Training Your Dragon on the Go

Geek Culture

Image: Activision/Griptonite Games Image: Activision/Griptonite Games

Image: Activision/Griptonite Games

DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon has already proven itself at the box office. Combining understated 3D, quality CGI, an enjoyable story and enchanting characters, it’s a coming of age story for misfits everywhere. With Vikings. And also dragons. The question still remains, however, as to whether the success of the film itself will translate into the tangentially related realm of videogames.

Traditionally, licensed property tie-in games have been nigh universally underwhelming, at least within the context of recent console cycles. But with the success of titles like Ghostbusters: The Video Game and Batman: Arkham Asylum – not to mention X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a movie tie-in that was far superior to the source material in every conceivable way – I have at last allowed myself the luxury of hope for licensed titles.

Thankfully, How to Train Your Dragon for the Nintendo DS does a number of things right, proving that my faith isn’t totally unfounded. First and foremost, it allows you to train your own highly customizable dragon on the go. Which is pretty frakking awesome in and of itself. More importantly, it assumes that players have little interest in rehashing the movie’s script, and instead paints itself as a continuation of the story. The island of Berk and its Viking inhabitants are no longer besieged by dragons. Instead they have adopted the animals as pets. Assuming, of course, that Michael Vick is your idea of a proper pet owner. (Too soon?)

Yes, my friends, what is the purpose of having a dragon if you can’t force it into combat with its brethren? You do so by taking the role of movie characters Hiccup or Astrid in a continuing quest to become the ultimate dragon trainer. Activision and Griptonite Games have gone to great lengths to give this RPG-lite wings legs, and, more often than not, succeed.

As you fight your way through both random encounters with wild dragons and matches against your local rivals (including Snotlout Jorgenson and the Thorston twins), you acquire money and resources to better outfit your pet while your dragon acquires experience that boosts stats and unlocks new attacks from a fairly comprehensive skill tree. It’s these attacks and the way they work within the unique battle system that gives How to Train Your Dragon its first real win.

Combat is turn-based, but, rather than rely on things like mana or energy, each of these moves has an attached “time cost” that is deducted from a single replenishing bar. Low damage attacks and minor buffs use a little time, allowing for multiple instances, as opposed to major attacks which do significantly more damage at the expense of leaving your dragon easily vulnerable to retaliation as the time meter recharges. Finding the proper balance between quick bursts and time-consuming haymakers gives what’s easily perceived as a kiddie title some true depth.

There’s also an additional level of strategy that comes in the form of special attacks. A secondary meter builds up as combat progresses and, once filled, allows you to unleash a powered-up version of one of your regular attack moves, typically with spectacular results. In order to do so properly, however, you must complete an on-screen mini-game reminiscent of the quick-time events in (decidedly big boy) games like God of War of Resident Evil 4.

These combat sequences are ably padded by additional mini-games that encompass everything from the banal (flying through an obstacle course) to the sublime (crafting your own dragon armor by blowing into the mic to stoke the fire and rubbing the screen to polish the finished product). In many respects, How to Train Your Dragon makes great use of the DS’s functionality, as the game interface itself is entirely touch-based. Dragging your stylus from point to point to make Hiccup run the fixed paths of Berk, on the other hand, gets a bit tedious.

Sadly, so do the various fetch-quests that you must undertake to gather supplies to power up your dragon and upgrade his armor. The game’s visuals are equally uninspired. The map screen is bland and its landmarks, including important places the shop and the forge, are indistinct. The battle scenes themselves seem well animated, but the character models are rather jagged and occasionally muddied by too much random customization.

The cut scenes are nice enough, visually speaking, and the related voice acting is acceptable if oddly sparse. The same can be said for the sound direction in general; music and sound effects are suitable if not stellar.

How to Train Your Dragon is a rare jewel among licensed movie games in that it is genuinely worth playing. Of course said jewel is far from polished to perfection. That being said, it’s a bit of a hard sell at a $30 price tag. Unless, of course, you and the geeklings are rabid fans of the property itself it might be advisable to wait and pick this one up on the cheap. Still, if you’re looking for a solid play experience that’s also a kid-friendly foray into the realm of the turn-based strategy RPG, How to Train Your Dragon will suit nicely.

WIRED: a fun continuation to a fantastic film, great core gameplay mechanic, nice use of touch screen and microphone, good overall production value

TIRED: uneven play experience, muddy graphics, it’s pretty much just Pokemon except everyone has Charizard

Review material provided by Activision

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