It may have had a bit of a drought for a while, but it seems like the Playstation 4 is finally starting to get some proper games, for those who want something more than endless remakes, shooters and football. Much like with buses, you wait an age and then suddenly several come along at once, with most of the biggest guns coming from role-playing game favourite Square Enix. With the veritable behemoth Final Fantasy XV creeping onto the horizon, and its much cuter 'chibi' cousin, World of Final Fantasy out in only a small number of sleeps too, RPG season has kicked off in style, with the decidedly Minecraft-like spin-off, Dragon Quest Builders.
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Set in the once-great kingdom of Alefgard, Dragon Quest Builders takes place in a world where the future of humanity is looking somewhat bleak. Following the fall of a hero many years ago, the nefarious Demonlord has taken over, spreading his darkness across the land, and stripping the few humans that are left of that most precious of abilities - the ability to create.
With no way to build homes, let alone defences, humanity has been driven to the fringes of the land. Left ravaged by monsters and disease, their one hope lies in a prophecy that tells of a legendary builder, who'll bring the power of creation back to the people once more, driving back the Demonlord's monster forces, and restoring the light to the world - and by some crazy coincidence, you just happen to be that very legendary builder. At least, that's what they say.
With nary as much as a bricklaying qualification to your name, the citizens are nothing if not trusting - if you'd seen how well our D.T. projects used to go, you wouldn't want sleep inside anything we'd made. Yet with the weight of the world on your shoulders, it falls to you to build, build, build your way to the top, and take down the Demonlord once and for all.
Split into four chapters, in four different locations, each chapter sees you rebuilding a different town, taking it from being a pile of rubble through to a bustling metropolis of your own creation. Upon arrival, you'll have a huge flag, a 'Banner of Hope' that you must plant in the ruins of that chapter's key town. Once planted, the light attracts a poor lost soul, and together, you will work to grow the town in question - although as humans no longer have the power to build, you'll end up doing most of the legwork.
Essentially, your first inhabitant and subsequent hangers-on will give you various quests to do, whether it's building a sick room to treat the diseased, constructing a watchtower to keep a closer eye on the monster hordes, or someone who simply wishes for a more private bedroom of their own. Sometimes giving you a specific blueprint to follow, or sometimes just giving you the mere suggestion of what the room in question could look like, it falls to you, as the Builder of Legend, to construct everything they ask for from the ground up, brick by brick.
However, before you can start building, you'll need to gather some materials first, which means heading out into the wilderness surrounding your blossoming settlement, giant mallet in hand, and smacking up the scenery, enemies, and anything else you come across, pocketing whatever remains. Anything and everything you can gather, from simple earth blocks, to animal fur and iron ore, all come in handy back at your base, where, taking a leaf out of the Wombles' book, you can make good use of the things that you've found, and turn them into something much more useful.
Stone blocks can form the walls of your buildings, while broken branches, metal ores and monster remains can be combined to create everything from beds and bathtubs to furnaces and chests. Depending on what you put in each room, you'll get a building with a different purpose, providing you follow the game's loose rules - any room must have a wall at least two blocks tall and a door, a basic bedroom needs have two beds and a light, while a kitchen requires something to cook on and a chest to put the completed dishes in; anything else you add is entirely up to you - but in order to have your residents make use of the things you make, you need to get the basics right.
As you complete quests for your townsfolk, and as your settlement grows, you'll start to attract the attention of the local thug monsters, who'll periodically come and attack your town. Sometimes totally random and unannounced, sometimes as part of a more battle-focussed quest, your (generally male) residents will join you in the fight against the monsters to keep the town safe, whether it's a couple of pre-determined waves of long distance bad guys, or a local group of roughnecks who've taken a dislike to you as they strolled past.
The brilliant part, though, is that as this is a game all about building, you can come up with your own ways of keeping your city safe. We've taken to building our towns raised one block from the surrounding area, encased in the strongest wall we could muster. Effectively making all our walls three blocks high from the outside, it ensures the enemies can't jump over - and the spike traps we've taken to planting around the outside gradually damage them while they try. Our 'Steel Stockade', with fire breathing statues and huge steel doors was the final nail in the coffin - wandering monster hordes are defeated by the defences, without anyone inside lifting a finger.
No matter how tough your defences are, though, a time will eventually come when you attract the attention of the 'boss' monster of that area - and, as the legendary builder and saviour, you'll need to go outside and take a more active role in defending your town. For the starting town of Cantlin, the Golem that once defended the town in years gone by has gone rogue, with it's sights now fixed on your growing restoration.
Prior to the attack, you'll need to synthesise (or, craft) two things to help you in the battle - a boat-load of 'wrecking balls' (essentially super destructive bombs), and a portable wall known as the 'Cantlin Shield'. In the fight against the Golem, you'll need to run round the outside of your city and quickly erect the Cantlin Shield to block his boulder-throwing attacks, until he exhausts himself, at which point you let him have it by placing the wrecking ball bombs around his feet to damage him. Just make sure you stand well clear of the bombs, as we managed to blow ourselves up at least four times - if you're interested, it forces you to restart the battle - before we finally beat him. Each boss you face off against at the end of each chapter has their own unique weaknesses and exploits you'll need to find in order to defeat them, using a combination of both your building skills and battle skills.
There's more to Dragon Quest than just building and fighting though - although in this case, we wish there wasn't. Much like with Minecraft, you'll need to keep eating food to keep your strength up, whether you're chilling around town, out gathering materials, or getting into scuffles with monsters - anything and everything you do will deplete your energy meter. Once you've added a kitchen to your town, you likely won't have to worry about finding things to eat - but in the early days, you'll likely be left scavenging berries here and there. Berries which a) don't fill you up much and b) can be pretty few and far between.
Likewise, defending against wandering monster attacks is trickier during the early days, as you have limited defences, limited villagers to help out and pretty weak weapons - and the monsters, while pretty puny, can really do a number on you when night falls and you're just starting out. In Dragon Quest Builders, there's no such thing as levelling up to get stronger, and while you will Seeds of Life for completing key quests, which boost your overall HP, your only real hope for tackling the more ferocious bad guys lies in crafting bigger and better equipment - which in turn relies on you expanding your town enough to unlock said recipes.
Once you wrap up a chapter by defeating the big bad boss, it's time to move on to the next, heading through a conveniently opened-up portal a little way from your base. However, there's a bit of a catch to carrying on - the moment you step through the portal, all your collected materials, crafted weapons and various bits and pieces you've picked up through the last ten to twenty hours are wiped. Landing in the new chapter afresh, with naught but the most basic of weapons and the clothes on your back is a bit of a double-edged sword; on one hand it makes each new chapter feel like a brand new adventure - on the other it can make your past efforts seem largely redundant. Personally, we found the base-building to be one of Dragon Quest Builders' more addictive parts, so we appreciated being able to start over from scratch and try out new methods of defence - but some may find it a drag.
In an effort to keep things feeling like a role playing game, each former town you visit has a different story behind it. For example, the first place you restore, Cantlin, is very much a tutorial town, walking you through the basics of creating a city, from bedrooms and kitchens to blacksmiths and the like, as well as making sure you understand the importance of a well-fortified home base, with increasingly sturdy barricades with which to keep things safe.
Moving on to Rimuldar, the second stop on your mission to defeat the Demonlord, things take a bit of a different track, as you step into a town in the grip of a mystery. The once crystal clear water that the villagers drank from has turned murky and poisonous, and its inhabitants are dropping like flies to various diseases. Under the guidance of a friendly nun, you'll tend to the sick, research new medicines, and work out how to rid the land of it's plague once and for all. Along the way you'll meet many a friendly face, from grumpy old guys to sceptical doomsayers, and your very first friend, Pippa, who, bless her cotton socks, doesn't seem to really understand what a front door is for:
All in all though, Dragon Quest Builders is a seriously well-crafted title that mixes Minecraft-esque base-building with a more story-driven role-playing game for a light-hearted little adventure. Building up your town from a few earth blocks to a heavily fortified castle can be seriously addictive, while the overarching story and your kooky inhabitants requests ensure you're never really stuck without anything to do for long. It may not be a 'proper' Dragon Quest, but much like hack'n'slash 'em up Dragon Quest Heroes, it's still well worth a look for fans of the Slime-loving series and Minecraft alike.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4