This, with any luck, will be the year of Dragon Quest in the west. Details on Dragon Quest 11's localisation are still nowhere to be seen - it's due at some point in 2018, the last we heard - and when that occasion finally comes it'll mark the series' first all-new mainline release over here since 2009's exceptional Dragon Quest 9. Before all that, though, there's the chance to get reacquainted with Dragon Quest Builders, one of the series' many spin-offs, when it comes to the Switch later this week, and having spent a couple of dozen hours in this new version's company the past few weeks I strongly recommend that you do.
You might be familiar with Dragon Quest Builders' core concept - indeed, you may well be familiar with much more seeing how the game initially released back in 2016 on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita - and it's all told in one easy to parse statement. This is, quite simply, Dragon Quest meets Minecraft, with an element of free-form construction draped lightly over the series' sturdy JRPG frame.
That doesn't really tell the half of it, nor does it get to the essence of what makes Dragon Quest Builders special. In truth it's a pretty lacklustre Minecraft clone - the choice of a third person viewpoint can make things overly fiddly, and this isn't the canvas you want if you're looking to create your own faithful tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Instead, Dragon Quest Builders plays loosely and lightly with the concept, tying it together with a sense of purpose that's perhaps lacking in other, more open-ended games, and using it to embellish the kind of sedate, seductively charming adventure that Square Enix's series is known for. It works a treat, and the result, above all, is an exceptional Dragon Quest game. It's quick to get to the core of what makes this series such an enduring classic.
It can all appear so very slight - it's hard to imagine, at first, that something that on first sight can seem so insubstantial could harbour the potential to consume hours by the dozen - but maybe that's also part of the appeal. JRPGs can be as famous for their convolutions as anything else, and Dragon Quest has done well to keep things relatively simple. Things are kept straightforward, and that simply allows the details to flourish.
Dragon Quest games are as gentle as a breeze though after a few hours they hit as hard as a tornado. It's all part of the gentle escalation, and Builders is no different really in that regard; your abilities are slowly acquired, the town that first serves as your base starting out as a scuffle of dilapidated dwellings that you piece together with mud and earth before gaining access to more polished stone. There's a fairly rigid structure in place here - much more rigid than the likes of Minecraft, anyway - with villagers placing requests to be fulfilled in turn, but it imposes an order on the otherwise chaotic sandbox genre.
It's a decent gateway, then, to both Dragon Quest and to the likes of Minecraft for slightly stuffier older players like myself who like a bit more structure to things. What's really special about Dragon Quest Builders, though, is how both parts play inform each other until you've got one splendid whole. Heading out to the wilds to mine for resources and there's the sense of adventure, swept gently along by Koichi Sugiyama's soundtrack. In the characters, you'll find that sense of wild-eyed wonder so beautifully captured in Akira Toriyama's designs. And now you're free to repurpose that world as you see fit.
Indeed, Builders' masterstroke may be in how it not only uses the series' key tropes as a foundation but explicitly takes components from the very first Dragon Quest in its designs. The map, told in chunky blocks in service to its building mechanic, is a throwback to the 1989 NES game in more than its aesthetic; there are key roles for locations such as the town of Cantlin as well as the golem that guards its gates, while the world map itself has its own similarities and there's a knowing familiarity to the sweetly melancholy tale that you slowly uncover. It's a pun told through Dragon Quest Builders' grander design; a game that quite literally builds upon the original.
So yes, Dragon Quest Builders is an exquisite game, and one that shines brilliantly on the Switch (as well it might, seeing how the 2016 original straddled both PS4 and Vita - you can find a little more about how this particular port holds up in Digital Foundry's own investigation). More importantly, it's a chance to get acquainted with one of gaming's great series at what should be a key time for Dragon Quest in the west. Now, Square Enix, about that Dragon Quest 11 release date...