On paper, How to Train Your Dragon sounds like a good idea for a children's game based on the recent DreamWorks film. Let players collect and customize their own dragons, and then have them battle it out in a standard fighting game. Yeah, it's a lot like Pokémon, although one can't argue with that franchise's success, so why not go with what works? Unfortunately, How to Train Your Dragon fails to capitalize on this simple concept because of poor controls, boring gameplay and a host of other problems, making it unbearable for all ages. If anything, How to Train Your Dragon will probably make the kids cry.
The game doesn't follow the film's story of the struggle between dragons and Vikings. Instead, there's relative peace between the two species, where Viking youngsters carry out a tradition of riding the creatures in battle against one another during a tournament called Thor'sday Thursday. After selecting to play as either Hiccup (the main character from the film) or his love interest (Astrid), users can start building their own custom dragon. This is one of the few places where the game shines. Physical features such as horns, wings, and scale color can be arranged in a simple yet intuitive way, so some pretty unique dragons can be made quickly.
There are a few different species to choose from, such as the toad-like Gronkles or sleek Night Furies. As the game progresses, you can collect up to four dragons. These are living creatures, so naturally, they need to be looked after. In an overworld area where players can roam around as a Viking youth, small quests are available that involve collecting food items such as chickens and carrots.
After a hard fight, a dragon will need food and rest in order to be ready for the next battle. Dragons can also gain experience points over the course of the single-player campaign. Once a new level is reached, different abilities like strength, speed and power can be increased. What`s nice about the system is that it has some depth, yet it's simple enough for a kid to learn.
Once in the ring, How to Train Your Dragon plays like a typical fighting game. There are the standard light and heavy attacks, which can be strung together to form combos, as well as fire-breathing attacks that can be charged up to deal a heavy dose of damage. Most fighting games involve at least some sort of technique or strategy, but this is not the case with How to Train Your Dragon, where nearly every fight comes down to simple button-mashing or attack spamming. Each adversary can be taken down in the exact same way, and even the final opponents in the tournament are relatively easy to defeat as long as their skill level isn't much higher than your dragon's.
The other major issue lies with the controls. How to Train Your Dragon's first mistake is having movement controlled by the left analog stick, and we all know how miserably analog controls fail in a fighting game. Executing a dash or dodging maneuver by flicking the stick twice in a certain direction hardly ever works and can cost a fight. Although the difficulty shouldn't be too high in a kids' game, the fighting just isn't fun. It's simply far too clunky and random to be enjoyable.
Even worse, every fight in the campaign takes place in just one arena that resembles Stonehenge, so there isn't even a change in scenery. The setup for tournaments might also be confusing for young kids. Instead of a bracket diagram, each opponent has a score beside his or her name that has to be matched in order to progress. It's not hard to imagine this system getting frustrating for younger gamers, unless they're math prodigies.
Getting a dragon to be strong enough to win the Thor'sday championship takes hard work, and that's where the training mode comes in. Since the title implies dragon training, it's obviously a large aspect of the game. However, it's also the most infuriating and is mind-numbingly boring.
Every dragon needs to practice melee moves and fire-breathing attacks to level up. In order to master a move, it must be repeated a number of times while under a time limit. When that's done, it's time to go onto the next move, and the next and so forth. Different moves can be learned, but every dragon possesses the exact same move set. Because of this, training each dragon gets terribly repetitive.
Players can take a break from the sweatshop that is dragon training and try some minigames, which dish out additional experience. Unfortunately, these are also torturous in their own way. Challenges, which involve flying dragons through checkpoints or making them sculpt ice statues with their fire breath, only amount to a series of Quick Time Event button presses. One minigame called Puzzle Dragon stands out, where users are shown a custom-made dragon and have to rebuild it from memory before time runs out. Aside from this, the challenges suffer from a terrible lack of imagination and get boring fast.
The worst part about these tasks is that they must be done to progress to other tournaments and opponents. In order to fight higher level dragons — for example, a level 20 — players will at least need to bring a level 15 dragon to the fight. For a kids' game, there's a surprising amount of stat grinding involved, and it takes up more of the campaign than the actual fighting. After players get further into the story, where four dragons have to be brought up to snuff, How to Train Your Dragon's gameplay starts getting dangerously close to child labor. The gameplay in the overworld is just as much a chore as the rest of the game. Quests require fetching ingredients to feed dragons — ingredients that are plentiful anyway.
After all of the tournaments are completed, there's a multiplayer mode that's just as disappointing. Here, players can either import their dragons from the main campaign or create brand-new ones and go head-to-head in multiple arenas. There are even a few extra types of dragons that become unlocked by winning tournaments in the campaign. What's insulting is the absence of the experience system. That means all the work put into making high-level dragons in the single-player portion becomes pointless, and the gameplay gets even shallower.
All you get in How to Train Your Dragon's multiplayer is a straight-up versus mode for two players only. It's an absurd design choice; tournaments and tag team matches are already in the campaign mode, so why not just carry them over? None of the minigames are available in the multiplayer, either, and the lack of any online functionality is a joke in this day and age.
The visuals in How to Train Your Dragon are hard on the eyes thanks to grainy textures, a dipping frame rate and very few types of character animations. While walking through the overworld as a Viking youth, some loading screens randomly pop up and halt the game flow. The voice acting is also annoying, thanks to lines that are often repeated in battle. When characters talk, the lip synching is off by a few seconds. It's just sloppy and gives the game a low-quality feel.
There's a good idea for a children's game somewhere in How to Train Your Dragon, and it can be spotted if one rummages through all the boring game modes, bad controls and embarrassing production values. It doesn't even work as a movie tie-in, since barely any content from the film is included and the overall presentation is lacking. The dragon customization is a nice feature, but every other aspect is so bad that How to Train Your Dragon doesn't come close to justifying its $50 price tag. If the kids loved DreamWorks' 3-D blockbuster, the wiser choice would be to take them to see it again and again. They'll probably have more fun watching the movie for the 10th time than they would while playing the game.
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