Square Enix took one of their most beloved franchises in a whole new direction – and nailed it.
Minecraft is not an easy act to follow. Many have tried, many have failed – most notably perhaps the Everquest spin-off, Landmark, now languishing with a "mostly negative" rating on Steam. More successful was Terraria, which carved its own niche in the sandbox genre, slipping out from under Minecraft's shadow by existing in a completely different dimension, literally – it was in 2D. So when Square Enix – makers of Final Fantasy – decided to take a crack at the new "builder" genre with Dragon Quest Builders, many were skeptical, noting that there are precious few examples of Japanese game developers successfully adapting Western game designs. We're all still waiting for the first great Japanese first-person shooter.
Dragon Quest Builders released this October in the US and is currently enjoying an 83% rating on review aggregator site Metacritic, matching stablemate, Final Fantasy XIII. It's a critical success and a bracing, fully-formed game. It's even more surprising that, considering its chunky aesthetic, Builders is a game that plays less like either Minecraft or Dragon Quest (the classic RPG series that inspired it), and more like The Legend of Zelda, with large, explorable worlds enhanced by building and crafting. A game like this could have ended up a half-baked jack-of-all-trades, and yet is one of Square Enix's biggest surprises in years. At launch in Japan (on PS Vita, PS3, and PS4 – only the Vita and PS4 versions are available in North America) it sold over 700,000 copies, and if quality is any yardstick, it'll meet with similar success in the West.
Dragon Quest Builders succeeds as a concept mainly because it isn't trying to simply ape Minecraft. The focus for the Builders development team was to take Dragon Quest's iconic elements (slimes, Akira Toriyama's character designs, an inviting and colorful fantasy setting) and design a pliable world around the mythology of the very first Dragon Quest game – the 1986 blockbuster hit for the Nintendo Entertainment System that set a template for the RPG genre that still resonates today.
"This is a game that anyone could play without hesitation, where you can naturally master crafting as you play, " says Noriyoshi Fujimoto, Builders' producer. "There is a solid story and world, in which the buildings you created can be used to make progress. What you build is not the end; the villagers react to it and make use of it as well."
Drawing instant comparisons to Minecraft presented its own challenges, though, and Fujimoto will freely admit that Western games do certain things better. Instead of simply applying the Dragon Quest brand onto a Minecraft clone (in Japan, it's basically a license to print money), the team focused on making something that would work in its own right. While clearly influenced by Western open-world games, Fujimoto's team was careful to play to their strengths – RPGs and action games. "Unlike in the old days, we can now play international titles more easily," he says. "I think Western studios are better at open-world games, presenting the realism and detail and to give more freedom within the game."
A self-professed fan of Ubisoft's best-selling Assassin's Creed series – which are known for their increasingly vast environments – Fujimoto took note of some of the key mechanics in Western-developed open-world games, particularly the cause-and-effect dynamics where every action has real consequence. What the team took from their observations of Assassin's Creed was to ensure that players could experience a similar level of freedom, while offering all of the necessary tools and materials in Builders' sandbox to let players build whatever they desired.
Although you are initially given various templates to follow, architecturally-speaking you're free to channel your inner Frank Lloyd Wright.
This meant changing things up and moving away from Dragon Quest's traditional and strategic turn-based style. "We decided to forgo the classic command-based battle because we felt the action-style matched the game better," Fujimoto says. While Dragon Quest fans will enjoy the nods to the original game, Builders was designed with a much broader audience in mind.
In Builders, the player is tasked with rebuilding the world of Alefgard, which was destroyed by the Dragonlord at the end of the first Dragon Quest. This is where Builders most closely mirrors the game style of games like Minecraft and Terraria. Fujimoto quickly realized how their game could improve on what they perceived as Minecraft's fundamental shortcoming. "Kazuya Niinou, the development director, felt that the freedom of building things in the sandbox genre was very interesting," Fujimoto says, but points out that the lack of a focused narrative disappointed those players looking for a more traditional, plot-driven game. "Through trial and error," he continues, "we came up with the idea of putting it together with the story-driven RPG style of Dragon Quest."
Planting your Banner of Hope in the center of town causes NPCs to migrate to your location, triggering a wave of quests and advice to propel you through the game's narrative arc. Once your objectives are clear you're free to go about gathering materials however you choose, ultimately using them to rebuild your town. Although you are initially given various templates to follow, architecturally-speaking you're free to channel your inner Frank Lloyd Wright.
Like The Legend Of Zelda, Builders offers vast environments suited for exploration, viewed in third person, with enemies populating each of the game's four worlds in plain sight. Players can craft more powerful weapons and armor over time to compensate for each successive area's more challenging encounters, but the primary source of satisfaction is gained simply through exploring, building, and crafting, and reshaping the world to your liking. "Hunting for treasure is fun, of course, but you can also enjoy the sense of achievement after completing a tunnel, or rearranging the tunnel to make it magnificent," Fujimoto says. Magnificent is right. Dragon Quest Builders is that rare game that may at first glance look like Minecraft, but on the strength of its own merits, escapes its predecessor's shadow completely.