If Midland can bring back cheatin’ songs, can Dragon Quest help bring back RPGs?
2018 wasn’t a terrible year for Nintendo games, but I found it to be surprisingly disappointing, with few titles catching my attention (I didn’t even buy Super Smash Bros. Ultimate) and some that did landed with a thud (Octopath Traveler left me hanging at the very end, and Pokémon Let’s Go! Eevee felt like a slapdash money grab). This bleak landscape opened the door for Dragon Quest Builders, a Minecraft/DQ mashup with an unexpectedly good story, to swoop in and claim my award for the best game of the year.
This year, Nintendo has re-established its dominance (in my mind, at least) by rolling out some of my favorite franchises from years past, most notably Super Mario Maker and an eventual mainline Pokémon release. Dragon Quest, however, is not going away quietly: Dragon Quest XI S is coming to Switch next month, the franchise’s Hero is the latest combatant to join SSBU, and most importantly, Dragon Quest Builders 2 has joined its predecessor on Nintendo hardware. I was really excited about trying out this game, but I had to wonder: How could they iterate on the RPG/sandbox concept to set DQB2 apart?
The answer boils down to a single word: More.
- More Characters: To me, the most important aspect of any RPG is the character design: Are they interesting, is there characterization consistent, do they fill their roles well, is their dialogue sharp, etc. I’m happy to report that DQB2 delivers all on counts: I love the characters I’ve met thus far, from Malroth’s “smite now, ask questions later” attitude (not to mention the frequent foreshadowing of how he might actually be the main enemy of the game) to Bonanzo’s misplaced confidence and ugly beard to Britney’s out-of-place-but-still-endearing reliance on 2010s teenage lingo. The “silent” hero still has the same simple, direct speaking style as in the orignal (even if you only hear it through NPCs repeating the line), and even monsters are given protagonist roles and memorable personalities (worms and bodkins and fat rats, oh my!). The best part is that some of them will now follow you to your home base, so you’re not abandoning your favorite characters after every chapter.
- More Life: Even more importantly, in DQB2 NPCs do more than just wander aimlessly around your towns and occasionally provide an extra sword arm. Each villager now fills a certain role, whether it be farming, preparing food, gathering materials, or even assisting the Hero with specific building tasks. Instead of simply loitering (which they will still do if they have nothing better to do), they try to follow a specific routine: Wake up, eat, use the bathroom (don’t laugh; the developers decided to make this an important mechanic for reasons I will never understand), do their work, eat again, go again, bathe, sleep, and repeat ad infinitum. It’s nice to have other residents pull their weight for a change, especially when you’re dealing with more-complex tasks yourself.
- More-complex Tasks: You’re still crafting the usual items and building the usual structures in DQB2, but the size of the projects ramps up in a hurry: By the time you leave Furrowfield (which is only the second island in the game), you’ll have built a massive, multi-level structure using hundreds of blocks (and may Iwata have mercy on your soul if you forgot to place something on the bottom level like I did). At this size, the game’s blueprint mechanics are exposed as woefully inadequate: You can’t fully rotate the structure, you can’t hide layers to see what might be missing underneath them, and after a while, you’re just placing blocks randomly hoping that one of them gives you the visual cue that it was the right one. This is why NPC help is so crucial: On big projects, they do a lot of the legwork so you don’t get bogged down in the details (…unless you don’t talk to the right people and start the right quests, which is why I ended up having to build the base of said structure solo). The results are impressive, but the process can be incredibly painful if you don’t get it right.
- More Space: Towns are still restrictively small in DQB2, but the addition of the Isle of Awakening is a welcome change because you get a whole massive land mass to mold in your image! If your dream is to build a scale model of Fenway Park inside the game, you finally have you chance. 🙂
- More Time: The storyline was a surprising strength in DQB, and while DQB2 has maintained that strength thus far in my playthrough, the Furrowfield chapter was a lot longer than I expected. Part of this is a good thing: Tasks were more numerous, tales were more in-depth, and and building tasks were larger (as mentioned above). Part of it, however, was because some new real-time mechanics ended up wasting more time than needed: Instead of just crafting food, for example, you have to place it on a fire and stand around waiting for it to cook. (Normally I play video games while waiting for things to bake, but what do I do if I’m waiting for things to bake inside a video game? Break out my 3DS and play Miitopia?) Farming suffers from a similar issue, although at least your NPCs will handle crop maintenance. The bottom line is that for better or worse, you should expect to spend a lot more time with DQB2 than you did with DQB.
- More Hand-Holding: This game may appear to be open-world, but its progression is very linear: For most quests, you’re told what to do, where to go, and who to talk to along the way for further instructions. Goal-driven players like myself don’t end up doing much exploring because there’s always something to do and somewhere to be (it’s a little too close to reality, to be honest). The game will wait patiently for you if you decide to explore, but certain events (like spoilspore regeneration during the Ill Wind) will continuously punish you if you ignore them. Despite this, however, I’ve already found myself turning to Google on occasion because I have no idea why things aren’t happening the way they should be (something I had to do a fair amount in DQB, but not this early in the game).
- More…of the Same? This mostly applies to combat, which hasn’t changed from the original game. The one major addition is Malroth, who has tons of health as does twice the damage that your character could ever think of doing, which helps in larger fights and boss battle because it frees you up a bit to think more about strategy.
- More Technical Limitations: All of this extra functionality comes at a cost when running on the Switch, but I haven’t seen much of one thus far. (When things get busy on the screen, there’s a noticeable delay in between placing a block and seeing it appear, but it’s not a deal-breaker by any means.) The bigger issue is trying to put together a larger project while playing in portable or tabletop mode, as you’re forever squinting at the screen to try and see what pieces need to go where. The game can be played in any mode, but I recommend using a bigger screen (and turning up the screen brightness!) for some of the more-involved structures.
- More Online Features: Online has apparently been improved with in-game snap-shot sharing and portals for multiplayer building, but using the game’s online features requires creating a separate Square Enix account, so I didn’t bother exploring them (I’ve got enough throwaway accounts as it is, and they didn’t seem terribly compelling in the first place).
Overall, I find Dragon Quest Builders 2 to be just as satisfying as Dragon Quest Builders, which means two things:
- If you enjoyed DQB as much as I did (and aren’t as drawn in by Super Mario Maker 2 as you expected), then this game is a worthwhile purchase.
- If you got your fill of the sandbox/RPG fusion gameplay from DQB and aren’t looking to revisit it, you’re free to let this one go by.
If you’re completely new to the DQB series, however, I wholeheartedly recommend giving DQB2 a shot. The mechanics are engaging and rewarding, the stories are more involved than you might think, and the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny at times. Whether you’re a creator or a destroyer, there’s something for you to enjoy in DQB2.