Reviewed: March 23, 2010
Released: March 23, 2010
Itís a new year with a whole batch of new animated movies coming to theaters, which ultimately translates to a whole bunch of video games based on those movies coming to your game consoles. The first one out of the gate is How to Train Your Dragon based on the upcoming DreamWorks movie of the same name, and if youíre going to make a game with dragons, you may as well go to the studio who brought Spyro to next-gen consoles.
Since my knowledge of the film is limited to the few trailers Iíve seen I cannot comment on how closely the events of the game follow or relate to the film. The game takes place after the movie and allows you to play as one of two characters, Hiccup (the boy) or Astrid (the girl). Your decision will have no bearing on the game other than the 3D figure you steer around the levels and the handful of repetitive taunts and one-liners youíll hear them speak during and after combat. The choice is mostly about appealing to both genders of gamer as well as giving you a flimsy reason to replay the game as the ďotherĒ character for an extra trophy.
The game takes place on the Island of Berk, a colorful little landscape with a small village with huts, a large pier with boats, a mountaintop training arena, and the sinister-sounding Wild Zone that leads to a beachfront cave that grants you access to a fantastic selection of mini-games.
How to Train Your Dragon encompasses numerous genres but it ultimately devolves into a fighting game with dragons. I was immediately reminded of that Jurassic Park fighting game from many years ago. Whether you play as Hiccup or Astrid your primary goal throughout the story mode is to train and care for up to four dragons and enter them in tournaments with others in the village.
You have a Dragonís Den, presumably in your basement, where you monitor the status of your dragons watching values for mood, trust, food, health, and sleep. To keep these meters filled you will spends hours wandering the village and the Wild Zone digging for bugs, turning over rocks, picking flowers, and smashing barrels. The items you collect in this never-ending search can be used individually to improve your relationship with your dragons, or you can find recipes that allow you to mix several ingredients and prepare special dishes that will boost stats even higher than the individual components. Some recipes can even influence multiple dragons.
Once your dragon has full meters you can take him to the training grounds and learn how to fight. This involves going through a series of lessons where you mash a variety of combos using the square and triangle buttons for claw strikes or tail whips. In addition to melee training you also have breath weapon training where you learn to shoot short bursts or single or double charged streams of fire with the R1 button. Repeat each lesson four times and advance to the next, earning valuable experience points along the way. As you level up you will also get stats points that you can assign to a whole page of attributes like power, health, fire, etc.
Once your dragon is trained you can enter him into the first of several tournaments where you will face off against other dragons and their riders in arena combat. Itís pretty much a standard exercise in button mashing with very little challenge or strategy, even in the later tournaments. You are able to beat just about any opponent with repeated taps of the triangle button until they are dazed (as noted with stars spinning around their head) then charge up the fire breath and finish them off.
Personally, I found the training far more difficult than the actual tournaments since those lessons force you to do skillful moves and combos that the actual game never requires nor rewards. As you win tournaments you will unlock new lessons and the ability to own and train more than one dragon Ė up to four. One of the more rewarding elements of the game is when you level up you earn several levels of customizations in several areas of design, allowing you to change the snout, spine, tail, wings, etc. allowing for thousands of original dragon designs.
The game narrative is disposable, barely enough to string together the various tournaments, so donít worry about any movie spoilers. The few animated cutscenes deal with one opponent who lets your dragons out of their den forcing you to go hunt for them and win them back inÖyesÖa dragon fight challenge. Another group of cheaters steal a horn that signals the start of the tournament so you must go searching for it in the Wild Zone. Youíll spend several hours in all combing the countryside looking for a few key items while making sure to look for all those ingredients to keep your dragons healthy and happy. That includes tackling 200 chickens and 200 sheep and wild boar if you are going for some scavenger trophies.
An arcade mode is available from the front-end menu and allows you to fight against a friend using their customized dragons, or you can make use of the Legendary Dragons that youíll unlock in the story mode. Personally, I found the mini-games to be some of the more enjoyable moments of the entire game. These not only extend the overall gameplay time significantly, they also reward you with experience points that help you level up your dragons, and since there is a trophy for owning four level 25 dragons at once, youíll probably spend a great deal of time with these challenges. All the mini-games come in three difficulties and you can earn bronze, silver, and gold medals in each.
First up is Ice Sculpting where you tap the indicated button to push the meter into the green zone and keep it there so your dragon can melt the ice and form works of art. Looping Races are the standard flying through hoops but add the challenge of hitting a specific button as you zip through for a burst of speed. Flying Sheppard is my favorite and has you flying around little islands picking up sheep and returning them to a fenced in area. Certain types of sheep are more valuable than others but you have to wash them by dipping down to sea level to see what you picked up. Memory Torch is the classic Simon game where you match button sequences, and Puzzle Dragon is simply brilliant in that is makes use of the dragon customization feature and shows you a dragon for a few seconds and then asks you to recreate that same dragon using the in-game customization menu.
My complaints with the game are few but valid. There simply isnít much gameplay lurking beneath the charming visual surface. You have a fighting game that is masquerading as part action, part adventure, and part platformer. The button-masher fighting doesnít require much skill, obviously to help with the younger target audience, but then you have these complex menus with dragon abilities, stats, and recipes, and a huge inventory screen with color-coded slots that pertain to your dragon meters. Itís all a bit much for the 10-14 year old target audience, and some of the resource gathering gets downright annoying. Walking from point A to B takes a whole lot longer when you have to tackle 40 sheep along the way.
You can easily spend 15-20 hours completing this game, and add another 8 hours if you want to play as the second character. Even so, itís a hard recommendation to make to all but the most patient of gamers. Rent if you must or wait for the inevitable price drop. Itís debuting at $50, which might have been acceptable if a movie ticket was in the box.
Too shallow for teens or adults, too overwhelming for kids, and too mind-numbingly repetitive for everyone, How to Train Your Dragon sets the bar pretty average for the rest of the movie license line-up coming this year. The game definitely has its moments, but you have to jump through infinite hoops to experience them, and Iím guessing this game will be forgotten long before the film leaves theaters.