Ever since the release of Shrek, DreamWorks Animation has established a formula for its movies: Hire capable stars to voice the film, have a decent story, and load it with humor. The formula seems to be working, as just about every DreamWorks Animation release to date has been successful on both the home video and theatrical fronts and proven the studio can be a good foil for the more sophisticated Pixar fare.
Similarly, Activision has also had a set formula in place for its video game adaptations of DreamWorks films since the release of Shrek 2: Create a capable platforming game, make it look as close to the source material as possible, and release it the same week the movie. While the spin-off games like Madagascar Kartz and Shrek-N-Roll aren't exactly successful titles, the ones based on the movies themselves sell well enough that the publisher is eager to extend its contract with the film studio for as long as possible. Spring brings about another DreamWorks film to theaters, and based on both critical reaction and box office figures, How to Train Your Dragon is following the formula with great success. Like clockwork, Activision has released a video game tie-in. Interestingly enough, it isn't your typical platformer.
As far as plot goes, it does not re-create the story in video game form. Instead, the events in the game take place after the movie has ended. A year has passed since those events and to celebrate, the Vikings are holding the Thor's-day Thursday festival, which culminates in a large dragon tournament. All of the children are encouraged to participate with the dragons that they've trained into fighting machines. Playing as either Astrid or Hiccup, the main human characters of the film, your job is to train your dragon, build up a stable of other dragons to train, and beat all of the other opponents, eventually winning the Thor's-day Thursday tournament and being named dragon-taming champion.
There are three primary aspects of the game — exploration, training and fighting — making this title closer in nature to Monster Rancher or Pokémon than your standard licensed plaformer. Exploration takes up a good chunk of your time and serves as an important part of keeping your dragon fit. Aside from taking on required quests to progress the story, you'll be collecting food and herbs that are used to help keep five different meters (food, heal, mood, rest and trust) from dropping and giving them their maximum fighting potential. Collecting those items includes tasks such as plucking things off the ground, digging, looking under rocks, and tackling animals for their meat. You'll also buy recipes so that a few ingredients can give big boosts for those five aforementioned meters and negate the particular preferences of some beasts. While a particular dragon may hate chicken, for example, preparing a chicken dish with a few other ingredients will make him eat it anyway, giving you the opportunity to keep him happy and fit even if you don't have the particular foods that he prefers.
Training involves the care of your beast and leveling it up to make it stronger. Aside from those five meters to give your dragon the maximum possible energy for a fight, you have to give them some experience, much like an RPG character. The training den acts as an experience pool as well as dragon tutorial by making you practice combos and moves you'll be using in battle. Successful completion of those moves gives you the ability to use them in combat and provides experience that you can use to power up stats like strength, speed and agility. Aside from formal training, you also get to participate in minigames, like ice sculpting and sheep herding, which give you experience and items for dragon upkeep. You're also given the opportunity to customize your dragon's looks with different body accessories, like spikes, fins and different body colors — a big plus since the game only boasts six dragon models.
The fighting is almost self-explanatory. Each tournament has you go through every opponent in the tournament list, sometimes multiple times, until you face the tournament leader. Instead of menus, though, players actively engage in one-on-one battles just like a traditional fighting game. Aside from the fact that dragons can have a maximum of four energy meter levels depending on their health before the fight, everything else should be familiar to fighting game fans. Dragons use light or heavy attacks in their arsenal, and they utilize combos to unleash more damage. Every successful hit gives the attacking dragon a fire stone that builds up the fire meter, giving them the ability to unleash their fire attacks until the meter is depleted. Blocking can be done, but too many attacks on a dragon who is constantly blocking will break that guard, giving the attacker a few moments of free damage before the guard is replenished. Each bout is a one-round affair, though some fights can involve multiple dragons coming in until the whole roster is defeated.
The concept of making this game in the spirit of Pokémon is a rather good one. It helps to separate it from most licensed games, which mostly end up being pure platformers. It also helps that the fighting system is active and resembles a simple fighting game. The presence of too many menus could have made this too intimidating for players who are just getting their feet wet in the creature-raising subgenre, so an active fighting engine makes this a more accessible experience.
What stops the game from being great is the overall pacing of the title, and this complaint points to both the platforming exploration and dragon-training sequences. Most of the exploration sequences end up as extended fetch quests. Yes, you can occupy your time between tournaments with training and minigames, but in order to open up the next tournament, you have to complete mandatory quests, such as obtaining ingredients for a new dragon recipe or getting a new dragon to fight for the freedom of your lost dragons while obtaining ingredients for their required medicine. They end up being necessary to give the game some substance other than fighting, but that doesn't make them feel any less tedious or any less like artificial game padding. The same can be said for the training sequences, which start to feel repetitive after one-fourth of a new move is learned. Repeating the requirements of the move in four similar training stages just for maximum experience is one thing, but it quickly gets dull when you have to do it again from the beginning for any newly obtained dragons. Gamers who have played other creature-raising games will feel that this is par for the course, but at least those games hid the training grind through combat with different opponents. With the same dragon opponents for each stage of training, that variety isn't present in this title.
Multiplayer focuses solely on the fighting aspect of the game. Like the battles in Story mode, these are all real-time affairs. The big difference, however, is the fact that you can select the wild dragons you've fought in Story mode as your own fighter, and you can have up to four dragons duke it out one after the other until one team is completely exhausted. As an added incentive, you can import your dragon from Story mode into Arcade mode, giving you another reason to maximize your dragon's stats and give it a unique look with the acquired parts. Multiplayer is local only, though it would have been nice to have online play incorporated to see how other players decorated their beasts.
The controls aren't much of an issue in How to Train Your Dragon. The exploration sequences simply have you running around with the analog stick while using the X button to interact with the world and the A button to jump. The combat controls are primarily the same, though the X button now does quick attacks and Y does heavy attacks. The left bumper does blocks, and the right bumper initiates fire attacks. The controls work, though the timing of the combo system will take some getting used to because of the slower animation in comparison to some other fighting games.
Graphically, the title matches up pretty well with the latest set of DreamWorks-based games. The character models for every major player match up with their celluloid counterparts rather well. They are at a lower resolution, obviously, but both humans and dragons will be recognizable by anyone who's seen the film or commercials. The animations are pretty smooth for most actions, though Hiccup's running seems to be a bit off, and the developers added some nice little touches to a few things. The smoke coming from animal tussles and small blades of grass being kicked up are just two examples of the developer's attention to detail in some spots. The environments also sport small details, like large patches of waving grass and a good-looking ocean surrounding the island. It certainly feels richer than simply having a flat textured piece of land with nothing but rocks and fences littering the area. Particle effects could be better, especially for the dragons' fire. The fireballs actually come out fine, but the prolonged fire streams resemble sparks more than fire.
The biggest offender is the camera. There are times during your island exploration sequences when the camera will get stuck somewhere and focus on something else instead of your character. Pass by your house and move somewhere else, and you'll notice that the camera stays focused on the house for a while before remembering to move in behind your player. Worse yet is the camera behavior during fights. The dragons are supposed to be sizeable creatures, but the camera is pulled back so far that they — and the arenas — look small as a result. The faraway camera also fails to give the user a clear view of the dragon details and your rider, who is completely animated during these bouts. Making the camera zoom in more would have made the fights a bit more exciting, but as it stands now, the fighting simply looks average.
Like the graphics, the sound in this game is strong but flawed. The musical score sounds close to the one in the movie, so it doesn't seem out of place. The music that plays during combat and exploration is good, but it would be a stretch to call it memorable. The effects are good, with some solid combat sounds during fights. Claw swipes and fireballs sound strong but not so strong that it overpowers everything else. Like most DreamWorks games, the voices from the film don't all make appearances in the game, but their soundalikes do a good job with every line. The more astute kids will be able to hear the differences in voices, but otherwise, the changes aren't too drastic. The good news is that there are plenty of spoken phrases during conversations in the exploration sections and during battles with other dragons. The bad news is that despite the many voice clips, they tend to repeat themselves quite often, sometimes one right after another. Because the characters rarely keep quiet, chances are that you'll hear just about every quote after the first tournament alone.
In the end, How to Train Your Dragon proves to be a decent gaming experience. The take on the creature-raising subgenre is a nice one, though you can actually raise only a limited number of creatures. The fighting system is simple and fun, despite the monotonous training sessions, and the technical presentation is right up there with some of the better DreamWorks titles in recent memory. Fans of the movie and book as well as those without access to a Pokémon game will have plenty of fun with this title while people who are looking for something different will do best to rent the title. It's not a dismal title by any means, but unless you have lots of little kids playing on the console, it might not be a game that's worth owning.
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