When the original Dragon Quest Builders released on Switch in the UK early last year, the concept was intriguing, but not polished enough to consistently hold my attention. Set in the world of Dragon Quest, players were able to collect resources by mining in a voxel based environment, craft using premade recipes, follow blueprints, create towns, design sculptures, and take part in real time combat. It was basically a more linear Minecraft, with a heavier focus on following story objectives and reaching a defined end credits sequence.
As someone who loved the concept of games like Minecraft, but always felt they lacked necessary structure to keep me engaged, it seemed like it should be my jam.
Unfortunately, the first game in the series had some pretty major flaws that really hampered enjoyment. Every so often as you progressed through the story you would head to a new island, essentially leaving behind 100% of your in game progress and starting over from scratch. None of your resources collected would transfer, nor your learned recipes, or your weapons and armour. Every new island felt like you were essentially starting the game over from scratch with a new coat of paint, and essentially no real change to the formula.
Additionally, attacking monsters could tear through your carefully constructed towns, and there was no real free building location unlocked until you had totally finished the game, discouraging players from really getting to invested in building large scale projects. If your town might need completely rebuilding if a wave of monsters attacks while you’re out gathering resources, there’s no point in building a nice town until you finish the island. Once you finish an island, there’s no point building those big structures as you’re going to leave and probably not come back to see it again. Everything felt disposable and tough to commit to.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 released in mid July 2019, and in the past month I have played almost 100 hours of the game. While on paper it’s basically retreading some ground from the first game, it fixes pretty much every major complaint I had about the first game, and introduces a wealth of new features that got me more invested in sticking with the game right through to completion. It’s certainly not perfect, I have complaints I’d like to see a hypothetical third game in the series tackle, but it’s a major improvement I can much more easily recommend people pick up without major caveats.
So, what does Dragon Quest Builders 2 do differently? Well, for a start, the game doesn’t take away all your progress entirely every time you move on from one of the game’s structured story islands. Much of DQB2 is still built up into the player visiting islands, each of which acts as a tutorial for one of the major skills you’ll need to learn. One island teaches you to create farms capable of keeping villagers fed, one teaches you to mine minerals for metalwork, one island teaches you to make defensive weaponary and traps, with each island allowing you to take what you learn back to one central island. While you do start each island with nothing in the way of resources or blueprints, that’s much less of an issue due to the fact each island focuses on such different disciplines. You’ll be collecting and doing new things each new place you go with minimal overlap or repeated teaching of the same skill, and everything you learn will be accessible in the game’s main hub basically from minute one.
In between these islands, you’ll periodically be brought back to a huge hub island called Explorer’s Isle, where the player is tasked with showing off the skills they have learned with much less hand holding, and a lot more freedom to build as they wish. By bringing the player periodically back to what would in the first game have been their post game creative island, and getting them to work on tasks there during the story, not only was there somewhere to come back to excitedly every time you unlocked something cool on your travels, but it also meant that when I had actually finished the story, I already had a pretty well made base of operations on my freeform island. I didn’t feel like I had finished the game, just to be handed an empty island and told to keep going. I was given new tools and told to continue working on an island I had spent time invested in. It wasn’t a dauntingly empty end game canvass, but one I had already had fun scribbling ideas on ready to get to work. By allowing me to start the post game between each island, I felt a lot more committed to sticking with it when I did watch the end credits roll.
In terms of other improvements made to the core game mechanics, enemies now have far less ability to damage your player made structures, and when they do they are usually remade by NPCs. I would occasionally have to replant vegetables, or rebuild a home with a newer and more solid material I had found on my travels, but the only real times I saw enemies destroy things I made was during scripted combat encounters, and every one of those reset the town to pristine condition once the fight ended. This made me more confident to build nice elaborate structures right from the start.
Additional new tools, such as hammers which can clear huge sections of material in one swing, pencils for creating custom blueprints, or tools for swapping out large sections of material at once drastically reduce time spent trying to manually do fiddly jobs that pose no challenge. This focus on reducing time spent on busy work extends to the introduction of new scavenger hunt islands, which not only provide areas to collect rare items, but will allow successful players to have unlimited access to basic resources. In the late game, being able to craft using unlimited wood, iron, cotton, gold, and string without having to go out and grab extras is a real time saver, and allows for most simple basic items needed for town construction to be made without needing a huge expedition first.
While the story of Dragon Quest Builders 2 is largely predictable moment to moment, what is endearing is the primary character you are given to play alongside, Malroth. Now, if you’ve played Dragon Quest 2, it’s going to no real surprise how Malroth is presented to the player. If you’ve never played Dragon Quest 2, you’ll still probably be able to guess what Malroth’s deal is. You and Malroth wake up on an island together, neither of you remembering who you are. Malroth is really good at breaking and destroying things, and he can’t build to save his life, and people keep talking about the revival of this god of destruction, and all the pieces to tell you that Malroth is probably that god of destruction they keep referencing are right there from the start. It’s not made a secret, and it doesn’t detract from how charming it is to spend most of the game with him by your side.
Malroth may not be any help at building, but he basically fights by your side, automatically dealing damage to enemies you engage with. If you run around destroying a certain resource and collecting them, he will copy you, helping you collect them faster. He’s there to keep you safe, to help save you time on busy work, but he also becomes a very endearing friend. He really seems to care about the player character, you go through a lot together, and I really found myself getting attached to him in spite of having a pretty clear idea of the fact I might at some point clash ideologically with him. I just wanted to protect my pure precious son.
While I loved most of the story beats connected to the player relationship with Malroth, fair warning, on the game’s third island the narrative lies to the player, breaks its own mechanics to stop you undoing something, then doesn’t allow you to explain your actions, in a way that really bothered me. At the time, I felt like stopping playing the game. I looted that island of all its resources and left it to rot. By the time the game ended, the ending of the overall plot was satisfying enough that I went back to liking the story, but there was a section of the game where I was really not on board with the narrative direction. If you decide to pick this game up, and you hit that point where the game rail roads you with Malroth in a really annoying way, I promise it is worth powering through. It’s still not good game design, but I get what they were using it to set up, and it’s worth seeing the payoff for that scene.
Also, the game’s mining island features some kind of leery macho dialogue. It seemed like the character it was directed at didn’t mind, and I guess there’s room to decide how much agency to give a character okay with being lusted over, but there were a few places where some macho men talking about wanting to see a barmaid dress up as a bunny girl and dance for them felt a tad skeezy.
The only other real issue I had was that each island has one huge huge huge building project, and without asking the player, the game basically assigns all your towns people to do most of the work on the project for you. You can just not give them the required resources to build it and do it yourself, but the game tries to force the player to go hands off on some of the game’s biggest projects, and doesn’t make it clear what to do if you want to do the project solo for the sense of accomplishment.
Still, 100 hours in, I am still really excited about Dragon Quest Builders 2, and can’t wait to get back to it. Seriously, it took me a month to get around to publishing this review, because every time I sat down to write about it, I was reminded of some project I was in the middle of and wanted to get back to. The morning I finish this review, I spent an hour building a really nice train station, with multiple platforms, and multiple tracks, from which I can take a gold steam train to my farm, my oasis resort, my snowy mountaintop spa castle, the multiplayer portal, or one train that just does a huge loop of my main island complete with a stop on a viewing platform miles out to sea.
If you like the idea of a narrative game with a really sweet character dynamic, some story structure, a reasonable amount of handholding to get you building a basic structure, but a lot of freedom and time saving features which evolve as you progress, Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a game that’s hard to go wrong with. It’s charming, creative, and relaxing as heck. Seriously, I just can’t stop making trains to places and collecting crops and cooking and seeing how my town of cats is doing and riding a tiger around and ahhhhh I’ll be right back, I need to go back to playing.