The old adage of “don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t just apply to printed matter. When you first see images and screenshots of Dragon Quest Builders 2, it’s easy to write the game off as yet another blocky-building sandbox game. But Dragon Quest Builders 2 is more than just your run-of-the-mill material-gathering, object-crafting, block-laying game. Its virtual community-creating gameplay stands out among the crowd, jam-packed with the warmth, joy, and charm that makes the Dragon Quest series so delightfully memorable.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 begins with your player character, a Builder with the ability to move and create objects, winding up stranded on a strange archipelago. Long ago, these islands flourished with a great civilization–up until a cult called the Children of Hargon gained power, destroying all that existed and forbidding those in its thrall from creating anything new. It’s up to you and your mysterious friend, a snarky, aggressive boy named Malroth, to destroy the cult’s hold on the people and restore these islands to their former glory, one block at a time. Much like how the original Dragon Quest Builders was a take on a what-if ending for the original Dragon Quest, Dragon Quest Builders 2 takes the ending of Dragon Quest II and turns it on its head–but you don’t need to be familiar with that game to get a lot of enjoyment out of this one. (You will appreciate several of the callbacks, though.)
The core gameplay loop in Dragon Quest Builders is immensely satisfying. You have a central island, the Isle of Awakening, that acts like one big sandbox, along with several other islands both large and small that you can visit to gather materials and advance the main story. The larger islands all feature a big, overarching quest to restore a destroyed population center, which you’ll accomplish by completing numerous smaller sub-quests to build facilities, find new materials, help individual NPCs, and explore different areas. Completing these quests rewards you with the gratitude of those you’ve aided, which in turn yields new item-creation recipes, improves the skills of the NPCs at the base, and brings more characters to the area to help with building, farming, mining, and monster-slaying. When you finally complete the lengthy main quest on each of the bigger islands, several of the NPCs will return with you to the Isle of Awakening, eager to aid you in building your own unique city and letting you run absolutely wild with your creative town-building concepts.
Part of what makes this gameplay loop so fulfilling is that doing these dozens upon dozens of small errands for NPCs rarely becomes tedious. The characters you meet in Dragon Quest Builders 2 are lively and full of personality (and funny accents), and helping them out with their needs to receive their heartfelt thanks just feels really, really good. You also get the joy of watching a town transform from a barely-functional series of ramshackle hovels into a thriving community thanks to your persistence and kindness. When you finish a new building or complete a task, the populace gathers around to showcase their elation and shower you with gratitude points–a simple reward that nonetheless feels wonderful to get.
It also helps that the world itself is tremendously fun to explore. The varied settings you encounter in your quest offer a variety of things to discover: towering hills, sandy beaches, secret underground caverns, ancient ruins, waterlogged bogs, and so on. You’ll find plenty to do out in Dragon Quest Builders 2’s expansive environments, and by exploring, you’re amply rewarded with rare materials, optional side quests, some new NPC companions, and even a few simple puzzles that yield nice rewards upon completion. There are even a few randomly generated small islands you can sail out to that offer fresh experiences every time you visit, allowing you the chance to see interesting procedurally-made environments, collect lots of unique, rare materials and bring them all home to build the city of your dreams.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Dragon Quest game without many of the series’ beloved monster designs. While a few non-humans are friendly to you, most of the monsters you encounter are strict adherents of the Children of Hargon and want nothing more than to destroy you and everything you’ve made. You’ll have to fight them off if you want to keep on building. Unfortunately, you’re a Builder, not a fighter, so your combat prowess for a lot of the game feels quite lacking.
As a result, combat winds up being the weakest part of the game. While it’s a marked improvement over the original Dragon Quest Builders, offering you a lot more control over your character and bringing NPCs into the mix to aid you in fighting, it still feels quite bland most of the time–you’ll just run up to enemies, whack them with a few basic weapon strikes, and hope they die sooner rather than later. The NPC warriors that join you on expeditions and when your bases and city need defending are far more useful for fighting off enemies than you are most of the time, particularly Malroth, who is an absolute beast when it comes to monster-mashing. I frequently found myself just waiting for Malroth to whittle down enemies’ health before I went in to finish them off and collect EXP and loot. The boss fights utilize some gimmicks involving your Builder abilities that make them significantly more interesting than normal fights, but they’re few and far between. At least combat isn’t a primary focus of the game, and new abilities and items you build as you progress help with enemy destruction–but combat never really stops feeling like an annoying distraction to what you want to do most: explore and build stuff.
But whatever problems the game has are quickly negated by everything else Dragon Quest Builders 2 does well. Characters are quirky and memorable with wonderfully written dialogue (though they’re sometimes a smidge too chatty), you get lots of cool materials to work with over the course of the game to build and customize your city, and everything, from the controls to the visuals and audio to the interface, feels inviting, engaging, and fun. Occasionally there’s a bit of tiny text that’s hard to read (a problem made worse when playing in handheld mode on Switch), but the vast majority of the time you’ll be too busy building away to care about the game’s small irritations.
Online co-op play opens once you have cleared the game’s first major quest. Unfortunately, while you can’t play the campaign in a co-op session, you are still allowed to build on the Isle of Awakening alongside a buddy or three. Working together to build your island is as fun as playing solo—maybe even more so—and the various customization items you can craft to wear during these sessions add a lot of goofy charm to the proceedings. In our testing, sessions with other players located in North America went smoothly, with few noticeable lag hiccups. If you want to show off but don’t feel like having a virtual block party, there’s also a bulletin board where players from around the world can post, tag, and share screenshots of their creations in-game.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a great game, combining exploration, sandbox-building, questing, and town-management into a delightful package that will gladly suck up your time and put a big smile on your face. It’s the sort of game that you’ll intend to play for a little while, only to find that hours have flown by once you manage to actually put it down. Don’t dismiss this one when you see big square blocks on the box–you’ll be missing out on a very fun twist on an excellent gaming foundation.
The taxi cab is refitted as a confession booth in Night Call, a noir-styled visual novel that interweaves a series of murder mysteries through the tales of dozens of ordinary Parisians, the threads of their lives intermingling as you crisscross the streets of the city. Everyone’s a little frail or fragile, much like the fabric of the game’s core investigation, and it’s the insights into people’s everyday hopes, fears, and secrets that linger long after the end credits have rolled.
You play as Houssine, an Algerian immigrant living in Paris. Much of his background is elided, or only revealed in suggestion over the course of the game, but he is Muslim, sports a thick, dark beard, and works as a cab driver on the night shift. Houssine is recently back behind the wheel after an assault that saw him hospitalized and, because of who he is, a suspect in the very crime of which he was a victim.
Houssine understands what it means to feel like an outsider. There’s been a terrorist attack recently, the details of which remain unspecified, but Arab men like Houssine are singled out for suspicion, their mere presence a cause for concern. His assault also resulted in the death of another person, the latest in a series of deaths that the police are keen to pin on him. One detective, however, disagrees and offers Houssine a deal: Help her investigation into the murders and he’ll walk free.
It feels right that Houssine would be of interest to the police given the political climate (both current and echoed in-game) and the hints at his troubled past. And it feels authentic that someone would pressure him to essentially become an informant, the kind of blackmail that insinuates that inside the moral grey area of society lies a corrupt, black core. These themes–of feeling like you don’t belong, of a rotten system operating to exclude all but the privileged few–infuse not just Houssine’s personal experience but of many of the people he encounters, and work well in linking together an otherwise disparate collection of stories. At one point a young black man from Chicago (he’s in Paris studying to become a mime, hilariously) gets into Houssine’s cab after a humiliating run-in with the police, and they bond over their shared experiences. “I’d say the police have a problem with black people,” Houssine says, then grins, “… and Arabs.”
Each night, Houssine hits the streets to track down clues and follow up leads, all while performing his regular job. From a map of the city, you select a fare to take and watch a yellow arrow navigate to its destination, the scene then overlaying an interior shot of the cab with Houssine front right and his passenger(s) in the back seat behind.
At this point, the only thing to do is talk. Conversations are entirely text-based, with you selecting dialogue options on Houssine’s behalf interspersed with his internal observations. Despite being minimally animated, with a handful of poses and expressions each, each character conveys a remarkable range of emotion and succeeds in bringing to vivid life each new person you encounter.
It’s a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, too. In total there are 75 passengers to meet over the course of the game, drawn from a broad range of ages, social classes, ethnicities, sexualities and, in one or possibly two cases, dimensions. They each have their own stories to tell, and Houssine seems to be the man chosen to hear them all.
That’s because while he’s an outsider, as a cab driver, Houssine’s difference is camouflaged. Many of the people he picks up are oblivious to him, at least at first. Couples discuss private matters as if he is not there. Lone passengers mutter to themselves, seemingly unaware of the possibility there’s a real human being sharing the vehicle with them. When they do notice him, one passenger scoffs at the idea that a lowly cab driver could have any useful advice. Another passenger assumes Houssine has certain political sympathies because he’s a brown, working-class man. “According to the people of this country, you don’t count,” one character tells him, with weary resignation. Houssine is both othered and unseen, tagged as different and yet simultaneously erased.
However, some passengers are immediately warm towards Houssine, while others, if distant or cautious to begin with, soon find themselves disarmed. Regardless of their disposition, however, they’re all willing to reveal the most intimate details of their inner lives with often only the slightest bit of delicate prodding. There’s the politician who is at the end of his tether over endemic corruption and pleads with Houssine to help him leak confidential documents. There’s the lesbian couple who are loudly debating the merits of the prospective sperm donor with whom they have just concluded a “date.” There’s the former porn actress who is eager to talk all about her new pro-union production company making gender-positive porn movies. These tales are often funny, moving, and sweet–but moreover, they’re always fascinating and exceptionally well-written.
In between these fares, Houssine can visit various locations to further his investigation. He knows someone who works somewhere who might have some information, that sort of thing. But these scenes don’t feel as fleshed out as the cab ride conversations. It’s not made clear how Houssine knows to go to these places or why many of these contacts are able to help him. Indeed, much of the casework he’s pursuing is obscured, as if key details have been intentionally, frustratingly, left out of reach. When Houssine returns to his apartment each morning and assesses the clues he’s uncovered–presented as hand-written notes pinned to a board–I found it difficult to interpret what much of it meant. By the time Houssine was called upon to accuse a suspect, I made an unconvincing guess that just happened to be correct.
The structure of this series of murder mysteries is strange. There are three cases to choose from when you begin a new game, and each is framed the same way: Houssine finds himself the inadvertent victim of a serial killer and strong-armed by a detective to assist the investigation. Recurring characters populate each case, though if you meet someone in one case, that relationship won’t carry over into the next one. It was very odd to give a ride in the second case to the very same person I’d revealed as the killer in the first. I did learn some more things about him that complicated my feelings about how the first case was resolved, but I couldn’t help but wish I’d encountered this conversation while pursuing that first case.
Houssine can’t just focus on his detective work. He needs to earn a living, too. Fuel for your cab, daily car maintenance, and repayments on your cab license are all a drain on your bank account that can only be plugged by picking up new fares. Your boss says you’re like a son to him, but if you don’t make enough money from your shift and can’t afford to pay his cut, the car maintenance, and the license fee, he fires you on the spot and it’s game over.
I like the theory behind this slight economic sim layer. It’s there to ensure you feel the precariousness of Houssine’s existence while also nudging you towards interacting with all the characters who don’t really have anything to do with the core mystery. But my experience of the normal difficulty setting was that it felt too punitive. On my first case, I entered an all-too-real downward spiral where I simply couldn’t pull Houssine out of the red and had to abandon the game. On the easy difficulty, Houssine still loses money each night, but he starts with a buffer sufficient to see the story through.
If you’re going to play Night Call, then play it on the “Story” setting. The normal difficulty claims it is “the way Night Call is meant to be played.” I disagree. Night Call is at its best when you’re behind the wheel, gliding through the rain-kissed boulevards, lost in conversation with whichever lost soul just happened to appear in the back seat of your cab. It presents itself as a noir mystery, but the murders you’re investigating are the least interesting narrative element. Night Call’s real strength is in the stories it tells about Paris, about the people who live there and the meaningful connections you can have with them no matter how brief or unexpected. It’s these people you’ll remember once you’ve solved each case, not the fares you charged them.
SolSeraph is overtly inspired by the Super NES cult classic ActRaiser. If there was any shred of doubt of its roots given its mixture of action-platforming and sim-style management, that was removed when it opened with a slow spinning first-person view barrelling towards the earth–an homage to ActRaiser’s Mode-7 showpiece so specific that it virtually winks at the audience. Curiously, though, it’s some of SolSeraph’s departures from ActRaiser that let it stand on its own, for better and for worse.
SolSeraph puts you in the divine boots of Helios, the Knight of Dawn, as he helps build civilization and fight against a set of Younger Gods who each manifest as the embodiment of a natural disaster. There is a hodge-podge of religious iconography at play, and Helios looks especially angelic, but this isn’t tied to any specific faith. Instead, SolSeraph invents its own mythology, borrowing bits and pieces from world religions.
Each of the five territories consists of two distinct game types. To begin, you fight through monsters to unlock a new civilization. Each one is housed on its own environment type which presents its own set of hazards. An island nation is prone to constant flooding, for example, while the snowy northern tribe has trouble tending farms and needs to rely on livestock instead. You guide the people to manage their population and resources, like food and lumber, while also building defensive structures to fend off attacks from monsters. Then you can build a temple near one of the monster lairs, take part in another action-platforming or arena battle to clear it, and continue until you unlock the final portion that houses the Younger God boss.
This all may sound very familiar to ActRaiser fans, but the focus on defending against waves of monster attacks is actually a wild departure. SolSeraph’s approach is more akin to a tower defense game, as the waves of monsters all march on a set path toward a centralized base marked by a campfire. Defeating waves of monsters takes a variety of defensive structures, even earning its own part in the radial menu, along with the godly powers to summon lightning or dispatch a guardian. In short, it takes the formerly minor threat of monster attacks and makes it much more active and central to the experience.
On one hand, this change makes the sim portions feel that much more dynamic. Protecting your people from brutal waves of monster attacks can be much more frenetic than the relaxed, casual sensation of watching your society grow and occasionally guiding your people in the right direction. On the other hand, this approach comes at the expense of what made ActRaiser such an interesting examination of faith.
In ActRaiser, society grew on its own as you mildly steered them, and your tools were limited. You could summon an earthquake to destroy houses and encourage stronger building, but you couldn’t meticulously place each individual building on a grid. In some ways, ActRaiser functioned as a reflection on the limitations of divinity. Interactions were indirect, and the stories that played out were sometimes tragic. The people assumed it must be the will of a higher power, but in reality, you were powerless to stop some events that they had set in motion by their own free will. It’s a powerful idea that, in SolSeraph, is undermined by having such direct control over everything your civilization does.
The spirit is still there, to a point. The people pray to Helios without ever hearing an answer, so the idea is still present that they’re operating on faith and hoping some dispassionate deity will end their struggles. But this is present only in short story sequences, and it’s discordant with the mechanics of the game itself. There is no sensation that the culture is flourishing on its own. You aren’t gently guiding as much as dictating, which feels oddly out-of-step with the idea that the people have unproven faith in a higher power.
Functionally, the sim segments are relatively simplistic but often unintuitive. Monster waves come infrequently enough that it’s often easy to build up a massive arsenal of defenses before the first attack ever comes. There’s no real penalty for failure, and in fact getting a game over screen just starts the monster clock over again from zero while keeping all of your recent building changes. At the same time, it isn’t always clear where the monsters will be coming from or in what numbers. Building temples to clear monster lairs relies on meeting a threshold of “Souls,” which are gathered from defeated monsters. This can be counterintuitive in a game about a god gathering worshippers, who could also logically be counted as souls and more sensibly connect to building a worship temple. Instead, the population only matters inasmuch as it gives you bodies to assign to defensive structures and farms. There is no counter for your total number of assigned versus idle villagers, which means you may reassign them at a critical moment by accident.
The game’s other half, the action-platforming segments, can be unforgiving. The controls are rigid and monsters come from all sides, which often makes it difficult to turn quickly to take on different threats. Life comes at a premium, with very sparse health regen and a magic spell that only recharges one measly health point at a time. Checkpoints are often nowhere to be found, which is especially frustrating when you accidentally wander into an optional area with a tougher battle that grants some small permanent reward like extra Weather Magic for the sim portion.
Much more problematic in the action sequences is the interplay between the foreground and background. Helios does his battle strictly on one plane, but enemies often approach from the foreground or background. You can see them approaching, but until they reach your plane, slashing with your sword won’t touch them. The transition between untouchable and vulnerable isn’t clearly signaled, so oftentimes your best bet is to slash wildly at an approaching enemy until it takes damage–but since some of them fly diagonally towards you, this isn’t foolproof. The interplay between these areas can present a good challenge when it’s just background characters firing projectiles that you’ll need to dodge, but the tendency for enemies to cross from one plane to another just creates more frustration than it’s worth.
The Younger Gods boss characters are the exception to this rule and where the combat shines. The old-school challenge isn’t hampered by the gimmick present in normal enemy encounters. Better yet, the collection of boss designs are largely a creative mixture of different cultural traditions from around the world, and each one’s power set and attack patterns connect with the natural disasters they have represented for your people. Defeating them grants you a new power, but it’s nearly as satisfying to have defeated the personification of floods, drought, or wildfires, after watching your culture struggle with them.
SolSeraph could have hemmed slightly closer to the conventions of its clear inspiration, and it may have been better for it. The changes to the sim aspect create gameplay depth at the expense of tonal depth, and the action segments can be annoyingly clunky, especially with the unnecessary addition of enemies that are untouchable until an unclear point in time. The willingness to riff on one of the most beloved classics of an entire console era shows a remarkable amount of audacity, and it actually halfway works. It’s the half that doesn’t that makes SolSeraph such a qualified recommendation.
198X taps into our love for the games of the ’80s, giving you a handful of short gaming vignettes wrapped around a simple story about the pain of growing up. The games themselves look more like ’90s SNES games than ’80s arcade titles (albeit very handsome SNES games), but 198X’s neon aesthetic (and, of course, its name) is clearly trying to evoke a sense of nostalgia for this period. Unfortunately, despite a few nice homages, it’s not a particularly transportive experience.
198X features five faux-’80s arcade games to play through, and they’re short enough that the whole thing, story sequences included, wraps in less than two hours. They’re not quite minigames–they’re framed as tiny slices of full games that exist within the narrative’s world, the first few levels of five larger experiences. These games, which are chained together sequentially by beautiful pixel-art cutscenes set to a synth soundtrack, make up the entirety of 198X’s gameplay. The plot centers on the “Kid” (he’s never named beyond this), who lives in a suburb outside of a major city. He watches the highway at night and thinks about getting out of town. He seems generally unhappy with his life, until he discovers an arcade hidden away in an old abandoned factory and discovers a sense of purpose and place amidst the machines and patrons there.
198X suffers from some of the same problems that Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One suffered from. If that book’s insistence that being a geek is inherently good irritated you, then 198X’s vague reverence for arcades and youth will likely have a similar effect. There’s something very immature about the game’s portrayal of the Kid and the way he talks about his idealistic childhood, while giving limited insight into why things are so hard on him now. “You get to high school and everyone’s brainwashed,” he says at one point, which is about as deep as the game gets in its exploration of the difficulty of one’s teenage years. You’re not given enough insight into the Kid to really get a sense of why this arcade is so important to him, beyond a few vague references to his father not being around anymore.
Of the five games you play through in 198X, only two really touch on the boy’s struggles in a meaningful way. Playing through the five games in order, then, doesn’t tell us a lot about more about the Kid’s private life, and there’s little real sense of why they are important to him beyond a general sentiment that games are powerful and important by default. Much of this narrative assumes your own investment in the power of an arcade, and the game doesn’t put much effort into selling you on why this particular arcade, and these particular games, mean so much to the Kid.
Your first foray into the arcade comes through Beating Heart, a Final Fight-style brawler with a simple two-button control scheme. It’s the most basic game included–you can punch, do a jump kick, or perform a spinning kick, and if you die while facing off against the handful of enemy types, you can immediately respawn without penalty. It’s a simple introduction, with a lovely period-appropriate midi soundtrack that does a great job of evoking the arcade classics it is paying homage to (in fact, this is true of every game in 198X). But it doesn’t offer anything interesting or unique in its mechanics, nor does it contribute much to the narrative of the Kid.
Next is Out of the Void, a shooter clearly inspired by R-Type, which only runs for two levels. You fly from left to right, collecting ship upgrades and firing regular and charged shots to take down your enemies. It’s solid fun, if nothing spectacular, and things get quite hairy in the second level. It’s one of the more enjoyable games in 198X simply because it actually feels pretty close to a decent arcade space shooter. Alas, it’s over very quickly, and while it’s relatively enjoyable, it’s certainly not as inventive or intense as the best games in the genre–the final boss, for instance, is a pushover. A more challenging experience, or some unique mechanics, would have better represented the games from this period that we have actual nostalgia for.
After this comes The Runaway, an OutRun-style driving game that lacks the arcade classic’s sense of speed and whimsy. The lack of gear changes and sharp corners makes this one a bit of a snooze, although it’s also the game in the collection that achieves the most resonance with the narrative–at a certain point, elements of the world you’ve seen in the cutscenes blend into the game. It’s a neat trick, but it’s in service of a plot that isn’t particularly gripping..
Shadowplay, a “ninja” game, is the standout of 198X. It’s the longest game in the collection (although you’ll still likely finish it in about 20 minutes). You play as a fast-running ninja across a series of automatically-scrolling screens. You can move left and right, jump, slide, and slash your sword at enemies ahead of you. It’s got the feel of an involved auto-runner, and timing your jumps and slashes to avoid enemy attacks and traps is engaging, with ever-changing level designs and interesting challenges that hit the right balance of difficulty where the game is challenging without being frustrating.
The platforms, spikes and pits you encounter make you read your environment and think about how you time your movements as you run through each level slashing at your enemies. You can collect power-ups to give your sword a greater reach, and there are more levels here (and more gameplay variety) than in the other games. There’s even a great boss fight at the end where you have to dodge between multiple platforms as a demon shoots tendrils at you, and reaching the end feels satisfying in a way the other games don’t. As much as 198X feels like a gimmick, Shadowplay stands out as an experience that feels like it could work as a full title. It feels disconnected from the overarching narrative, but it’s the most enjoyable part of the 198X.
The final game, Kill Screen, is a simple first-person RPG. It’s aiming to be weird and creepy rather than particularly challenging, and on that level, it works fairly well. It’s meant to represent the mental state of the protagonist, who has, up until that point, spent every cutscene moping. It works as a mood piece, and there’s some cool weird imagery in there, but the gameplay, which involves hunting for dragons in a maze full of random encounters, is very simple. There’s a neat Paper Mario-inspired mechanic where you can time button presses on attacks to do more damage, and the weird enemy designs are inventive, but it’s fairly one-note in both its gameplay model and its commentary on the Kid’s state of mind.
198X ends with a “To Be Continued.” This feels appropriate because the game, which is not being explicitly billed as episodic on its Steam page, feels not just short, but incomplete. As neat as the concept is, 198X doesn’t do enough to sell you on the connection between the metanarrative of the Kid and the arcade games he is playing–or spend enough time investing you in why any of this matters. There’s promise in some of these short genre riffs, but the game doesn’t give you many reasons to care about the Kid and his desire to get out of the suburbs.
198X is a great idea with middling execution. While its games offer some brief enjoyment, there’s not enough here for the game to feel like a proper ode to ’80s arcades, nor does the Kid’s plight, and his longing to escape his current life, totally connect. There’s definitely a spark of something here–and Shadowplay, in particular, is a lot of fun–but 198X feels more like a proof of concept than a final product.