Dragon Quest Builders charmed players this week with its merging of Minecraft style construction and JRPG questing. Reviews have been strong with a Metacritic rating of 83 for the PS4 version at this time. The game is no low budget shovel ware release, with a 40 hour quest line, multiple worlds to build in, and an unlockable sandbox mode that sticks a little closer to Minecraft’s open ended free-building. It still launched without too much fanfare, and little hype for the game before its pre-release Demo last month, but this isn’t the first time Dragon Quest has loosened its tie, and slipped into a more casual genre.
I’m talking of course about Dragon Quest Monsters. Arriving during the Pokemon craze, Monsters shamelessly exploits the public’s desire for tiny battling monsters but never loses its Dragon Quest heritage. You play Terry, a young boy whose sister is abducted by monsters in the night. You give chase, falling down a portal to a magic kingdom in a distant land. There the king promises to help you save her, but only if you win the massive monster fighting tournament that’s coming up.
From there the King gives you access to his monster ranch, and a series of portals that will take you to new and interesting realms. Along the way you’ll meet all the famous Dragon Quest beasties, and if you can charm them enough while beating the snot out of them, they just might join you on your quest. If you thought Pokemon was an advert for Stockholm Syndrome, you haven’t seen anything yet. Each world ends in a boss battle that gifts you a unique monster, you can then breed your them to create skill combinations and devastating hybrid soldiers.
The series has continued with the latest entry, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 3, on the DS, It has continued to evolve, developing its own mechanics and identity, but it’s remarkable how bold and well formed that initial fusion of genres was. As I played Dragon Quest Builders, I was reminded more and more of Monsters. The legendary hero who takes a different path to the series’ main protagonists, different worlds to save behind each portal, famous monsters put to new purposes. Both games take the mechanics of their competitors, but when they’re done with them, the result is so authentically true to Dragon Quest that it feels like they were meant to be together.
There have been other mergers, of course. Dragon Quest Heroes is the most recent, and represents the latest in a string of Dynasty Warriors crossovers. The Dragon Quest universe hosts this union but it is still, at its core, a Warriors game. Square-Enix themselves have tried this, lending their Mystery Dungeon format to Nintendo for a series of Pokemon crossovers. (Mystery Dungeon itself a Dragon Quest spin-off.) But there’s something unique about Monsters and Builders. These aren’t simple co-licensing agreements, but a reaction to market trends that takes new and exciting mechanics and responds by absorbing them entirely into the franchise and forming an almost perfect symbiosis.
People might go into Builders expecting Minecraft, but by the end of the first chapter, the game rejects that misconception. Crafting is here, but a lot of the genre’s sacred cow mechanics are tossed. Food and health are totally separate resources, the world isn’t randomly generated, and NPCs are frequent and verbose. Most importantly, you aren’t free to do as you please. Monsters attack regularly and your city needs to be ready, the people you meet have needs, quests need to be done before you can even dig crucial materials out of the ground. This is an old-school RPG to the core, what it takes from Minecraft is really nothing more than the structure of the world in which it is set.
Neither Builders or Monsters are going to go down as masterpieces. Instead they will be relegated to side-title status, funny knock-offs of more popular games that weren’t quite enough for either audience. There’s something criminally unfair about that. The more I play these games, Builders for the first time, and Monsters as an old and much loved favourite, the more I’m inspired by their transformative approach to their inspirations. Dragon Quest Builders isn’t Minecraft, and could never be, and yet takes liberally from it to make a beautiful and different kind of RPG. A kind that will be forgotten largely because it built the wrong kind of expectations.