Dragon Quest Builders (Switch) review: Slimecraft

Dragon Quest Builders was one of my favourite games of 2016. What could have been a cynical attempt to cash in on the block-building craze brought about by Minecraft instead delivered the best version of that formula. What could have been a tired spin-off instead paid homage to one of the most beloved game franchises around.

That remains every bit as true in the Switch version, only now it’s got all the convenience that comes with the Switch hardware. Dragon Quest Builders is a perfect game for playing on the go: it’s easy to pick up and play for short bursts, and even if you’ve got only a few minutes to spare, you can still play and feel like you’ve achieved something. At the same time, a simple and compelling game loop means it’s easy to spend hours and hours with it if you’ve got that sort of time. However much or little time you’ve got, Dragon Quest Builders will fill it.

Admittedly, this isn’t the first time the game’s been available in a portable format; it’s been on PlayStation Vita since launch. The Switch, however, offers a bigger, higher-resolution screen, which is great for a game as vibrant and beautiful as this, and the console’s hybrid nature means you’ve got the option of playing it on TV as well. Additionally, the Switch version comes with a handful of new items to collect and build, including pixel art structures based on the original Dragon Quest for NES, and a Sabrecat mount.

Really, though, the appeal of Dragon Quest Builders on Switch is simply having one of my favourite games of recent years on what’s quickly becoming my favourite console.

The basic idea is largely the same as Minecraft or any of the numerous games it’s inspired: in a world made of cube-shaped blocks, you collect various materials—by cutting down trees, mining, and the like—and then use those to build things, LEGO style. As you collect new materials, you’re able to build stronger, better tools, allowing you to gather a wider variety of blocks to play with, while a variety of different crafting tables let you create still more block types that you won’t find in the wild—like making cobblestone pavers from raw stone. With this handful of tools, you can build more or less whatever you desire.

Dragon Quest Builders takes that concept and adds a lot more structure to it through a story mode and RPG elements. For many, the objective-less, open-ended nature of Minecraft is part of its appeal, but I always find myself quickly getting bored with it; Builders also offers a free-build mode, but the story mode offers a more goal-driven style of play. It also works as a sort of tutorial, with each new chapter of the story introducing new materials and tools, and giving you quests that intuitively teach you how to use them (and give you build ideas, too).

There’s also a lot more RPG in Dragon Quest Builders, as you’d expect, given the series’ roots. Fighting plays a big role, with slain monsters being a key source of materials and attacks on your base a frequent occurrence. Combat itself uses a very simple hack-and-slash system—it’s a means to an end, rather than the main appeal of the game—but it works well enough for the purposes of the game. That said, each chapter concludes with a massive boss fight that’s less about the basic combat mechanics and more about using your building power to open up weak points in the enemy’s defences.

Rather than levelling up by killing enemies and gaining experience points, you increase the level of your base by building and upgrading things. Every object or building has a certain score, and when the total is high enough, your base levels up. With each new base level, you gain access to new quests and recipes—including stronger weapons and armour, so levelling your base also helps build your character, in a roundabout way.

Each chapter also includes a list of optional objectives. Some of these are relatively straightforward, like completing the main quest within a certain number of in-game days or collecting a quota of different items. Others are trickier, and demand more adventure and creativity, like finding and killing three dragons hidden around the first chapter’s map, or completing a series of puzzles spread throughout chapter two. Completing these optional challenges unlocks new building recipes for use in the free-build mode, so they’re well worth the effort.

The story that runs through all this is classic Dragon Quest, all about defeating the evil Dragon Lord in order to save the world from endless darkness. Dragon Quest Builders actually takes place in the same world as the very first game, albeit after an alternate ending in which the hero of that game ended up siding with the Dragon Lord instead of stopping him. As a result, the whole world’s been thrown into darkness, monsters run more rampant than ever, and people have forgotten how to build things.

As the legendary “Builder” with the power to create, you’re tasked with helping to rebuild cities that have fallen into disrepair in the years of the Dragon Lord’s rule. Each chapter focuses on a different city, and if you’ve played the first game, they’ll be very familiar. Ultimately, the aim is to restore each town to its former glory, inspiring residents in the process, and building up the power to finally take out the Dragon Lord once and for all.

In true Dragon Quest style, it’s a comical spin on high-fantasy nonsense that’s very simple on the surface, but has a lot of depth to it. Each city has fallen into ruin for different reasons, and as you rebuild them you gradually get more insight into what happened and why—be it the Dragon Lord’s army, a deadly plague, or humankind’s own hubris. The characters that populate each town are a delightfully quirky bunch, and despite being a player-created silent protagonist, you get a strong sense of the Builder’s own personality in the way different characters respond to them.

Dragon Quest Builders also sticks close to its roots with Akira Toriyama’s bright, cartoony character designs and Koichi Sugiyama’s classic score. Superficial though it may be, playing a Minecraft-like in a world full of adorable slimes, golems, hammerhoods, and other familiar Dragon Quest monsters is a lot more fun than playing one with creepers or endermen or what have you.

Despite the game largely being designed around cube-shaped blocks, Dragon Quest Builders avoids the low-res textures and blocky models that Minecraft popularised. All the scenery is as detailed as you’d expect from any other modern Dragon Quest game, and the basic materials are the only ones confined to a cubic shape. There’s a certain appeal to the low-fi style of Minecraft and others like it, but a Dragon Quest game should look like a Dragon Quest game—and Dragon Quest Builders does.

As much homage as Builders pays to the series roots, I’d say there’s enough here to appeal to newcomers, too. Dragon Quest is the sort of series that doesn’t require a wealth of franchise knowledge; the connections between each game are thematic and stylistic, so you can jump in anywhere in the series without worrying about getting lost. That’s true of Builders too, and the more structured twist on block-building gameplay it offers will appeal to a lot of people, I suspect, whether or not you’re a Dragon Quest fan.

Dragon Quest Builders remains one of the best games of this generation, and the Switch version is a good reminder of why that is. The balance it strikes between freedom and structure is rare within this genre; that alone is enough to recommend it, but the Dragon Quest dressing is the icing on the cake. Now that it’s on Switch, I can take one of my favourite games with me wherever I go, and I couldn’t be happier.

Highly Recommended

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Dragon Quest Builders is developed published by Square Enix. It’s available now on Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita.

A retail copy of the game was purchased by Shindig for the purposes of review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.