighting, it still feels quite bland most of the time--you'll just run up to enemies, whack them with a few basic weapon strikes, and hope they die sooner rather than later. The NPC warriors that join you on expeditions and when your bases and city need defending are far more useful for fighting off enemies than you are most of the time, particularly Malroth, who is an absolute beast when it comes to monster-mashing. I frequently found myself just waiting for Malroth to whittle down enemies' health before I went in to finish them off and collect EXP and loot. The boss fights utilize some gimmicks involving your Builder abilities that make them significantly more interesting than normal fights, but they're few and far between. At least combat isn't a primary focus of the game, and new abilities and items you build as you progress help with enemy destruction--but combat never really stops feeling like an annoying distraction to what you want to do most: explore and build stuff.
But whatever problems the game has are quickly negated by everything else Dragon Quest Builders 2 does well. Characters are quirky and memorable with wonderfully written dialogue (though they're sometimes a smidge too chatty), you get lots of cool materials to work with over the course of the game to build and customize your city, and everything, from the controls to the visuals and audio to the interface, feels inviting, engaging, and fun. Occasionally there's a bit of tiny text that's hard to read (a problem made worse when playing in handheld mode on Switch), but the vast majority of the time you'll be too busy building away to care about the game's small irritations.
Online co-op play opens once you have cleared the game’s first major quest. Unfortunately, while you can’t play the campaign in a co-op session, you are still allowed to build on the Isle of Awakening alongside a buddy or three. Working together to build your island is as fun as playing solo—maybe even more so—and the various customization items you can craft to wear during these sessions add a lot of goofy charm to the proceedings. In our testing, sessions with other players located in North America went smoothly, with few noticeable lag hiccups. If you want to show off but don’t feel like having a virtual block party, there’s also a bulletin board where players from around the world can post, tag, and share screenshots of their creations in-game.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a great game, combining exploration, sandbox-building, questing, and town-management into a delightful package that will gladly suck up your time and put a big smile on your face. It's the sort of game that you'll intend to play for a little while, only to find that hours have flown by once you manage to actually put it down. Don't dismiss this one when you see big square blocks on the box--you'll be missing out on a very fun twist on an excellent gaming foundation.