A Team of Dragons
At first glance, How to Train Your Dragon looks very promising. It combines all sorts of kid-friendly attributes: non-bloody fighting, virtual pet care, some light RPG elements, a story that is derived from a popular animated movie, and a good helping of mini-games.
The graphics, sound, and basic controls are solid, if not jaw-dropping. Most of the animations are decent, the textures make the world look somewhat cartoonish, and the load times never get too annoying. The voiceover work is good, though the dragons make annoying comments while fighting, and the music is unremarkable. If the controls don’t feel comfortable at first, they’re customizable.
How to Train Your Dragon’s story, meanwhile, does exactly what it should do in a kids’ game: it stays out of the way. This game’s events happen after those in the movie, but you’ll never get more than a vague sense of who the characters are or what’s going on.
The problem is that everything just feels a little…flat. Despite a whole world filled with arena fights, plants you can feed to your dragons, side missions, and colorful characters, the game just seems tedious. Given that it takes maybe 15 hours to complete, that’s a lot of tedium.
Primarily, the issue is that the less action-oriented elements – such as feeding and taking care of your dragons and carrying out the weak side missions (most of which just require you to roam around collecting stuff) – take up too much time. This game just isn’t compelling in these ways, and the developers would have done better to focus on what kids really want to do: get in fights with other dragons.
Take, for example, the mini-games that earn you experience points. Many are simple matters of timing (you have to hit a button repeatedly to fill a meter and stop when it hits the right spot), and none are particularly inventive. Perhaps the best is Flying Shepherd, in which you pick up sheep and return them to a fenced-in area. The developers could have found some way to take the dragon concept and run with it for these games, but instead, they gave us the equivalent of a bargain-bin Wii title.
When you go to use the experience points you earned in the mini-games, you find that the RPG elements aren’t convincing, either. There are definitely kids who love RPGs (we have fond memories of Final Fantasy games on Game Boy circa 1994), but here, to “level up” each dragon and learn new combos, you’re stuck grinding on practice fights against enemies that hardly move. When you want to return to the fights that matter and make the game progress, you have to go back and take care of your animal first. You can distribute the points you earn among your dragon’s various attributes, but it doesn’t have a huge effect on the actual fighting.
Then there’s the pet care. Some kids (and adults) don’t mind carrying a Tamagotchi around and cleaning up its waste once in awhile, but who wants to take a break from making a dragon breathe fire to feed the thing some carrots and put it to sleep? Who wants to run around the overworld hub looking for bugs and plants for a pet-food recipe? As you acquire more and more dragons (you’ll unlock about 30 by the end, of which you can train up to four at a time), this can suck up more and more of your time.
All of these individual problems come together to make the game not only tedious, but disjointed. One minute you’re caring for your pet like a doting father, the next you’re riding it and making it claw another dragon (what is this, the Michael Vick School of Animal Care?), and the next you’re trying to fly through airborne rings Pilotwings-style.
Nonetheless, How to Train Your Dragon does some things right. The fighting isn’t first-rate by any means, but it’s a decent introduction to the genre for young newcomers. The combos are simple enough for children to manage, though sometimes they require you to push the buttons with awkward timing, and the button sequences remain on the screen during the (admittedly boring) training. The difficulty builds up slowly enough that the young ones won’t throw temper tantrums or give up.
The arena fights here are all about evading and blocking, and attacking with a swipe or a fire breath where appropriate. There’s a bit of button-mashing involved, of course, but even the most complicated fighting games have never found a way around that. Health doesn’t regenerate, so when a dragon runs out of energy, you move to the next one in your brood. If you lose entirely, you have to rest your dragons and start again.
Playing the “arcade” mode, especially with a friend, one gets a taste of what this title could have been. When the game is restricted to fighting and mini-games, it’s a lot more exciting. Had the developers focused on these elements and kept the role-playing and pet care to some brief allocations of points and food carried out in between battles, this could have been a lot of fun. As Primal Rage proved so many years ago, it’s a lot of fun to make mythical creatures bash each other around. There just needs to be much more of it in the story mode, along with a deeper fighting system. And God knows kids love mini-games, even the rehashed ones.
How to Train Your Dragon is ambitious for a movie game, but it’s a little too ambitious for its own good. It combines lots of different types of gameplay that could have been successful on their own, but as a whole, the game just feels fractured, tedious, and not enjoyable. The arcade mode is a highlight, but it doesn’t justify buying the whole game.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.6 Graphics
They’re not jaw-dropping, but they’re charming and slightly cartoonish. 4.3 Control
Some combos require awkward timing, but overall the controls work well. 3.1 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The voiceovers are decent, but the music is unremarkable and the characters shout out annoying phrases during combat. 3.0 Play Value
It takes about 15 hours to get through the game, but it’s too boring to be worthwhile. 3.3 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.