Alefgard brick-by-brick: Dragon Quest Builders

I have to say that when this game was announced I had the same reaction as a lot of other people – ‘Oh, so I see Square-Enix are finally jumping on the Minecraft bandwagon’, and I left it at that. Further screenshots didn’t do much to change my mind either – crafting things out of materials scavenged from across the landscape? Ooh, exciting: like I haven’t endured a million sessions on Mojang’s one-hit-wonder with my son already.

Then the demo came out and the graphics looked quite sweet so I thought I may as well give it a go… To make a short story even shorter, I found myself preordering the full game before I’d even finished the demo, that’s how good it was.

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The Minecraft comparison may be understandably inescapable but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny once you try Builders out for yourself – to try and make this very clear, Dragon Quest Builders is not Minecraft with a Dragon Quest mod slapped on top, this is a full-on (albeit old-style) Dragon Quest game with crafting in it.

You may wonder what the difference is (and if I’m merely splitting hairs for the sake of personal preference) but it all becomes clear once you reach the first village and start getting quests to build new homes to a plan, rescue other villagers in far-off locations and learn how to make yourself healing salves and other useful items. These villager requests give the game both structure and story – you can’t make things by accident or use an online recipe list to get ahead – you have to be taught by an NPC as part of the story or discover new recipes after harvesting materials from the new area you’ve been directed towards. This will surely sound like an anathema to fans of ‘that other block building game’, but it makes sense in Builders because the focus is always on getting these individual characters and their village back on its feet after the catastrophic (and non-canonical) decision made by the original Dragon Quest’s hero to join forces with Dragonlord and gain half the world in the process rather than stab him in the face like a good hero’s supposed to.

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The game is divided into four chapters, with each one covering a different area of Alefgard. As you lose your items and equipment between regions this could have become a repetitive slog of endless pot-placing and village tinkering, but these new locations all possess their own interesting terrain and challenges – in one you’ll have to negotiate poisonous water and a forest filled with paralyzing plants, another has vast pools of lava and fortresses filled with enemies. Then just as you think you’ve seen it all the final chapter… well, it’s the sort of thing that’s worth seeing for yourself so I’ll save that one in the hopes an English release will turn up at some point.

To stop you from skipping ahead or wandering off into the middle of nowhere a ‘mysterious power’ prevents you from building a (tedious) bridge of blocks from one end of the world to the other. You might think this means you’re building (and mining, and foraging) within a walled garden – because you are – but it also means that the areas you visit have been designed, not generated, and with this handcrafted touch comes a wealth of interesting features, hidden boss battles and treasure chests squirreled away in cunning places.

Villages aren’t exempt from these unique flourishes either, and each region will have its own defensive barriers to make and homes to build. While you are required to build certain facilities to plan for some quests you’re otherwise free to remodel as you please – at the least a building must have walls two blocks high, a door, and a light source (in keeping with the classic Dragon Quest look, a roof is not necessary). After that what it becomes is up to you – put down a few beds and it’s a resting place, add a stove and a chest and your villagers will start making food for you to take with you on your travels. Monsters will attack at night and as part of certain battle quests – your rag-tag band of villagers will help fend them off but you’re expected to do most of the straightforward skull-cracking yourself as well as set up defensive walls and traps to keep the enemy at bay. Your comrades can ‘die’ in these skirmishes but thankfully it just means they’re out cold for the rest of the fight – it’s no real problem or any sort of black mark on your heroic name. While I think about it dying for the player is also a mild inconvenience rather than a controller-throwing issue too – you drop everything you were carrying exactly where you died and you wake up back at the village, but that’s it. It’s up to you to dust yourself off and get back on with it – which is in fact the theme of the game, if the lyrics of the song from this incredibly sweet commercial’s anything to go by (basically: ‘Build up, do your best, stumble, then carry on building’) .

Managing all the items and crafting materials needed to build and rebuild these villages would soon become an awful inconvenience, so it’s a good thing you soon learn how to craft a magical storage chest that can not only hold an incredible number of items (enough that you’ll never be left wanting for space for the rest of the chapter), but once it’s built allows you to swap items between your builder’s personal inventory and this wondrous warehouse any time you like, saving you from ferreting through endless identical chests at home for that one copper ingot you really needed or stumbling across an exciting secret area only to have to leave it be because all your healing items are back at the village. This helpful addition also underlines the point that this game really is more about the experience and the questing than any attempt to be a Minecraft clone – resource gathering is definitely A Thing That You Do, but it isn’t the focus.

If the thought of not being able to do everything everywhere all the time is completely intolerable you’ll want to spend some time in the segregated free play mode – an all-new island that allows you to create anything you’ve unlocked in story mode in a unique area that’s been partitioned off into a building area completely free of monsters, a more normal resource-gathering area with enemies wandering about, and a special battle realm where you can use tickets to summon specific monster hordes to test yourself against. It’s still not free-free play, but it’s a nice change of pace if you’d like to get really creative.

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So with all this focus on the story, what’s left to do once you’ve sorted out Dragon Quest’s alternative-timeline mess and told Dragonlord where to shove his offer of half the world? Well… it depends somewhat on your mind-set. On the one hand there isn’t a New Game+ mode or anything added to the chapters that wasn’t there before, but on the other there’s a list of challenges to complete that you definitely won’t have cleared the first time around (Complete the chapter in under 30 days, do a particular optional boss battle, etc.), and the world is packed with all sorts of little bonuses and neat ideas so you’re bound to trip over something you missed the first time around. But the fact remains that if you’re after true extras there are none to be found save for the personal pleasure of going through an enjoyable game one more time, either from start to finish or just replaying a particular favourite chapter (they unlock individually as you progress).

Dragon Quest Builders could - and by all rights probably should - have ended up a cynical Japanese-flavoured cash-in on one of gaming’s most successful titles. What we got instead was the opportunity to revisit a world that is cherished to millions of now-adult gamers and not only re-explore its places and people in a new way but also have a precious chance to save it from destruction one more time. Curious new players who aren’t overcome with a wave of nostalgia won’t find Builders lacking either, with the likable characters and engaging gameplay keeping young and old alike entertained and enthralled in a world they’re experiencing for the first time. Alefgard may be thirty years old this May, but Builders makes it feel as fresh and exciting as it’s ever been.