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.