Dragon Quest Builders 2 is cute. Dragon Quest Builders 2 is simple. Dragon Quest Builders 2 is the game that I’ve been playing until 1 AM all week, completing “just one more task” before bed. If this is a measure of whether or not a game is good, then the game is excellent.
Following on from the first game of the series, Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a third-person crafting game that puts you in the shoes of a little Builder who is working through a ruined world trying to put things right again. It’s got more than a hint of a Minecraft vibe, and it asks you to travel around talking to people, doing quests, and building small townships where those people can live and those quests can have a major impact.
One of the reasons that I’ve been able to really tuck in to Builders 2 is that it is substantially more complex than the first game. I remember the distinct feeling I had when I realized that there was a second “world” to the original Builders: fatigue. While that game’s areas were distinct from each other, their basic core was so similar that your first couple hours were always basically grinding. The game simply didn’t have enough interlocked working parts to make me want to do that grind.
In contrast to that, I’ve spent a little shy of 40 hours in Builders 2 and I think that I’m somewhere around halfway through the game. I’ve experienced three different islands, and each of them has had enough novelty to them that I’ve gotten sucked into a task-completing vortex that I can’t quite shake. One minute I’m building a bath so that everyone in town can enjoy the warmth of a tub of water. The next I am building bunkhouses for my growing and appreciative population. Or I’m making a forge for a blacksmith or a kitchen for a chef. I learn the rooms, learn the desires of my people, and wow do they clap for me when I fulfill those desires. I took a break while writing this to go back and play for another hour. That’s where I’m at with this game. That’s the kind of hooks it has in me.
My compulsion to continue playing has something to do with some core principles at the heart of Dragon Quest Builders 2. On the one hand, it is fulfilling to do tasks that generate a benefit for someone else. It feels good to be nice. On the other hand, splitting objectives up into their smallest possible form as a way of accomplishing a big task is the most efficient and least stressful way to accomplish that larger project
Builders 2 excels at combining these two things. With a fairly limited set of verbs—build item, place item, destroy item—the game builds into this excellent crescendo of a dozen little denizens who put things in front of me to do for them. I am constantly chasing the warm and fuzzy feelings of these pseudo-Sims clapping and cheering for me because I grew an oak tree. I did a thing they needed, or didn’t need but ended up liking, and it made their life better. They’re into it.
It also means that I have a hard time cutting myself off from the game because it always feels like I am in the middle of a task. Each thing you do, after all, is part of the journey toward something. So I have to be honest when I say that, much like Crusader Kings II or Rise to Ruins, this is a game that can get away from me. I lose the hours.
I’ve talked about complexity, good feelings, and small tasks. Talking about the game in these abstracts is simply my attempt to pull all of these things apart to try to get some language for what Builders 2 is doing to and for me on a mechanical level. It is surprisingly hard to talk about these abstract ideas, because each little piece is like a fractal that contains a whole other subset of interlocked feelings and impulses inside of it. The story is in lock-step with the mechanical progression. The items you find and the items you need and the way you use them all follow through, buttery smooth, from each other. The game’s design is extremely elegant, and that elegance makes it difficult to split it apart into its various pieces.
The simple fact is that all of this constructing, demolishing, harvesting, and gathering is nested inside of a big story that asks big questions about the nature of creation and destruction and dwells on how communities come together and break apart. The first major hours-long mission centers on repairing the Deitree, a forest god or spirit thing that protects the denizens of the farming-focused Furrowfield Island, and that quest both teaches the player how farming works and takes long pauses to listen to other characters talk about their religious conversion away from the destruction cult called the Children of Hargon. It’s weird, and unlike many other crafting-oriented games, Builders 2 gives these other characters a lot of time to talk, breathe, and develop.
And so the full experience of Dragon Quest Builders 2 is getting small missions to make new kinds of food or explore new parts of a massive underground mine, and then doing those. Then you use the materials you’ve discovered to create new furniture or new types of room decoration. Then you build new rooms, or add onto rooms you already have, and make the denizens of your small town happier. You can spend that happiness to increase their abilities, and then they start cooking and building the things you ask them to do for you. It all spirals up, quickly, and goes from being Minecraft to being something like a combination of Dwarf Fortress and Animal Crossing. You start taking thirty minutes to make very, very fancy bathrooms or private apartments for each of your townspeople. Shit gets out of hand.
For all the thrill of it, there are also downsides. There have been times during my 40 hours where I have felt like I was simply treading water and rehearsing the cycle of fulfilling build requests and inventing new items for the sake of it. There have been truly cringeworthy story moments that hearken back to some of my problems with Dragon Quest XI.
The B-plot of the second island, Khrumbul-Dun, is particularly gross and weird: The town has a central bar operated by an older man and his daughter Babs. Everyone in the town, and I mean everyone, is constantly talking about how much they are attracted to this girl. The town metalworker, a much older man named Magrog, even says this during a discussion of who will win her heart: “That lass has looked up to me since she was a babbling baby. There’s only one fella in Babs’s eyes—Magrog, the mighty master of metalworking!” Eventually she puts on the traditional Dragon Quest bunny suit to get all these dudes hyped to mine metal and coal all day long. While the game walks a line around agency for her (she does, in fact, want to become a bar dancer like her mother), you also have to sit through so much leering text about her and her clothes and her shower and her private bedroom and everything else these miners want you to do.
So sometimes when you’re getting all this non-player character dialogue, it’s awesome because you’re learning about the world and the people who came before you and the reason that Builders are rare in this world. And other times it’s this vehicle for this legacy retrograde Dragon Quest content that I don’t care for even a little bit. But it is all part and parcel of this firehose of narrative that is strung together via small tasks that build into big mechanical and plot movements.
There is one character who is a more consistent part of your journey than the many NPCs that flitter through your stories and settlements, and it speaks to the complexity of Dragon Quest Builders 2 that I’ve made it all the way down to the end of this review without really talking about him, since he’s one of the selling points of this game. His name is Malroth, and he joins your self-named player character as both a constant ally in battle and as someone to help you smash and collect materials. I liked having him around because he cut my raw material gathering time in half, and he’s very solid in a scrap. Narratively, Malroth cannot create, he can only destroy, and from the outset there is both a loving alliance and a clear brooding weight between the player and the destroyer. He keeps trying to create things, and he keeps failing. It moves in predictable directions.
There’s also a multiplayer mode, but I did not get a chance to experiment with it during the review period because I was too invested in the Isle of Awakening, the game’s pseudo-sandbox where you can take all the things you learn on the various islands and bring them home to your own paradise. (That, too, is pretty cool.)
Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a big bundle of different mechanics and feelings. It rarely feels overwhelming, but it is a game that is definitely willing to give the player hundreds of potential items and directions and allow them to go wild with it. If you’re in it for plot, and you can stand the bad stuff, then it clicks right along. If you’re not, you can skip right through all of it without missing any of the basic beats. It’s a game that does not fundamentally change after hour two, but it does manage to take up as much time as you’ll put into it. Depending on how much you’re like me, that can get dangerous.
Overall, I am deeply impressed with how Builders 2 iterates on the original. I can’t think of anything that I thought the first game should have that isn’t here, and as soon as I am done writing this I am going to dive back into the game so that I can learn more recipes, experiment with more rooms, and generally just fall deeper into the vortex that is this weird game. There really is nothing else quite like it.