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How to Train Your Dragon

Score: 59%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Etranges Libellules
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Action/ Fighting/ Adventure

Graphics & Sound:

The recent history of licensed games has given us an optimistic outlook. In the past, the relatively low quality of games associated with movies or television shows suggested that they were thought of as just another disposable product to sell to kids, right up there with Taco Bell cups, temporary tattoos, and cheap digital watches. The latest crop of licensed games have included a few bright spots, games we'd be into playing regardless of whether they were associated with any license. How To Train Your Dragon is unfortunately back to the mold we hoped we'd put behind us, a game that drips with branded goodness, but has virtually no substance. At least the graphics are good... The question we're asking these days is, "Can you really mess up graphics on a next-gen console, anyway?" Building a good-looking game isn't as impressive as it once was, and there are a wealth of tools available to developers for crafting Xbox 360 eye-candy. How To Train Your Dragon really does look nice, which initially got us excited. You feel as if you've been deposited right into the film, with familiar settings, and characters that look as if they're plucked right out of the on-screen action.

Voiceovers are also done well, with many extraneous bits of spoken dialogue you can prompt by running around talking to various characters in the town. The music is stirring, the sound effects are high-quality, and there are lots of cut-scene movies you can unlock during the game, to be replayed later. There's a big push on customizing your dragon, and the dragon models are lots of fun. You descend into the Dragon's Den, and select from several options for special body parts and colors. It's a lot like the garage modes we've seen in racing games, even though this doesn't strictly have to do with the source material. Kids will enjoy creating pink and neon-blue dragons, with lots of crazy mixed-up body parts, and it appeals to the readers of Dragonology books that have been waiting for a decent dragon videogame. The worst part about all this comes from the fact that for all its good looks and nice production values, How To Train Your Dragon falls far short of expectations.


Gameplay:

If How To Train Your Dragon was billed as a Street Fighter game featuring dragons instead of fighters, it would be accurate, but disappointing. The rest of the game, which looks on the surface like a third-person Platformer or Action title, is really just window dressing for the repetitive brawls you'll end up slogging through. The storyline is that your village is holding a competition, and you have to use your dragon-training skills to reign supreme as Dragon Master. This could have been handled in a way that combined various gameplay styles creatively, and we would have been happy with some kind of rambling exploration game that used mini-games to train or care for dragons. Instead, we ended up with a game that forces you to comb repeatedly through the village, doing nothing more complicated than punch buttons to harvest herbs, capture chickens, and way-lay wild game. It even sounds like more fun than it actually turns out to be... The problem isn't that these individual activities are awful, but they get old quickly, and they lead inevitably to the game's second weakest activity: Battling dragons.

Fans of fighting games will tell you that there are many parts to the formula for success, but few things take the place of responsive controls. How To Train Your Dragon is so deadly slow and unresponsive that you actually have to space out button presses so they'll register accurately! Say all you like that this is a feature, but we felt like it was a straight-up bug. The fighting-game genre is about lightning-quick reflexes coupled with characters that respond to every button press. Punching in combos while playing a game like Tekken was one part science, one part luck, one part adrenaline, and one part skill. With How To Train Your Dragon, it's more like three parts luck and one part adrenaline. Battling the CPU is either an exercise in frustration, a button-masher's paradise, a walk in the park, or all the above. Playing in Arcade, which is really just the multiplayer mode in How To Train Your Dragon, you'll have the chance to battle against another human. At this point, you become especially aware of the game's limitations, and it's hard to have fun when you feel that you're constantly beset by cheap tricks and clunky controls.

The activities or quests that surround the battles are all about gathering items, endlessly gathering items. Nothing really interesting happens until you get a chance to fly, and that moment comes way too late in the game. There's an area to train your dragon, basically another round of small battles that you'll use to level up your dragon. As you battle, your dragon loses health and needs to rest, or needs some combination of items that you'll have to gather, putting you right back in collection mode. There's a mindless quality about How To Train Your Dragon that is really inexcusable, considering all the freebie ideas scattered throughout recent history. Better to be faulted for being derivative than for being completely devoid of substance. In any one part of the game, you might walk in and think that you're looking at a decent action or adventure title, but the sickening realization once you play How To Train Your Dragon for a few hours is that there just isn't any more to it. We kept waiting for the "actual" adventure to get started, waiting to get a quest that didn't involve traipsing across the village again, talking to all the same villagers.


Difficulty:

For lack of a story and variety, the gameplay was lost. Without substance to the gameplay, you can imagine that the difficulty is all over the place. Battling through a tournament is an interesting experience. You level up your dragon sufficiently, gaining experience and special moves, then heal and save before entering a tournament. You'll be able to work your way up a ladder, battling progressively more powerful opponents until you lose and have to step back and work your way up again. The rationale for not just losing the tournament is a bit murky, since you just get stuck in an endless loop once you aren't skilled enough to defeat the top seated fighter. A real solution is to go back and train, but How To Train Your Dragon encourages you to just muscle through and try your hand at the fight again, presumably with the notion that you'll get lucky. At times you do get lucky, and we found that a wild, stabbing, karate finger technique works best. This compared to actually paying attention to the button combos, which never seemed to get us anywhere. Unlike a game that rewards diligence and practice, How To Train Your Dragon is so out of balance that it just rewards cutting corners, hoping, and praying. At the end of the battle, you've won little else but a title and the chance to train another dragon. Rather than "winning" a dragon that is strong enough to compete in a more advanced tournament, your reward is a dragon at Level 1, which means you'll be doing all that training over again. It's like the game took its title a bit too seriously and forgot that aside from the training, which could have been fodder for lots of neat mini-games, there needs to be something interesting and fun to do with your time.

Game Mechanics:

At least the controls are simple enough through most of the game. The exception is also the activity that suffers the most from A.I. balance issues, those darn battles. On the surface, the controls are simple enough. You combine (X) and (Y) for light and heavy attacks, stringing them together for combos, as you unlock those combos. The weirdness comes in when you find that the Left and Right Shoulder Buttons are assigned to vital combat actions, shooting fireballs and blocking. Let's face it, the Xbox 360 is an awesome machine, but its controller is a weak spot. Perhaps the weakest parts of the controller are those slim shoulder buttons, recessed and slick to touch. Saying that you have to worry about these things during the heat of battle is a losing proposition, especially when you have two perfectly nice trigger controls on the left and right. The triggers have a mysterious function that is used in context to dodge; squeeze left, dodge left, and vice versa. There is also supposed to be a reaction when you tap the control stick twice, that helps you dodge your opponent's attacks. The reaction time on these makes it almost worthless, and you're left with blocking until your opponent backs off, reloads, or lets down his defense. The controls in the village are much simpler, and use the (X) button for almost everything aside from walking around.

We can't abide a game that fails to deliver on such promising good looks. Perhaps it's just too easy to make a good-looking game, but it seems equally easy to make a fun-but-derivative game that at least recycles more than two ideas from other titles. Beyond the lack of things to do in How To Train Your Dragon, you'll just come to hate the battles. Once you get bored with the battles, there isn't any point to the other activities, since they are really only there to help you develop and maintain your dragon for battle. We love the source material, but this version of the game is a non-starter.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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