'Dragon Quest Builders 2' Review: Engaging Story & Massive World Keep the Builder's Block at Bay

8.5/10 - PS4

Sandbox games can be intimidating. You've likely stumbled across amazing palaces crafted by Sims 4 players, or recreations of entire fictional universes and real-world landmarks in Minecraft. Who has the time, inspiration and skill to make this stuff? (Obviously some people do, but I'm certainly not one of them.) The genre's endless possibilities can often lead to endless dithering.

Thankfully, that's not the case with Dragon Quest Builders 2. While there's quite a bit of hand-holding in the first hour or so, a smooth progression of bite-size tasks allows you to get a handle on the construction, crafting, exploration and combat mechanics quickly. Coming to the game as someone who loved DQXI but hadn't played the first Builders, I was suprised by the way in which story and exploration took center stage, and pleased to find the RPG elements go beyond the series' beloved Akira Toriyama aesthetics. While Builders 2's narrative doesn't have the narrative depth or breadth of a mainline installment in the series, its far more robust than I had expected, with a gaggle of kooky allies and companions to befriend along the way.

dragon quest builders 2 review
Fans of the 'Dragon Quest' series, particularly 'DQXI,' will find the same appealing merger of Toriyama’s art style with richly detailed, colorful 3D environments in 'Builders 2.' Square Enix

After designing your character (more on that later), you'll begin aboard a pirate ship crewed by down-on-their-luck demons known as the Children of Hargon. As is so often the case when you board a boat in a Japanese role-playing game, a terrible disaster results in you waking up on a deserted island. There, you meet the mysterious Malroth, who's clearly got nefarious ambitions. (He was a character in Dragon Quest II, but I won't spoil his story.) Together with your shady new buddy, you'll explore a number of islands, each with their own "theme," like mining or farming. You'll gather new materials and establish a base on each island, which eventually attracts people you'll need to house, feed and protect from the occasional monster horde. It's a big, diverse world, but you'll unlock options to fast travel, glide and swim to make navigating it a breeze. Straightforward hack-and-slash combat keeps exploration lively and interesting, but you can also toss one of your pals a sturdy blade and let them do all the work while you continue scavening for materials.

Fans of the Dragon Quest series, particularly DQXI, will find the same appealing merger of Toriyama's art style with richly detailed, colorful 3D environments on offer in Builders 2. It's all a bit more chibi and blocky this time around, but it's still a sunshiny, colorful world you'll want to spend time in.

Your customizable character features in a number of eye-grabbing cutscenes, but sadly the character creator itself offers very few options to create anything other than color variations on either the male or female templates. For instance, if you choose a female MC, you must have pigtails. This is the only hairstyle available, so girlish adorableness is mandatory. Of the 24 selectable skintones, most are white or peachy, the darkest being a rather orangey caramel. Sure, these aren't meant to be approximations of actual human beings, but it would have been nice to have more options to play around with, particularly when the core gameplay mechanics are otherwise so freeform and freewheeling. At a certain point in the game, you'll have the opportunity to change your character's gender and appearance, but I didn't bother. (I was having too much fun doing all the other stuff.)

dragon quest builders 2 wrigley
Wrigley, a worm who can mulch through soil to make it suitable for growing crops, is one of the oddball allies you'll make in 'Dragon Quest Builders 2.' Square Enix

The game doesn't include an English voiceover, though the localization bursts with personality and over-the-top accents. That said, there's no option for skipping or speeding up texts, which can make some of the game's early explanation and exposition feel like a bit of a slog. Builders 2 also seems to have borrowed liberally from the DQXI soundtrack, and shares that game's not-so-great tendency to make you listen to the same track far too many times.

That brings us to the million-dollar question: is the building fun? The answer to that is a resounding yes. There are loads of things you can make: from mud huts to imposing temples, expansive Versailles-esque gardens to humble cabbage plots. As you draw more villagers to your bases on each island, their affection for you will grow, allowing you to access more tools, crops, materials and decorative elements. It's the kind of system that could easily feel tedious or grindy, but it never does here. You'll gradually open up more of the world and expand your construction arsenal just playing around.

dragon quest builders 2 malroth
Pacing and progression are among the key strengths of 'Dragon Quest Builders 2,' as the game gradually expands on what you're capable of building and doing in a way that feels organic and relaxed, rather than intimidating. Square Enix

That's not to say the construction element is without flaws or niggling annoyances. While cursor placement was occasionally a bit inaccurate (for instance, causing me to accidentally place a block hovering in mid-air instead of on the ground), it's easy enough to undo your mistakes with a good hammer whallop. That said, I played on PS4 with a rather large TV, so it's easy to see how more ambitious building projects could become exasperating in handheld mode on Nintendo Switch.

Builders 2 first drew me in with its role-playing pedigree, but it truly got under my skin with its approachable and engaging sandbox mechanics. If you're an RPG fan looking for a pleasant way to bide your time until Fire Emblem: Three Houses drops at the end of July, this chilled-out yet distinctive genre mash-up will certainly keep you entertained.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 comes to PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch July 12.