The three-decade-old Dragon Quest franchise loves its traditions. While Final Fantasy has never been afraid to depart from its roots, there are big parts of Dragon Quest XI that are directly drawn from the very first Dragon Quest NES game from 1986.
So when 2016’s Dragon Quest Builders successfully combined the art, story, and general aesthetic with the open-world Lego-style building of Minecraft (itself seven years old at the time), it was paradoxically fresh. The games share exploration, crafting, and an intentional retro streak, and those elements formed the foundation of a short, sometimes limited, but ultimately entertaining game.
The game did well enough to make Dragon Quest Builders 2 a thing, and it’s a game that does what good sequels do. It gives you more of what its predecessor did well—both in that it is literally more content in the same style, but also in that the game is slightly larger and more ambitious in scope—while improving the core gameplay and jettisoning stuff that didn’t work. Builders 2 is fun enough, flexible enough, and charismatic enough to be fun even for people with zero knowledge of the source material.
A link to the past
The Builders games both put you in the shoes of a “Builder,” which in the game means having the extraordinary power to put things together and make other things. The first game was presented as an alternate ending to the original Dragon Quest, where the main villain’s victory rendered building things a lost art. Rather than continuing the first game’s story, Builders 2 plays as an alternate ending to Dragon Quest 2, where the followers of that game’s villain establish a cultish religion that forbids building. In both cases, the player’s job is to rebuild society from the ruins, inspiring NPCs (and a few friendly monsters) along the way.
The new game’s core mechanics are also mostly carried over from the first game: you explore and gather materials to use in your creations; take quests from townspeople who ask you to find specific materials, craft specific things, or build specific structures; and occasionally fight off waves of monsters intent on destroying what you’ve made. It’s still a lot like Minecraft, but the mission-based structure gives it a different feel. If you find the open-ended, do-whatever-you-want feel of Minecraft’s survival mode frustrating, Builders may be more your speed.
Builders 2 does feel a lot larger in scale than the first game, both in terms of its story structure and in terms of the kinds of things you can build and the area you can build them in. The original was broken up into four chapters, each of which took place in a totally different town. It was telling one overarching story, but every chapter made you start over again from essentially ground zero. Character progression, inventory, and your structures themselves did not carry over from one chapter to the next in that game, and you couldn’t revisit old areas with new items or equipment. The only place where you could use every item in the game was a totally separate free-play mode, which had no quests or any narrative connection with the rest of the game.
Instead of chapters, the bulk of Builders 2 takes place on separate islands with separate cities. Your inventory and crafting recipes do still mostly reset when you go to a brand-new island, but afterward, you return to a “home base” called the Isle of Awakening, where you continue building structures and completing missions that let you use all the items and recipes you’ve gathered throughout the game. Some of the missions on the Isle of Awakening are totally optional, but others are required to push the story forward.
That story’s pretty basic and not too hard to predict if you’re in any way familiar with RPG tropes. But in the same way that the first Builders subverted the mechanics of leveling up and character progression to make a point about what being a “hero” means in a Dragon Quest game, Builders 2’s story explores the relationship between creation and destruction. These forces, presented as diametrically opposed in the first game, have a much more symbiotic relationship in this one, personified as your semi-permanent wingman Malroth.
The Builder can, well, build, but its combat abilities are limited; Malroth is physically much stronger than the Builder and can help bust up materials for you to gather but is utterly inept at creation. When you create, don’t you need to begin by destroying something to gather the parts you need? When you destroy something, aren’t you laying a foundation for future creations, in a way? It’s not a perfect or especially deep metaphor (in the game, it’s easier to build than to destroy; in the real world the reverse is true by a considerable margin), but it works as well as it does because you do become attached to the characters who represent each force.
Easier but bigger
By traveling with you nearly constantly, Malroth gives the game a different feel than the first Builders had, much in the way the added party members in Dragon Quest 2 changed the melancholy solitude of the original. Malroth levels up in lockstep with the player—you both gain experience by fighting monsters, which ups Malroth’s attack power and gives the Builder more hit points and stamina and crafting recipes.
If having a helper makes the game sound easier than the first, that’s because it mostly is. The original Builders had an aggressive hunger meter, limited inventory slots (which only became less-limited midway through each chapter, once you had built a specific item), and weapons, armor, and tools that would wear down and break over time. That gave the original a survivalist feel that the new game mostly rejects. The hunger meter still exists, but you no longer lose hit points when it’s empty, none of your equipment wears down or breaks, and you always have access to a full map of the area you’re in, along with unlimited item-free fast traveling between checkpoints. A dash button speeds up walking, and a parachute/hang glider item you get early on reduces the risk of fall damage and makes it easier to traverse uneven terrain.
The locations you’re exploring get bigger and more complex as a result of these tweaks—exploring this game’s maps with the first game’s mechanics intact would be a chore, particularly the second island’s cavernous mine—but the sense of mystery and risk that accompanied exploration in the first game is mostly gone. And although there are secrets peppered across each island, there’s not as much of an incentive to find them, since you always know just where you need to go to progress, and finding HP-boosting Seeds of Life isn’t the only way to boost your health.
Building stuff is easier in this game, too. Some of that comes from improved mechanics: it’s easier to find materials, easier to tell what parts you need to finish a blueprint, easier to build in enclosed tight spaces thanks to an improved third-person camera and a new first-person camera. But mechanics aside, the game just makes it easier to accomplish the objectives laid out for you: you’re always given clear directives and quest markers, it’s much easier to gather basic materials like wood and iron, and NPCs can help you collect and build stuff now (the story mode’s biggest structures are not only NPC-built, but NPCs even bring most of the materials needed to build the structures in the first place).
This is occasionally irritating—why make me The Builder (capital-T capital-B) if you’re not going to let me put everything together? But it works mainly because the scale of your creations can be considerably larger and more complex than in the first game. The first game’s wonky third-person camera made it a chore to enter most enclosed structures, but this camera is a lot better, encouraging the creation of rooms with multiple floors and a roof on top. And while each of the first game’s towns was limited to a 32-by-32-block grid (you could build outside it, but it didn’t count toward your base’s score and NPCs would ignore it), the towns in Builders 2 are bigger and more free-form—you can build stuff just about anywhere you want on the Isle of Awakening. There are tons more blocks and decorations, too, so your creations can be considerably more personalized and imaginative than in the first game.
Listing image by Andrew Cunningham