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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (359)

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The Incredible Adventur... 4/5
Fallout 4 3/5
Tomba! 5/5
Odallus: The Dark Call 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 4/5
Call of Juarez: Bound i... 3/5
Drakkhen 3.5/5
Unravel 3.5/5
Zero-K 2/5
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes... 4.5/5
AereA 1/5
Arcanum: of Steamworks ... 3/5
The Yawhg 3.5/5
Dungeon Defenders II 4/5
Spelunky 0.5/5
Hard Reset Redux 2.5/5
Girls and Dungeons 4/5
Time Tenshi 2 3.5/5
Time Tenshi 2.5/5
We Are the Dwarves 1/5
Shadow Warrior 3.5/5
Torment: Tides of Numen... 4.5/5
Hammerwatch 1.5/5
Metro Redux 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 3/5

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Dragon Quest Builders   Nintendo Switch 

The Point    4/5 stars

I have never played “Minecraft.” I’ve never seen the appeal in a create-your-own-fun ‘play environment’ masquerading as an actual game. The N64-quality low-poly character models and hideous textures only served to push me further away from participating in a piece of software that is, by all accounts, a massive pre-teen hit. In playing “Terraria” – a.k.a., 2D “Minecraft” – I quickly grew bored with the unstructured gameplay which became more annoying the more ‘progress’ the player made. I just figured that the ‘digging’ Sandbox genre wasn’t for me… that is until I played “Steamworld Dig,” a 2D digging game blended with the classic Action/Adventure elements that form the foundation of the so-called ‘Metroidvania’ subgenre.

With dozens of “Minecraft” clones popping up on Steam, it seemed like at least one of them should meet the same minimum basis of quality and design in the 3D space that “Steamworld Dig” provided in the 2D space. Yet it wasn’t until Square-Enix, in its comical aping of Western game design, decided to merge the core of “Minecraft” with one of their own beloved IPs that such a thing game into being. “Dragon Quest Builders” (“DQB”) is the result of Square-Enix’s endeavor to transform “Minecraft” from an unstructured play environment into an actual game… yet it somehow was never released on PC, instead appearing exclusively on PlayStation before receiving a Nintendo Switch port 2 years later. With both a need to experience a 3D digging game with better visuals and more ‘gaminess’ than “Minecraft,” and to play something new on my neglected, dust-collecting Switch, I grabbed a second-hand copy of the game off Amazon Marketplace and hoped for the best.

Presentation
“DQB” is a LOT nicer looking than “Minecraft,” or any of the other low-budget “Minecraft” knock-offs out there. Built in the CryEngine, “DQB” strays about as far as possible from the crude, simplistic ugliness of its template game. While the environments are, by necessity, blocky and angular, the textures covering each 3-dimensional voxel that makes up the world are bright, crisp, and very reminiscent of all things ‘Dragon Quest.’ However, what really puts “DQB” ahead of its template is the fact that all of the character models, from the hero, to friendly NPCs, to the monsters, are not blocky, angular abominations, but high-quality chibi models based on ‘Dragon Quest’ artist, Akira Toriyama’s, art. Enemies in particular look fantastic, and don’t differ appreciably from the models found in high-end ‘Dragon Quest’ games like “Dragon Quest 8” or “Dragon Quest 11.” Hero and NPC models are a bit more basic, however, as, in addition to the afore mentioned chibi-ness, they aren’t effusively animated, nor are their faces particularly expressive.

Audio-wise, “DQB” is exactly what one would expect from a mid-budget ‘Dragon Quest’ spinoff title – which is what it is. The game is completely un-voiced and copiously re-uses the MIDI soundtracks of previous ‘Dragon Quest’ titles, with a particular emphasis on the very first game in the series. This re-use of assets could be considered a ding against the game in many cases, but in the case of ‘Dragon Quest,’ the classic soundtrack and sound effects are so packed with nostalgia, that it’s easy to not only give the game a pass for re-using assets, but to actually praise it for doing so.

Technically, “DQB” is rock solid. It doesn’t install any data from the Switch game card to the system itself. Indeed, I’ve seen PlayStation 4 owners complaining that the game has never received an update on their platform. Far from complaining, I find it remarkable and admirable that Square-Enix is still capable of producing software that just works out of the box without the need to replace 60%+ of the game’s files with patches. In addition to the lack of updates, “DQB” also has a lack of bugs. It never crashed or otherwise misbehaved for me, nor did I experience so much as a single glitch, hiccup, or unexpected behavior.

Story
“DQB” relies heavily upon nostalgia for the original “Dragon Quest,” which was released as “Dragon Warrior” in the West in 1989. “DQB” takes place in the same world as that ancient progenitor of the series, and the central plot pivots entirely upon a single question:

What if evil won?

Right before the final battle with the DragonLord in “Dragon Quest,” the player is given a choice: Betray humanity and side with the monsters in order to rule over half the world. “DQB” explores an alternate reality in which the descendant of Erdrick chose to take the DragonLord’s offer instead of battling him to the death.

Thus “DQB” takes place in a dark and dismal version of Alefgard and its surrounding lands in which the skies are perpetually shrouded in shadow, monsters freely roam the lands, and the last dregs of humanity struggle to eke out an existence without the one thing that truly makes them human: the ability to create.

Our hero is The Builder. This semi-anonymous character can be male or female, but awakens in a tomb to the voice of the Goddess Rubiss telling them that they must head out into the world and rekindle humanity’s ability to create in order to set the stage for a new hero who will emerge to slay the DragonLord and set things right once again. Indeed, our hero is repeatedly told that he/she is NOT a hero, but merely a facilitator to humanity’s recovery.

Taking place across four chapters, “DQB” explores a unique theme and presents a unique sub-villain in each. Each chapter feels like a self-contained game on its own, lasting roughly 15-20 hours. While the narrative isn’t exactly award-winning in its depth or breadth, it is still compelling enough to drive the player and the gameplay itself forward at a steady pace.

Gameplay
“DQB” is, in short, “Minecraft” with a point. In each of the four chapters, the player starts with nothing, and must work to rebuild a famous city from the original “Dragon Quest,” whilst defending it from monster attacks, solving problems for human refugees who find their way to the up-and-coming cities, and trying to figure out how to defeat the local monster-in-charge and clear the sky of its overcast gloom.

The player accomplishes these goals largely by building and crafting, mixed with a bit of combat. As mentioned previously, each of the game’s 4 chapters starts the player with a fresh slate, wiping their inventory, but allowing them to keep the crafting recipes and building recipes they learned in previous chapters in order to start fresh with the local resources.

Thus, “DQB” is also a bit of a Survival game. In addition to the standard Hit Point meter for their health, the player character also has a Hunger Meter in the form of 5 loaves of bread, which slowly empty when running around or swinging a weapon/tool. In come chapters, finding food is a large part of the initial challenge, but in every case, the survival element becomes a complete non-issue by the end of the chapter. Also inspired by Survival games, weapons and tools in “DQB” all have a durability meter, and break after so much use. Unlike the awful weapon durability system in “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” weapons/tools in “DQB” actually last a very long time, and all of them are easily replaced by simply crafting a new one.

The core gameplay loop in “DQB” is one of upgrading the player character’s gear as newer, better resources become available, as well as completing specific objectives given by the non-player characters who move into the player’s base. Invariably, these objectives involve building specific rooms in the base, crafting specific items, or finding specific resources. It’s not all that different from what one would expect from a typical Action/Adventure title or RPG, and it gives just the right amount of guidance to the player’s efforts via a number of smaller goals that culminate in the ultimate goal of the given chapter.

However, for those who aren’t as goal-oriented and would rather just screw around with digging up blocks of the environment and building interesting things with them, “DQB” also offers a Terra Incognita mode, which is basically a full-blown “Minecraft” sandbox mode where players can explore at their leisure and do whatever they want with no guidance or quests nagging at them. However, in order to unlock every recipe and building in Terra Incognita, it’s necessary to play the main game’s chapters… and to complete a handful of ‘challenges’ in each chapter. I have to score the PlayStation 4 version of “DQB” slightly lower than the Switch version in this regard, as one of the challenges in each chapter consists of a speedrun in that version, pushing the player to rush through unfamiliar territory or replay the chapter again after the fact (read: excessive padding). The Switch version, on the other hand, replaced the speedrun challenge with a completionist challenge, requiring the player to obtain large numbers of unique items in each chapter, which is far more fitting to the laid-back pacing of the entire game, and indeed, genre.

So how do these gameplay systems work? Building, crafting, combat?

Building is basically identical to every digging game on the market. Since the entire world is made of 3D voxel panels, the player is free to break them up, haul them around, and place them elsewhere in the world. Harvesting voxels of various types is simply a matter of crafting a hammer hard enough to break them. “DQB” has particular recipes for particular types of room – and, indeed, what even constitutes a ‘room’ – but the player has full freedom to stick these rooms anywhere within the 32x32 voxel region of their base… or outside their base, for that matter (however, during boss battles, I learned that everything outside the base temporarily disappears, which left me without some vital defenses at the end of Chapter 1). Players are free to get as creative or as minimalist as they want with regard to building their base, and I found myself spending far too much time making everything look just right.

Crafting is NOT the same as building. Instead, the crafting system allows the player to use non-voxel resources – things like various ores, wood, plants, etc. – that are found via exploring and destroying the environments to create useable objects. Crafting tables are the focal point of the crafting system, as they allow the player to build OTHER crafting tables, as well as all of their weapons, armor, consumables, furniture, decorations, etc. It’s truly a vast list, with certain portions of it available in each chapter (and ALL of it available in Terra Incognita).

Once the player has crafted a weapon and armor, they can engage the local monsters in combat. “DQB” is NOT an RPG, even by bastardized and ignorant modern standards. Combat is basically the same as every top-down Action/Adventure game since the 8-bit era, with the player and enemies exchanging blows until one of them is dead. Killing monsters is generally a fairly optional activity as, unless the player is in need of a crafting material only dropped by a monster, killing them doesn’t really do anything, as there is no currency in the game, nor does the player character gain experience points or grow stronger by defeating foes (he/she is NOT a hero, after all). I didn’t find combat in “DQB” particularly compelling, as it invariably involves hitting an enemy 1-4 times, then backing away so their counter attack misses, then approaching them again and hitting them 1-4 times; repeat until dead. Boss battles, on the other hand, are much more complex affairs with plenty of gimmicks to keep them interesting.

Overall
“Dragon Quest Builders” is what would happen if “Minecraft” wasn’t a directionless play environment, but an actual game with an actual point. The game’s structure may be a bit basic, but it’s just what was missing from the wildly popular ‘Digging’ Sandbox subgenre. This structure combined with the subgenre’s free-form creative play creates an engaging experience that can gobble up hours and hours of time. However, once the structure runs out, so does the game’s lasting appeal, as building creative structures with no real end goal just becomes aimless and, well, pointless.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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