It is reaching that time of year again where countless animated flicks are hitting theaters, and of course the barrage of tie-in games to follow along. Activision hits up one of the first with a game based on DreamWorks’ latest animated tale How to Train Your Dragon. The studio that brought us classics such as Kung-Fu Panda and of course Shrek are at it again and with it comes the quintessential game to sell to kids after they leave the cinema. Activision has been excellent with these game adaptations over the past few years so it was a bit disheartening when you realize that How to Train Your Dragon falls victim to so many of the clichés that usually drag down these types of games.
The game takes place after the events of the movie, so if you want to remain spoiler free I suggest watching it first. You can take on the role of either Hiccup or Astrid and the main goal is to train your dragon and prepare them for arena matches against other dragons. Think of it as a more simplified version of Pokémon and you will get the idea. You will have to feed, train and generally take care of your dragon in order to prepare them for their upcoming matches. The only difference between playing as either character is purely cosmetic as the overall story is exactly the same. It is nice to have choice, but considering the lengthy investment this game can provide, going through as both characters is simply a chore.
When you first dive into the game you are introduced to the Island of Berk. This town serves as your hub for navigating between training, fighting and collecting. You can chat with villagers or just explore collecting items that will be used in conditioning your dragon. You can access all the spots from this town such as the Dragon’s Den where you customize and care for your dragon, to the arena where most of your game playing will take place. Navigation could have been made a bit simpler as things tend to blend together, and don’t get me started on the default camera. It took quite a bit of tweaking before I was finally comfortable with the view settings.
The biggest thing to note before diving into this title is the dedication it requires, especially for Achievement junkies. The game requires you to level up your dragon and tend to them after every match. Doing this requires you to pay attention to several color-coded bars that track hunger, rest, mood, trust and health. You can obtain items scattered around the world as well as recipes for creating items that can be used to satisfy these needs. This quickly becomes tedious for younger gamers as they just want to get in the ring and battle it out. For those who have been weaned on Pokémon though, this won’t be as much of a chore. Collecting the items on the other hand is where the time consumption comes into play. Gathering things for recipes can feel draining and spending more time in the menus than in-game is definitely not for everyone.
You have to admire what the developers did here though. Instead of throwing together yet another platformer featuring the characters from the movie, they played to the strengths of the idea. Taking care of your dragon is definitely a rewarding experience if you have the time to invest in it, but it is also an acquired taste. Underneath all of this is the core game which happens to be a fighting game, albeit a fairly simple one. Taking place on a 3D plane with simplistic 2D movement and attacks make it feel more like a button masher. This is where your training comes into play. Conditioning and leveling up your dragon gives you a better chance at sustaining damage. You can do this by heading over to the training grounds to play some mini-games or simply learn new combos and earn experience.
The training for combat has you repeating the same button presses over and over until you memorize them. Once you finish a series you earn experience that opens up skill points to add to your dragon. If all of this sounds overwhelming for a kid’s game, it really is. Still you would be surprised how in-depth Pokémon can be, and this is only a fraction of that. You can also collect new dragons by heading to various colored flag areas. Each dragon has unique abilities that change the way it handles in combat, so having one of each and spending the time to upgrade them all is definitely recommended.
In addition to the main game there is also an arcade area available at the main menu. Here you can throw down in fights for fun with friends, or partake in a series of mini-games. The best part about all of this is that it earns you experience for your dragon in the core game. Considering how long it takes to level up once you start hitting double digits it is nice to have an alternative method to earning this. Some of the mini-games are even quite enjoyable and I am not sure why they were omitted from the actual game as they would have been nice diversions from the standard package.
Visually the game is definitely disappointing as it really shows a lack of dedication to the source material. Everything is certainly recognizable, but you will definitely get that ported-down feeling when viewing the environments. The color palette feels muted and lacking and the world just seems to be one large repeating pattern. It doesn’t help that the resolution also seems a bit grainy. The sound work is standard movie fare with some nice impersonations and even a few actors from the movie lending their voices. The soundtrack is entirely forgettable thanks to the fact that it is not prominent anywhere within the game.
How to Train Your Dragon is definitely a step backwards for Activision in terms of licensed games. It doesn’t have the same level of polish and dedication that the previous offerings brought to the table. Still I respect the fact that the developers did something totally out of the ordinary for this game instead of the run-of-the-mill platformer we are usually spoon-fed. The game gets bonus points for being original but still lacks the level of polish a game based on such a gorgeous film deserves. If your young one has patience and is a veteran of caring for their virtual creations then this game may be right up their alley. For those that require more of a twitch experience, I don’t recommend diving into this consuming experience.
Review copy provided by publisher.