Column

Why I Like Dragon Quest Builders 2 So Dang Much: An Investigation

by Jeff Marchiafava on Jul 26, 2019 at 03:09 PM

Staying on top of games is especially hard in 2019. The pace of new releases and the ballooning length of triple-A titles has turned my pile of shame into a turbo-powered treadmill I can’t possibly keep up with. Even as we speak type/read, I’ve got Deacon St. John (srsly that name tho) waiting patiently in the freaker apocalypse for me to come back. I can’t imagine all the delightfully stupid creations Dreams offers now, and I haven’t even started Judgment, which promises to suck up at least 30 hours of my time on Mahjong alone! With all of these massive games to play and even more to come, I can’t possibly justify dinking around in a goofy little game like Dragon Quest Builders 2. Yet here we are.

I’ve never quite been able to identify why some games make me want to wrap myself up in them like a warm fuzzy blanket while forsaking all professional and familial responsibilities. Quality alone isn’t an accurate indicator; there are plenty of great games that I nevertheless fall off of and have a hard time going back to. Just ask Kassandra – if you can find whatever Greek island I marooned her on. Being outstanding also doesn’t guarantee I’ll think about them incessantly – I may have platinumed Spider-Man in a week, but I haven’t given the nerdy web-head a spare thought since then.

My newest obsession with Dragon Quest Builders 2 really pounds home the fact that I have no idea why some games grab me while others don’t, so I figured I’d get to the bottom of the mystery in the most sensible way possible: by launching an expansive and time-consuming independent investigation. Seeing as how I’m the most objectively objective person I know, I naturally put myself in charge of the proceeding.

The plan: investigate every aspect of Dragon Quest Builders 2 that could potentially be influencing my enjoyment of the game, then objectively weigh how much fun each area contributes, which any good video game reviewer already does anyway. Hopefully by the time we wrap things up we’ll have a clear understanding of what makes a game endlessly replayable to me, which publishers can use as a blueprint for all their future game development – because if I like it, surely everyone else will as well. Let’s begin!

Procedural note: Because Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a long and cumbersome game title, I will heretofore refer to it simply as DQB. I trust you will understand that DQB is not referring to the original Dragon Quest Builders, or Dairy Queen Blizzards for that matter – although if you want to pause right now and go get a Blizzard to eat while you read this report, I’ll allow it. Back? Let’s continue.

Area of Investigation #1: The Dragon Quest Theme

I’ve never played a Dragon Quest game and I know nothing about the series other than that it’s a JRPG and it has slimes – which may or may not be related to Puyo-Puyos. Also, those bats up there are from Pokémon, right? And the hairstyles are straight out of Dragonball? It’s hard to say which derivative crap originated from which series, but Dragon Quest clearly must be influential by virtue of the fact that people still won’t shut up about it. Seriously, you can stop any time!

My time with DQB has offered me a few glimpses into why people like Dragon Quest so much, which has admittedly been an enjoyable revelation (not to mention the slimes wearing seashells like hats are totally adorable). At the end of the day, however, this could’ve been any other storied JRPG franchise I know nothing about, and I’d still be enjoying it just as much.
Overall Impact: Negligible.

Area of Investigation #2: The Opening Hours

With gaming time at a premium, it’s important for a title to hook me in its opening hours of play; a good first impression can keep me coming back for the long haul. This was not the case with DQB. My first night with the game I fell asleep almost immediately; when I woke up, my character was walking endlessly into a wall while starving to death, which I think was one of Dante’s circles of hell.

I fared only marginally better on the second night; after a few head dips, I at least had the foresight to shut down my PS4 before zonking out completely, controller still in hand. On the THIRD night, I slowly shuffled my character off a cliff before getting a second wind. Like a traditional JRPG, DQB takes a dozen or so hours before you’re past the hand-holdy tutorials and forced monologues. I can’t put the game down now, but it certainly wasn’t because of DQB’s start, which I only hazily remember like a fever dream (I think I was some kind of masochistic sex slave on a ship full of skeletons?).
Overall Impact: A deterrent, if anything.

Area of Investigation #3: The Minecraft Connection

I’m a big fan of Minecraft, so the prospect of building stuff out of blocks definitely got me in DQB’s door. Even better, the textures on said blocks don’t look like a retro cat puked all over them – DQB has the visual polish and animation of an actual game, not a scrappy indie title Microsoft’s $2 billion flagship franchise?

Anywho, much of Minecraft’s formula is present in DQB and works exactly as you’d expect: you break blocks, you pick up their scattered remains, and then plonk them down however you see fit. And guess what? It still works! Being able to bring your imagination to life one block at a time is still a huge joy. Want to build a big Lego-esque castle? Go for it! Prefer a hobbit home in the side of that grassy hill? You be you! A giant phallus tower that extends into the heavens? Sure … but maybe set your game mode to private.
Overall Impact: Substantial.

Area of Investigation #4: Harvest Moon Inspiration Copying

The ability to farm in DQB is another gameplay aspect that instantly piqued my curiosity. Here too the game sticks to a familiar script: You till the land, plant some seeds, do some watering, then wait for them to grow. Once they’re ready for picking, you can cook them into various recipes. Aside from some raspberry bushes I begrudgingly attend to because they provide an unlimited supply of free fruit, these are activities I would never enjoy doing in real life. But I can’t get enough of it in video game form! Stardew Valley had a similar hold on me a few years back, so clearly virtual crop management is a major component in sustaining my attention? I’m weird.
Overall Impact: Significant for some reason.   

Area of Investigation #5: Automating The Boring Crap

DQB does have one important difference from Harvest Moon: A lot of the boring tasks you need to perform are automated. Some are taken care of from the get go – of that previously mentioned till-plant-water-wait-reap routine, the tilling and watering are handled exclusively by the people living in your town, letting you focus on the layout of your fields and gathering the final product (i.e., the fun part).

Other aspects become automated once you get a feeling for how mundane they are. Cooking enough food for a camp full of hungry fieldworkers and then doling it out is a slow and frustrating affair. However, unlike, oh I don’t know, Breath of the Wild, you only have to do the cooking for a few hours before someone else steps up and takes the job over for you. It’s kind of like finishing a particularly difficult assignment at work and then having your boss come over and say, “Great job – from now on Kyle will do that crap for you.” You know, assuming your place of work has a Kyle.

[Editor's note: I wrote that joke as a general dig on Kyle, but during the proofreading process he pointed out this is exactly what happened with the Game Informer newsletter, which makes it 200 percent funnier. On a side note, you can subscribe to Game Informer's weekly newsletter right here!]

Either way, having NPCs automate certain tasks fixes the scaling problem of most farming games. Instead of spending 90 percent of every in-game day doing boring but necessary busywork, and then trying to squeak something fun in right before bed, you can spend the whole day focusing on the things you actually want to do. Man, if only real life was like that!
Overall Impact: Definitely helps.

Area of Investigation #6: Character Development

I was NOT expecting much from the characters in DQB, and the cast so far has more or less met those apathetic expectations. DQB is operating on a forgettable-to-annoying personality spectrum, and because characters only coo and grunt during conversations, the most distinguishing factor between them ends up being their text-based accents. To put it thuthincthly, no oneth winning any awardth for Dragon Queth’th Builderth characterth.

And yet I kinda like them for some reason? Here’s the thing: Unlike a Harvest Moon game where you randomly show up in a town (probably with amnesia) and have mostly meaningless conversations with the morons who live there, you’re actually building your own town in DQB – those morons are your morons, because you attracted them with your hard work. And as dumb as their accents may be, everyone in DQB is incredibly helpful, happily taking on all those awful chores you don’t want to waste your time with. The fact that everyone is hopelessly upbeat and hokey doesn’t hurt either – Furrowfield farm is a place I actually wouldn’t mind living in, even if the equivalent in the real world would definitely be a creepy cult that ends in an armed standoff with the government.
Overall Impact: Minimal at first, but they grow on ya.

Area of Investigation #7: Freedom To Screw Off

Sandbox games are called sandbox games for a reason – kids aren’t sticking to hard schedules or striving for completionist runs when they’re burying action figures and dumping pails of sand over each other’s heads. The ability to wander off and do something dumb isn’t just a life tenet for me – it’s also a major selling point in video games.

DQB facilitates this in two ways. Not only does the open world allow you to build stuff wherever you want (or smash whatever you come across), but as previously mentioned, the automation actually gives you the time to do it without making you feel like you’re letting everyone down by not doing your chores. The freedom to screw off can be a double-edged sword, however (just ask the dumb baby I was supposed to be watching in Mahjong Simulator Yakuza), which we’ll get to in a jiffy.
Overall Impact: It keeps me coming back – whether I’m progressing or not!

Area of Investigation #8: Guided Play

This is where DBQ really shines. Yes, you can screw off at any time, and yes, you can build whatever you want. However, the game gives you just enough guidance – and plenty of follow-up rewards – to keep you moving in the right direction. Even dumb side quests often lead to you discovering new recipes or ply you with helpful items, and leveling up your whole town (which is no small feat) results in a bounty of new crafting options. Building blueprints also straddle a fine line between fostering your creativity and painting within the lines to make something you probably wouldn’t have otherwise, like a bathhouse for your tired, stinky workers. Best of all, your NPCs actually use the buildings and rooms you create, and shower you with gratitude (and experience hearts) for everything you do. It’s like living in a town full of Mr. Rogerses.
Overall Impact: LOVE IT.  

Area of Investigation #9: Baboons Named Badboons

I’m not sure what else I can really add here – DQB features ape-like enemies called badboons. I will never stop playing this game now.
Overall Impact: Bigger than a badboon’s bright blue ass.

Area of Investigation #10: An Easygoing Economy

Games with a heavy focus on crafting can be a real pain depending on how their economies are balanced, sometimes leaving you with the constant need to scrounge up more resources for the stuff you want to build. Not so in DQB – at least in the dozen-plus hours I’ve played so far. Not only are basic resources plentiful, but even the nice-looking cosmetic building blocks come at a reasonable cost. Want to build your farming flop house out of some nice softwood instead of ugly mud bricks? You’ll get 10 wall blocks for every chunk of wood you turn in. Let’s see you build an entire house out of a single tree in the real world! Not counting treehouses, that is...

Your inventory is also wonderfully easygoing – after a few hours of having to manage the items you’re carrying around with you, a character just up and gives you a magic bag that can hold…everything. Anything you can pick up just gets jammed straight in your sack, and will be there whenever you need it.
Overall Impact: Why don’t all crafting games do this?! Err, I mean substantial.

Area of Investigation #11: Combat

I’m not sure what combat is like in a traditional Dragon Quest game – I’m assuming it’s some boring turn-based crap with a lot of blue and white menus. DQB focuses on hack-and-slash action that has you whacking enemies with a variety of blunt and pokey objects, and it’s merely okay. You come across a variety of different foes (including those badboons!), but your general strategy is always to step back when your foe slowly telegraphs their incoming attack, then run in and spam the attack button like a lab mouse itching for another food pellet. It’s pretty mindless overall, but it’s also satisfying to see all of your fellow citizens drop their farming tools and charge into battle alongside you anytime a big dumb monster lumbers in and starts destroying your democracy. Wait, did I say democracy? Huh, that was weird.
Overall Impact: Pretty meh overall.

Area of Investigation #12: Pooping

Remember when I said you can build a variety of rooms in DQB? At one point, a squirming resident of my town asked me if I’d kindly build them all a bathroom, because apparently everyone had been holding it in for the in-game month I spent studying badboons in their natural habitat. So I followed his instructions and built a tiny room with a pot and a towel rack inside of it. To my delight, the game actually identified and classified the new area as a bathroom (which was generous given how shabby it was). To my COMPLETE ASTONISHMENT, however, all of my townsfolk then ran up and formed a line outside the bathroom, and one by one took turns hopping up on the pot and doing their business! This game has literally thought of EVERYTHING!

But the amazement didn’t end there. After they were done, I found out I could go in and “harvest” the pot, which provides a “night soil” resource used in making fertilizer. Now part of my daily DQB routine involves sneaking into the bathroom at the end of the day and collecting all of my townsfolk’s poops like some kind of insane person. How did this game not score a 10?
Overall Impact: As big as poop or something – I don’t know, come up with your own potty humor.

Area of Investigation #13: Screenshot Mode

I love me a screenshot mode, especially when it allows me to orchestrate the perfect shot of a tooting Spider-Man or giant statue dong. Unfortunately, DQB’s screenshot mode is pretty underwhelming; you have limited control over camera placement, and not many extras outside of a few facial expression options and filters. I’ve still gotten a few quality snaps out of it though, and I appreciate how you can upload them online within the game so that others can see how immature you are during load times. Granted, this column already provides me with that functionality, but for everyone else, it’s a nice addition.
Overall Impact: Pretty minor.

Area of Investigation #14: Puppy Alert!

Watch out folks, we’ve got a four-alarm doggo situation here! Early on in Furrowfield, a stray pup shows up at your town and becomes your new best friend. And the dog isn’t just adorable – he also helps out by tracking down buried seeds for you, which are one of the few resources the game is pretty conservative about.

Ultimately, does a little dog running around everywhere you go really have a significant impact on gameplay? No. Will I play the game 100 percent longer than I would have without it? Absolutely.
Overall Impact: Can’t say no to a good doggy!

Closing Remarks:

As we reach the end of our investigation, I can state with some level of certainty that my ongoing interest in DQB has been minimally influenced by its explicit or implied connections to the larger Dragon Quest universe of entertainment products; its unsuccessful attempts to establish a direct connection with my attention span in the early hours of its campaign; or the inadequate photographic evidence provided by the included screenshot mode. Furthermore, I must emphasize that while I cannot state the existence of an NPC earthworm named Wrigley had a direct impact on my enjoyment – as that issue lies outside the scope of this investigation and thus was not an option I could consider – if I had confidence that Wrigley clearly didn’t influence my enjoyment, I would say so.

While some questions could not be answered, this investigation did turn up substantial, corroborated evidence that DQB’s implicit connections to Minecraft and Harvest Moon have played an influential role in my ongoing engagement with the game. The investigation also established direct coordination with DQB in the form of guided play and in-game economic incentives that encourage continued cooperation. An open-ended invitation to screw off was also well-received, and has led to multiple documented incidents of gratification. Finally, badboons, dogs, and pooping all had a significant, and frankly disturbing impact on my enjoyment of the game. While the current guidelines do not permit me to make any definitive conclusions or prescribe a course of action, I must stress that DQB presents a clear and immediate threat to my gaming time, and deserves the attention of all gamers.