Dragon Quest is back again in the form of its block building spin-off series, making strides to improve upon an already outstanding formula.
Title: Dragon Quest Builders 2
Developers: Omega Force, Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (version reviewed), Nintendo Switch
Release Date: July 12, 2019
As an undeniable juggernaut in Japan that struggles for relevance almost everywhere else, Dragon Quest has been a tale of two games for most of its 33-year history. 2016’s block building focused spin-off, Dragon Quest Builders, didn’t necessarily fundamentally change that.
But what could have easily been a low effort Minecraft clone turned out to be an inspired take on the building genre and found an audience in the West like few titles in the series have. Now the follow-up, Dragon Quest Builders 2, hopes to continue that success by refining and expanding the experience in almost every way.
At its core, Dragon Quest Builders 2 is still very much about smashing block shaped terrain and building quaint towns bustling with adorable characters like a giant worm with hat, a sentient and jolly bag of jewels, or an acolyte of the dark lord conflicted about what he wants out of life.
It doesn’t quite offer the limitless possibilities that other building focused titles might, but it makes up for it with a more focused experience lead by a story mode that provides just enough of a guiding hand. You’re shown the way in the form of quests, room blueprints, and environmental design to stimulate the player’s creative flow without getting in the way of playing in its virtual sandbox.
Whether making a tranquil bedroom as a means of escape, or a scenic patio carved out of the hillside overlooking a group of farmers on a breezy summer evening just as the sun begins to set, Dragon Quest Builders 2 is one of the coziest and most meditative video game experiences in recent memory. It’s nearly impossible to not find yourself almost constantly in a fervent trance of building.
…it very quickly becomes apparent that almost every major mechanic and system has been updated in the name of convenience, greatly allowing that effortless creativity to flow all the more consistently.
While much of this could be said about the first Dragon Quest Builders, it’s also impossible to talk about that game without the conversation filled with the same prickly nitpicks. Things like the unwieldiness of interiors with roofs or the inability to craft an amount of something other than one or the maximum possible.
But Square Enix was clearly listening and took many of those criticisms to heart because it very quickly becomes apparent that almost every major mechanic and system has been updated in the name of convenience, greatly allowing that effortless creativity to flow all the more consistently.
Equipment durability is completely done away with, weapon and hammer swings are now on different buttons, there’s a more standard fast travel system, the camera can be switched to first person at any time, UI markers alert the player to what items and exactly how many are required for currently active quests, and many more changes.
Similarly, the pot that lets you create pools and running water no longer needs to be refilled. And there are even brand new tools that add ways in which you can interact with the world, such as a windbreaker for gliding long distances or dropping from tall heights, and gloves that allow blocks and items to be moved without having to destroy them.
While these tools often significantly expand your capabilities, they aren’t used as effectively or cleverly as they could be, instead generally just allowing you to access new areas, collect new types of materials, or solve rudimentary puzzles.
But the biggest change is supplying what is a mostly limitless inventory, letting players can carry everything with them at all times. This does mean it can occasionally be difficult finding that one specific block you’re looking for, but the auto-sort works well and becoming untethered from item chests liberates the player from a level of burden that doesn’t fit with the pace this series is going for.
And that’s essentially what all these changes accomplish. Regardless if they make sense or not from a physical or lore standpoint, they make sure that the game itself gets in the way of what the player wants to do at any given moment as little as possible while simultaneously refraining from sapping the fun out of starting from nothing to looking out over a sprawling town.
On a basic level, the structure and setup of Dragon Quest Builders 2 should be no surprise to anyone who played the original. That is to say that after washing ashore following a shipwreck, your mysteriously important character is tasked with restoring a series of islands, each with their own theme and biome, ravaged by a now mostly vanquished evil force.
The primary marker of progress is the level of the towns you build on each of these islands. Increasing them through four stages to defeat the island bosses unlocks new crafting recipes, raises the productivity of your residents and brings new NPCs seeking refugee as well.
…overarching questlines offer much more structural and mechanical variety than in the past.
Unlike in the first Dragon Quest Builders where town levels were simply about cramming in as many rooms as possible, it’s now a system based more on time and efficiency. That’s because the experience used to level your towns comes in the form of hearts your residents drop not only as you complete quests for them but also when you give them things to do and ways to spend their time.
Even though each island essentially boils down to gathering resources, building specifically requested rooms, and periodically fending off waves of monsters, their overarching questlines offer much more structural and mechanical variety than in the past.
For instance, one island is full of earthy fields where you methodically expand a farm to grow enough crops to restore a giant corrupted tree, while another involves delving deep into the dark and narrow underground mines that limit your ability to move about through the sheer volume of blocks to smash.
This helps massage and disperse the inherent repetitiveness of the game’s basic loop of collecting and building much more naturally throughout the game and makes the islands feel special rather than merely thematic reskins of one another.
Unfortunately, since the game is still primarily about moving linearly from island to island, you do end up having to start from scratch each time. But to mitigate the feeling of lost progression, there is now a central home island you return to between chapters, bringing items, materials, and notable NPCs with you to more dramatically transform the landscape.
While these sections do effectively offer a change of pace, the tasks also feel much more directed and less rewarding creatively. Reigniting rivers along specific paths or being oddly sidelined as your NPC friends build a giant structure feels overly linear and shallow for what the rest of the game entails.
However, these in between sections are prime opportunities to engage in side-content, which there is a decent amount of. And one of the nice things is how hands-off Dragon Quest Builders 2 is in this regard, yet still making it a rewarding time investment. An example of this is on the second main island, which is focused mostly underground, yet still has a full-sized above ground landmass.
Actively deciding to explore this area could lead you to mini-bosses that unlock new armor and a weapon much better than what the story gives you at that point. It borders on that feeling from classic RPGs where it seems like you tricked the game into getting something you weren’t supposed to yet and at least temporarily have become overpowered in the process.
You could also spend time in four-player online co-op, touring smaller islands to discover unique block types, or complete challenges and environmental puzzles to unlock cosmetic items and new tools that do things like instantly swap large areas of blocks without having to smash anything. None of this is required, but for putting in a little extra effort, the game reciprocates with appropriate rewards.
Receiving the least amount of attention and rethinking is combat which still involves little more than mashing the attack button and occasionally getting out of the way of obviously telegraphed attacks. But it also isn’t at the core of what makes Dragon Quest Builders 2 special, and thankfully the game does seem slightly less interested in forcing the player to focus on it.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.