Though the Minecraft formula has been iterated on to hell and back, Square Enix managed to offer up an interesting take on the sandbox classic with Dragon Quest Builders. All the blocky aesthetics and open-ended crafting were present and accounted for, but these things were all couched within a wider narrative arc that included plenty of RPG trappings from Square’s storied franchise. There were missteps, sure, but it was a solid blueprint for how a more focused gameplay experience could be hewn from the endlessness of a sandbox game, and now Square has decided to take another crack at the idea with Dragon Quest Builders 2. As many sequels should strive for, this release proves to be a more refined experience than its predecessor, fixing many of its flaws, adding in a wealth of quality of life improvements, and generally providing a stronger case for its own brand of sandbox style gameplay.

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Once you’ve gotten through the character creator, your avatar wakes up on a spooky ghost ship patrolled by monsters and skeletons who collectively call themselves the “Children of Hargon”. Though you’re technically their prisoner, it doesn’t take very long until you’re let out of your cell and taught the basics of your innate building and creating capabilities which, by the way, are extremely illegal. Nonetheless, the fiends find plenty of use for you in patching up their ship, but things quickly go awry when a storm destroys said vessel and your character washes up on the shore of the Isle of Awakening. Here, you come across a dark-haired, amnesiac man with aggressive tendencies named Malroth, who is evidently the resurrected form of the God of Destruction. Malroth isn’t much good at building things, but he hits like a truck, and together you two set out on an island hopping adventure to find more survivors and maybe uncover more of Malroth’s mysterious past.

It’s clear from the get-go that the story (taking place after Dragon Quest II) is merely used as a vehicle for conveying information to the player and teaching them the ins and outs of the nuanced crafting systems, but we were rather taken aback by the charming nature of how it’s presented. Each named character is memorable in their own way due to some stellar writing, and though you rarely feel invested in what happens next in the plot, you grow to care for the various people living in your villages by virtue of how human they feel, a bit similar to how one grows attached to their neighbours in an Animal Crossing game. For example, if a new character asks to join a base you’re setting up, literally the entire village will drop what they’re doing and walk over to greet the newcomer and offer to show them around. It’s moments like this, or when you mobilize your villagers to fend off an impending monster threat, that do a lot of work in giving the impression that your friends are real people fighting to make themselves a home in a hostile environment.

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The standard gameplay flow follows you hopping between islands, meeting local residents, setting up a base with them, and doing side quests to strengthen morale and gain new upgrades. For example, on the first island of Furrowfield, you start a farm with a woman named Rosie, and the first order of business is setting out to find a legendary worm who can turn the rotten soil into something that can be tilled. One thing leads to another, and you soon have over a dozen people living at and running your base, each of which has their own wants that ultimately will further the goal of building the farm and growing the mysterious magical “Deltree” that rests at its centre.

This feedback loop proves to be strongly compelling, if only because it offers up the perfect blend of light humour and diverse gameplay objectives. Sure, most quests ultimately boil down to going somewhere new and retrieving something that can then be used back at the base, but the Dragon Quest Builders 2 is constantly finding new ways to iterate on this simple idea and, more importantly, to show you the direct benefits of your actions. If someone asks you to go pick up tomato seeds in the bog, for example, you’re eventually rewarded with seeing your villagers enjoying the literal fruits of your labour over a laughter-filled breakfast table.

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The AI of your villagers in the previous game was passable, but they often felt like extra parts of the world that scarcely contributed to your progress. Here, Square Enix has bypassed that completely by stepping up their responsibilities, making each member of your community an active and helpful contributor. As you level up your base through completing quests and collecting “Gratitude” from the recipients, your villagers will learn increasingly more useful techniques and abilities for maintaining the base while you’re out in the overworld. For example, you can lay out a blueprint and – provided you’ve deposited the materials in a nearby chest – your villagers will put most of it together for you. Another example is how they’ll till, plant, water, harvest, and cook food, effectively automating the farming portion of gameplay. This degree of self-sufficiency comes as a huge relief, as you can now focus your attention and efforts on bigger things than managing your villagers.

Combat was one of the weaker aspects of Dragon Quest Builders, so Square Enix decided to remedy that by bringing in the team from Omega Force – best known for developing the Dynasty Warriors games – and charged them with overseeing the combat elements. The team’s expertise immediately shows, and though the combat system is still obviously not the focus, plenty of balancing and visual flair has gone a long way in making it more enjoyable. Every now and then, there comes a contingent of monsters (or even an enormous boss) which threatens to destroy everything you’ve built, so you and your villagers take up arms against them to defend. Much like their expanded use in domestic activities, your villagers feel like much more active participants in these battles now, and we found ourselves actually looking forward in places to kitting out the locals in new gear and seeing how they hold up against a few waves of fiends.

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Although much of the gameplay is focused on this loop of building things, getting new crafting recipes, and fighting enemies, we were rather surprised at how robust the exploration of the world itself tends to be. Each island is packed full of secret caves and interesting locales that practically beg you to come and loot them, and there’s even a series of discoverable mini-puzzles which call to mind the Korok Seed puzzles from Breath of the Wild. With these, you’re usually tasked with an altar that needs to be ‘completed’ in some way, whether that be unblocking a sluice gate, arranging flowers in symmetrical order, or destroying blocks that don’t seem to fit. These puzzles seldom are difficult enough to warrant more than a minute of your time, but they provide a nice break in the gameplay loop, and offer up medals that can later be redeemed for more unlockables.

Something that we feel bears mentioning is just how much effort Square Enix has put into making the various quality of life changes that address previous grievances some fans had. For example, there were plenty who weren’t a fan of how each island functionally had you start over from scratch, so now fast-travel – both on and between islands – has been implemented to make everything into part of a much more cohesive world. There are smaller things that have been addressed in the interest of streamlining, too, such as how weapons and tools no longer break after extensive use or how your sword is given a dedicated button independent of your other tools. These things all help to make Dragon Quest Builders 2 come off as a much more intentional and thought out game, and that’s not even including the wealth of cool extra tools and items that have been added, with our favourite being a special glider you can use.

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New to this sequel, too, is the inclusion of multiplayer – both locally and online – and it’s gradually introduced to the player as you progress the campaign. Early on, you’re given access to the social features, where you can take snapshots of builds and share them online with others, and if you like something you see, you can even go to visit it. We’re constantly amazed by the things that people come up with, of course, and we particularly appreciated how this aspect is smartly integrated into the few loading screens, where you can view and ‘like’ others’ builds while you wait.

Once you’ve progressed a bit further, you can then play with up to three other friends, but there are some caveats attached. For one thing, the campaign is limited to single player – meaning you can only play with friends on the Isle of Awakening – and for another, there’s no local split-screen multiplayer. You can play online, or you can play local wireless, where everyone has their own Switch. It’s rather disappointing that split screen isn’t featured, but the multiplayer is otherwise solid.

Along with this, there are some other issues that serve to drag down this otherwise excellent sandbox adventure. The most notable thing is the rather awkward camera, which frequently wrests control away from the player and obscures parts of the environment. For example, if you step into a cave, the camera will pull in close to your character, but if you then leave the cave and enter a field, it doesn’t always zoom back out to the normal distance. Another notable negative, albeit to a slightly lesser degree, is the relative awkwardness of the controls. You can toggle between a third-person or first-person perspective, and there’s always a helpful block outline to show where you’re placing an object, but there’s something about the controls that just feels off in a way that’s a bit jarring compared to how smooth the rest of the experience is. We’d like to reiterate that the controls are not awful by any stretch of the word, it’s just that you will always be aware of them; an effective control scheme is one that you barely notice you’re using, but that, unfortunately, isn’t true here.

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From a presentation perspective, Dragon Quest Builders 2 doesn’t iterate all that much on its predecessor, but it doesn’t really need to when that art style was so effective to begin with. The voxel-based environments have a simplistic charm to them that works well with the distinctive character design of the Dragon Quest characters, and we were particularly impressed by the range of expressions that the villagers can display. There aren’t strictly any ‘wow’ moments to be found when exploring the different biomes and vistas each island offers, but the way in which these environments are woven together to feel like cohesive ecosystems is impressive, to say the least. Also, perhaps most importantly, you can pet the dogs in this game.

Unfortunately, the enjoyable visuals are hamstrung by the subpar performance, which perhaps explains the lack of local co-op. For much of the time, Dragon Quest Builders 2 sticks to a solid 30 FPS, but if you run too fast in the overworld or there are too many moving parts on screen at once, that number drops noticeably. It never affects the gameplay experience too much, but you’re always aware when a drop occurs and you can practically hear the chugging going on behind the scenes. Those of you that are bothered by this sort of thing may want to wait for an optimization patch or two to go out, but the lacklustre performance only proves to be a minor annoyance in an otherwise fun game.

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