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How - and why - Dragon Quest Builders 2 on Switch runs so badly with user-made levels

While the story mode is just fine.

Is Dragon Quest Builders 2 the worst performing game on Switch? And if so, why? Let's take a step back from those questions for a second. Here we have a truly beautiful game that combines the block-building mechanics of Minecraft with the colourful aesthetics and lore of Dragon Quest. It's a game that oozes quality in so many ways, offering a full-bodied RPG campaign to follow through and extensive tools to build and even share worlds online. This is a wonderful game; full of the charm that defines director Yuji Hori's other works, complete with a story that distances distance from its block-based inspiration.

Developer Omega Force goes to town in its engine-work too. The anime style is a focus, and it's propelled by beautiful water shaders and caustic effects from the start. We get proper, real-time shadows cast by characters as the sun travels its arc, from dawn to dusk. Atmospheric cloud scattering features too, plus god rays streaking past cliffs at sun-down. Not to mention the material-work is built to blend naturally with the lighting. Even as rudimentary blocks, every object has a brilliant glow, and especially in user-made worlds, it creates a beautiful aesthetic.

But yes, performance is an issue on PlayStation 4, but in particular on Switch. In extreme cases, Nintendo's hybrid console finds itself lurching beneath 10 frames per second while playing online user-made creations. Certain content pushes the game engine to extraordinary lengths - way past Omega Force's objectives for the main story.

Story content runs unlocked, typically in a 20-40fps - not ideal, but playable. The game kicks off with fetch quests; farming, collecting resources, and building structures from blueprints. You travel between islands and run errands for each character you meet. It's charming and pretty straightforward for Switch to tackle. Crucially, it veers away from too much content that may cause performance issues - 25fps is indicative of the game's lower bounds. If you focus just on this part of the experience, you're set for a reasonably smooth ride.

Running taxing user-made content, you really have to see Dragon Quest Builders 2 to believe it. So we made a video on the topic.

Switch does OK here. V-sync is engaged, though the downside is there's really no frame-rate cap at all, leaving it to wander up and down the graph as it pleases. It's a hangover from the PS4 version, which targets and hold 60fps in campaign. For Switch it's far more variable, and ideally that frame-rate should have been capped to 30fps, or an optional toggle included. Dragon Quest Builders 2 has much more to show in the tools it offers the players though. The campaign revolves around open-field gameplay where built-up cities aren't usual, at least in the first half. The other, major part of the package is creating and sharing your worlds online - and this is where the problem lies.

You've got to applaud the commitment that goes into the user-made content that's out there to sample. Giant castles and candy-themed cities are just the tip of the iceberg: every day the board updates with a new top user-made list. With a simple click of the right stick, you download a level, and gawk at someone else's wild invention. It's easily the most exciting part of the game - but the complexity of this content is just too much for the Switch hardware to handle.

Under 20fps? Yes. Under 10fps? Also possible depending on the map. Our tools have logged an absolute minimum of just 7fps, rendering a gorgeous slideshow. The design is incredible, from what you can make out in motion. Dense with flower arrangements, glass windows and opaque water blocks, it's overload for the system. It's also far beyond what the developer itself includes in the main story. All of that combines to hammer the Switch to the lowest, sustained frame-rate I've seen on console in many, many years, and, moving to the first-person view only makes the stuttering stick out all the more.

As a way to benchmark Switch, it's remarkable. Putting the frame-rate at the mercy of user-made creations isn't a new phenomenon - Minecraft has blazed that trail already. What's surprising in this case is that there are no limits at an engine level, to avoid a calamity in performance. So, for example, there's no way to adjust the in-game settings for level of detail, which is a problem. Every block is rendered far into the distance without much cutback. Apart from a distant fog, Switch's limits aren't catered for, and with the density built up as it is, it's no wonder that performance is so bad.

PlayStation 4 Pro
Image quality is identical between Switch and the far higher-spec PS4 Pro - at a native 1920x1080 apiece.
PlayStation 4 Pro
Shadow draw distance is better on PS4 Pro, but the actual terrain LODs are identical.
PlayStation 4 Pro
Higher quality shadows also feature on Pro, but it's a small point. Switch inherits pretty much the entire visual package from a far more powerful machine, with repercussions on frame-rate.
Switch (Docked)
Switch (Portable)
Docked versus portable play on Switch reveals very little difference, besides a move to a native 1280x720 on Switch while handheld.

We tested some of the most taxing content in portable mode, and there's only a minor variance in frame-rate, but the basic reading is very close - in the 10-20fps range. Resolution drops from native 1080p docked to 720p in the handheld configuration, with no changes in visual design. The parity in performance here does suggest that level complexity is the majority bottleneck in both configurations - not surprising when CPU clocks remain the same in both modes. Resolution doesn't seem to be the problem then - it's the world density that causes these profound issues.

For perspective, it's worth taking a glance at the best case scenario on console. PS4 Pro runs the game at a near faultless 60fps during the main story. There are a few drops into the 50s from time to time, but honestly, it's a breath of fresh air after Switch's output on user levels and the turnout is very solid overall. Looking at the custom levels though, it seems even the Pro has some difficulties. In that case it starts to tumble down to around the 30fps line - all of which goes to show the mountain Switch has to climb on a mobile chipset. In the worst case, PS4 Pro has a similar crisis to Switch, though not to the same extent. The high teens is where it can drop to - around 17fps. The complexity of these levels isn't wildly different to those on Switch, but clearly it's a powerful workout for the system. Arguably, this could go down as one of the most strenuous games to hit PS4 Pro as well.

There's the sense here that Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a game principally designed for the more powerful PlayStation 4, and perhaps the Switch conversion is too close - to the detriment of overall performance. Switch offers almost the entirety of the visual feature set used on PS4 and PS4 Pro, with little in the way of cutbacks.

There are a handful of differences. Firstly, shadow draw distance and small objects like rocks and trees are rendered much further away on Pro. It means that you get a little more density on extreme range vistas, but in practice, I genuinely didn't notice much difference during play. There are also higher quality - sharper - shadows on PS4 and Pro, while Switch has a softer, more diffused look. Again it never sticks out as a negative while playing on Switch, and the game's visuals are essentially a match. Minecraft on Switch worked around this by simply fading in blocks closer to the camera, reducing visual complexity but keeping the load manageable for the Nintendo hardware. What we're left with is a seemingly no-compromise edition in terms of world scale, but it pays the price for it dearly. Small tweaks in shadows and object visibility don't cut it - it needs more to help it along.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a fascinating piece of software. It's rare that developers give us the tools to push a system this hard. What we also need however, in the spirit of being given this absolute freedom, is an engine robust enough to maintain performance, or a settings menu to scale the complexity of the rendering. Ultimately, the game is a genuine delight in what it's trying to achieve, and to be fair, Omega Force does tailor the main story to work well enough on each system - especially PS4 Pro at 60fps. The user-creation side is a significant attraction however, and without curation, it gives Switch the lowest, most extreme levels of performance we've seen - with no way to improve matters. There's a lot to love here, but the user-made levels are both the highlight and the nadir of this game for me.

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About the Author
Thomas Morgan avatar

Thomas Morgan

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

32-bit era nostalgic and gadget enthusiast Tom has been writing for Eurogamer and Digital Foundry since 2011. His favourite games include Gitaroo Man, F-Zero GX and StarCraft 2.

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