To build is to blaspheme, so say the Children of Hargon. Worshipping destruction and chaos, the act of creation itself is outlawed and forbidden, builders imprisoned for their crimes. Waking up behind bars in a monster-occupied ship, en route to your demise, your services are required. Though the crew shun you, your utility in repairing the ship after a recent storm is too great to simply ignore, and it's here you learn the basics. On the orders of a skeletal captain, you make some torches, repair the deck, and have a little play fight with one of the crew. Acting as a fairly natural tutorial to get those who skipped the first game up to speed, it sets an initial light-hearted tone for the game. This shanty crew, evil though they might be, really came to grow on me in the short time I had with them. Quirky, fun, and just a great cast of characters to be around; I almost wanted them to succeed in their cause, even if it was destroying everything. After maybe half an hour of getting to know these lovely creatures, they die. They all die. They die and it's heartbreaking, and I wasn't ready for it. Your final test before being ready to really kick things off with the game comes in the form of a storm, requiring you to plug holes in the ship. Though you try your best, the ship sinks, its only survivors being yourself and a particularly vocal and moderately less-fun-than-the-monsters woman. As you look around the beach, you see bodies lined up; you interact with them and they get washed away by the ocean. I just didn't see it coming from a game like this, something so unexpectedly powerful and saddening to kick off such an incredible and grand adventure.
The island you're washed up onto is the legendary and aptly named Isle of Awakening, acting as a hub area and larger objective for the rest of the game. It's here you meet two amnesiac characters, Malroth and an ethereal bearded fellow assumed to be the island's guardian. What's interesting about this whole setup is how as the player, you're fed more information than the characters in-game. For those who've played Dragon Quest 2, or those who paid more attention than I did to the opening cutscene, Malroth is the name of the demon summoned by Hargon. Your hero-to-be builder is ultimately teaming up and growing with and thanks to the unknowing lord of destruction, and it puts you in an interesting mindset. As a character, he's rowdy, over the top, and as his title may suggest, excels in destructive activities. He's a great ally considering all these things, and functionally he does his job well. Tagging along on your adventures, he gains experience and levels up alongside your character, and generally does well in assisting in whatever you're trying to do. If you attack an enemy, he runs in to help. If you cut down a tree, he'll go to nearby trees to get you some more wood. You get a sense of him really trying his best for you, which only goes to add to the conflict in his character. Will this development only serve to make him stronger? Will I need to fight him when the game comes to a close? This kind of player omnipotence does well in fuelling this kind of debate as the game progresses, despite it not going out of its way to present such arguments. It gives you snippets of information to ponder and obsess over as the larger story unravels, and as it goes, the larger story doesn't disappoint.
Our favourite bearded spirit sees your building potential and sets you off with your larger goal of developing the Isle of Awakening as you see fit. This task serves as the backbone of the game, and with ownership of the island falling to you, you really are free to do as you please. Whether you want to dig up a desert or deface an otherwise nice looking temple, the ball's in your court, but it won't be long until you hit a wall; you can't really make much in the beginning. Your island is barren and void of greenery, and you're still a novice when it comes to making things. If you want to both grow as a builder and find ways to get your island looking as nice as possible, it won't be long until you give into the plot and find yourself progressing to Furrowfield, the 'land of verdant vegetation'. Eager to find a way to get your island a little greener, it's an ideal place to start looking, but it isn't going to be easy, not with the islanders being devout followers of the questionable Children of Hargon.
Each island you visit has a different twist and larger objective, but you're generally looking at a cycle of building a town by completing requests of the villagers. As you complete these requests, they'll generally become more open to the idea of building, abandon their faith, and attract new residents. These residents will then join in with the island's quirk, helping out with things like farming and mining to give you time to focus on more interesting endeavours, and there really is a surprising amount to be found. With the terrain not randomly generated as you'd see in the ever-popular blocky superstar Minecraft, you get a real sense of caring and thoughtfulness; the world in its entirety feels intentional, and that knowledge compels you to seek out its finer details, something both to the game's merit and detriment.
I think the merits of such design are clear; there are secrets, quirks, oddities, and just really nice landscapes and scenery as a whole. If you see an island in the distance, you know it's there for a reason. If you see a monument or a building, you're drawn to it if only to find out its significance, but it's here where the game finds itself confused. You'll find interesting things, and you might even spot an interesting-looking NPC, but in its attempt to present a linear narrative, it loses some of the charm it would otherwise have. These NPCs littered in each corner of the map pull you in to investigate, but if you find them before your time, they'll simply refuse to talk to you. Every single one, the same line: "Scarlet tries to strike up a conversation… But there's no response." It's a real shame. If the game were designed to be a little more flexible and allow you to recruit NPCs out of order, the experience would feel far more unique and rewarding. Even keeping these NPCs despawned until you need to meet them would have been a viable choice in keeping the player engaged, the single line snapping you back to reality whether you like it or not. It isn't an experience-destroying negative, but it irritates me to see such a brilliant and otherwise thoroughly thought-out and designed game fall short in what to me seems like an obvious way. You get used to it, sure, but you shouldn't have to. It's not as though exploration is useless though, even with the uncooperative NPCs. You'll find building puzzles, hidden chests, enemies with useful drops, and even powerful optional bosses if you're up for the challenge. The world is a joy to navigate and I really encourage anybody playing to take the time to do so.
I just want to be friends!
When you're finished taking in the sights and want to return to the story, you'll find a number of ways the game gauges your progression. First, you have your character level. Gaining XP by beating up monsters with your companion Malroth, you can think of this as personal growth. As you level up, you'll gain more health and access to recipes that'll help you beat things up quicker, such as weapons for both of your characters. Something I really found myself fond of was the level cap enforced at each stage of the game. On the Furrowfield, you'll find your level capped to 10, but as you progress, this limit is gradually raised. It means for people like me who spent 20 hours building a fortress before progressing, you won't feel too powerful, also giving the game control over the kinds of weapon recipes it gives you. The recipes for the first ten levels will require items you can gather on Furrowfield, up to the next limit will require items of the next island; the game never leaves you in a position where you don't have the resources to do what you need to, unless the next task is to be gathering them. It's well-paced and again, well thought out in giving you a satisfying experience over a long period of play.
The second means of progression is directly related to your progress on each island, a level for your village. As mentioned earlier, as the village grows, you'll get more villagers and more eager hands to help. Growth happens through completing requests, providing you with gratitude, which can then be spent on levelling up the village when set thresholds are reached. Though requests are a significant way of getting gratitude, there are plenty of other ways, each rewarding your effort in its own way. If a villager sleeps on a bed, you'll get a little gratitude each day as they wake up. If you set up a place for them to eat, you'll get a little gratitude when they take some food. If you set up a kitchen, a toilet, a bath, if you have fields they can tend to, they'll reward you with gratitude. The game encourages you to play and build to your heart's content, and the collection of gratitude is, for the lack of a better word, incredibly gratifying. When you've progressed enough for the chapter to come to a close, you'll head back to the Isle of Awakening with some new allies and the recipes and resources you've gained along the way, and once you start building there, you'll again be rewarded with gratitude. With no formal village to speak of, it's used a little differently however.
Back when this fortress was still a work in progress
Once your time in Furrowfield has come to an end, the game opens up with some really nice options. You have a new means of movement in the glider, but perhaps more significantly, you gain access to both multiplayer and Explorer's Shores. Explorer's Shores are small islands scattered around the larger world map. Paying a set amount of gratitude earned at the Isle of Awakening, you're able to visit these islands as much as you'd like, but unlike your main 'story islands', no progress is saved here. Your objective is detached from the rest of the game, ultimately serving as a scavenger hunt for a pre-set list of items, the reward entirely worth the effort. For each hunt completed, you get unlimited access to a specified material, and with two hunts available for each island, you'll be wanting to develop the Isle of Awakening if only to access them. Unlimited wood meant I no longer had to worry about the dwindling tree populous, unlimited grass fibre meant I could stop slashing at every piece of grass in my path. The slow transition to a more creative way of playing is something I really appreciated, the game again paced brilliantly as to present these unlimited items after the areas where they were previously commonplace. Furrowfield rich in trees and other types of greenery, you'd be less inclined to explore and gather materials if you had unlimited access to wood. Coming back to the Isle of Awakening however, it's easy to feel limited in what you can do. Best of all, these islands are entirely optional. If you'd rather a purer life of survival and gathering, the game will respect your choice and leave you be, but for those wanting to create on a grander stage, such unlimited access will be welcomed.
A portal appears on your return!
Multiplayer is a little harder for me to comment on without anybody I know having the game prior to it launching, though I can still go over a few of the basics. You gain access to it after returning from Furrowfield, and allows you to play either online or via local wireless with three other people. When playing with them, you can run around and build the Isle of Awakening together. With the online functioning using the Switch friend list, I'm also assuming cross-platform multiplayer isn't possible. I wish I could give a little more information on this, but I can at least say I'm thoroughly looking forward to playing with others after the game has officially launched.
One hot topic when it comes to the Switch version of the game is, quite understandably, just how well it performs, and it's a mixed bag. To my untrained eye, the game largely feels incredibly nice to play, not noticing any kind of slowdown in the general activities of building and gathering. Where things started to get choppy however was after I acquired the glider. As a fast means of getting around, I used it to do a lap of each new island, allowing me to have a fuller idea of my surroundings. In this swift movement through the scenery, the game struggled at times to keep up, stuttering noticeably, but never to a particularly concerning limit, and certainly not frequent to the point of it being a larger issue. If you're more sensitive to this kind of thing than myself, I encourage you to check out the free demo and try pushing the game as best you can.
"Night soil"... That tiny room is the toilet.
All in all, Dragon Quest Builders 2 is phenomenal. With its fantastic sense of progression, fun writing, and endless building opportunities, it is a perfect game to lose yourself in, hours melting away as you decide you just want to build one more wall. Though slightly held back by uncooperative NPCs and occasional performance hiccups, it stands out to me as one of the best titles released for the Switch to date. It's a game I thoroughly enjoyed, and hope many more will enjoy in the coming days and weeks.