Dragon Quest Builders is insane. It’s not just that it takes a storied RPG franchise and turns it into a crafting game but so much of its foundational elements are categorically bonkers. And because of that, it takes me, an admittedly crafting game-averse fellow, on a crafting adventure that more than holds my attention.
Let’s start with the premise. It’s like an alternate history story, but the history very specifically is that of the first Dragon Quest game. Rather than Alefgard being saved from the evil Dragonlord, the hero dies and the world becomes infested with monsters. This dark timeline wreaks havoc on the inhabitants, rendering them more shell than people.
So much so, in fact, that they are mostly automatons, spending their days collecting resources like sticks and rocks with no apparent reason or goal. Like, they can’t even build with those materials as just the concept of creation is foreign to them. For a children’s game, that is especially and incredibly bleak. This is an entire population reduced to an inexplicable instinct, some compelling need overriding their ability to live. Dark, right?
That is until your character the Builder is revealed as some force of destiny for saving them all from this existence. Granted, there is a lot of humor here, especially when your character hears about his heavy-handed prophetic life and just sort of nods off, but it’s still existentially grim. One of these townspeople, for instance, will request you build a bed. What the hell were you doing before I got here?
This does, however, overcome two of the biggest problems I have with crafting games. The first one is where creation is just for the sake of creation but its ceiling for possibilities is too low to be interesting. Minecraft, for instance, is pretty much the most open-ended crafting of any game ever, but it works because the goal of its systems is to just let you do whatever you want.
Dragon Quest Builders fixes this by filtering the building through an interesting narrative and charming world full of fun people you generally like interacting with. And it makes sure you see the scope of which you can fill by giving you a grand sense of scale at many turns. The missions and the mystery infused into the distant but visible lands combine to give you a worthwhile impetus to play along.
Then there are crafting games where resource gathering is almost entirely arbitrary. You know, the sort of game where in the middle of mining your seventh round of stone from a pit, you can only wonder why don’t they just give you all the materials upfront. This is mostly solved through monsters permeating the world, many of which are almost laughably easy to defeat.
But that’s kind of the point. Their existence fits into story as entities that fit into the dark half of the realm that you’ll be battling, but their simplistic and ineffectual attacks are just enough to infuse some amount of intrigue into gathering. You can kind of just hop around between a tree here or a mine there while a few baddies trail you. Battling them isn’t the interesting part; it’s the accounting for them that gives you an excuse to make it interesting.
Your excursions tend to culminate in somewhat challenging and mostly engaging boss battles, which is a nice reward and welcome break from the consistent cycle of gather-fight-build. But really the bulk of it is just that, and the game does a good job of making it worthwhile. You really have to give yourself into believing this world of bleak existences, stripped of agency and ability, to find a reason to push on, but it’s a good time if you do.