When I reviewed How to Train Your Dragon for the Nintendo DS last month, I came away with a fairly favorable impression. While it’s not exactly the kind of title to single-handedly turn the tide of horrible movie license games, it proved itself a fun ride with genuine charm.
Much like its little brother, How to Train Your Dragon for the Wii is a continuation of the original Dreamworks film‘s storyline that finds Astrid and Hiccup competing with their fellow Vikings for the coveted title of Berk’s premiere dragon trainer. Also like the DS version, it manages some true high points, but also suffers from several missteps.
While the portable version is a turn-based RPG-lite, the Wii iteration is, at its core, a straight-up fighting game. The bulk of the plot unfolds in and around the island of Berk’s dragon arena, where your critters move up the ranks to eventually combat each tournament’s top trainer. After winning a tourney, you’re allowed to head down to the docks and unlock yet another dragon for your collection, which keeps the rewards coming and helps keep the player motivated. Unfortunately, the fighting that goes down in these all-important events seems a tad hollow due to the fact that no real leveling up occurs as a result.
Your dragons instead gain valuable experience by battling in a separate specialized training area on the other side of the island. These training exercises play out as little more than skill drills that teach you basic combat moves and, as you prove your dragon-fighting mettle, more advance melee or fire-based combos. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this system, but the tedium of repeating the same exercises with each of your dragons (with minor adjustments depending on breed) just to level up seems an awful lot like grinding in a game that’s RPG elements consist of little more than unlockable combo attacks and dragon parts.
That being said, there is something satisfying about gaining new features with which to customize your beloved beasties, and, for what it’s worth, that does help to make the monotony a bit more bearable. Customizing your dragon is surely the title’s highlight. Choosing skin color and markings, wing and tail shapes and tossing unbelievable horns and back ridges into the mix really makes you feel as though your dragons are your own. This creature-building is handled in your very own dragon den between matches and training exercises, the same locality that affords you the chance to monitor your scaly friends’ health, hunger and mood. Each of these attributes can be supplemented via resources gathered as your player character wanders the island between bouts at your own pace or on the obligatory fetch quests. There’s even a recipe system that encourages you to combine ingredients for more potent buffs, which, believe it or not, isn’t a mini-game.
Still, this is a Wii title, so mini-games are a core component. These offer a secondary means by which to level up your dragons, but, like everything else in the game, accessing it involves navigating to yet another cave on another part of the island. The mini-games try hard to switch up the action by having you do things like race your dragon through an aerial obstacle course or properly control your Wii-mote waggling to keep its fire breath at a specific intensity, but many times they seem like more trouble than they’re worth. Even the sheep collecting event, which involves you swooping down on wayward livestock, rinsing off any dirty specimens in the surf and dropping them in a central pen for points, gets old quick.
Unfortunately, that’s the one big failure of the console version of How to Train Your Dragon; it tries very hard to mix things up, but ultimately just ends up feeling artificially padded. Though the island of Berk is far from expansive, each of your prescribed tasks are tied to a specific location that always seem to take longer to find that it rightly should. And, once you do get there, it’s typically nothing more than lather-rinse-repeat.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t deliver some fun. The story is humorous if predictable, the in-game graphics are solid for the underpowered Wii and the cut scenes (particularly with regard to the voice acting) are top-notch. Even the combat, which suffers from the system’s occasional inability to properly track your movements and pull off the intended killer combo, is enjoyable in proper doses if for only one specific reason.
This same controller quirk actually serves as a boon for younger gamers and the casual audience, as you can fight your way to victory in all but the most heated of dragon battles by simply alternating shaking the Wii-mote, waggling the nunchuck’s thumbstick and slapping various buttons. It’s exactly the kind of a graceless button-mashing that easily garners the scorn of fighting game aficionados, but it really helped my son – a five-year-old who’s easily in the title’s target demographic – get drawn in to the action and feel as though he was accomplishing his in-game goal.
Even with all its wild Wii-mote gesticulation, lengthy training regimen, pre-match fetch quests and frequent monster-on-monster arena combat, How to Train Your Dragon still manages to keep the game-time short. Expect anywhere from six to eight hours of gameplay, depending on how much time you and the geeklings want to invest in dragon design/upkeep and those wickedly repetitive training exercises.
For serious adult gamers looking to bring some colossal creature combat to their Wii, a game like Monster Hunter 3 would be a much better fit, but for younger fans of the superlative film who want to interact with the movie’s dragons – and let there be no mistaking, it is you and not your on-screen avatar who truly adopts these creatures – then How to Train Your Dragon is a wise investment.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go slap a new coat of virtual paint on my Hideous Zippleback.
WIRED: combines the most intriguing aspects of both Pokemon and Nintendogs, scores of customization options, a fun story the whole family can enjoy, a difficulty level that’s never overwhelming, the same charming setting and characters you loved in the movie
TIRED: demystifies the whole “training a dragon” thing with repetitious upkeep activities and highly modular game design
Review material provided by Activision