I sympathize with developers saddled with movie tie-in games. Critics love to rip on these games because they typically suck, but then again, hating on a movie game is easy—the critic risks nothing and the audience is pre-programmed to lap up the bile. The truth of the matter is that developers have it rough with these games; timetables are typically soul-crushing and developers have to deal with the less-than-inspiring subject matter of the latest Shrek clone to hit theatres.
For this reason I try to look for the positives when reviewing movie games—not taking the easy way out, if you will. With How to Train Your Dragon, it turned out to be easy anyway. Developed by Griptonite, this licensed DS title is one of the better movie games I’ve played in recent memory.
Griptonite has taken the film’s premise—training pet dragons—and applied it to the Pokemon formula. Personally I’ve always been pretty exasperated by the Pokemon pheomena, probably because I was a little too old to be interested when it first took off. Still the basic RPG framework is good no matter what you bolt onto it, and it works very well for How to Train Your Dragon. The game lets you choose either a male or female character—Hiccup or Astrid—and then sets you off to battle wild dragons and other dragon tamers.
Although you can eventually choose different dragons to take into battle, the game is less about catching em’ all and more about the combat and upgrading. The turn-based system is very similar to what you’d find in Pokemon but uses a unique power meter for timing turns. Different attacks consume different quantities of your dragon’s energy, and you can’t attack until the meter is full again. This adds a surprisingly deep amount of strategy to the combat. You’ll be tempted to lay down your heaviest attacks, but they leave you inactive for longer and thus open to attack. Sometimes it’s best to take a few big punches and then wear your opponent down with bug bites.
Certain attacks also inflict status changes such as wound, poison, burn and sleep, and when affected by these curses an enemy becomes vulnerable to combo attacks and critical hits. There are also restorative powers that can be used for stronger defense, regenerating HP or curing your dragon of curses. Sometimes you need to swap out attacks or powers during a fight, which costs some energy but allows you to switch your tactics to something more effective.
You can customize your dragon at any time and the game includes an armor forging system to augment this customizability. As you defeat stronger opponents you’ll collect ore, among other things like HP and spell items, and you can smelt this ore into better armor for your dragon. The minigame has several steps—you must fire the ore by blowing into the microphone, pour the molten metal into a crucible, break it out of the mould, clean it and etch a symbol into it. The end quality of the armor piece depends on how well you did in the minigame. This process was surprisingly fun and involving; it was a lot more interactive than just buying a new armor plate. As you do battle your armor degrades, so it’s a good thing the armor game is fun because you’ll be doing it multiple times throughout the game to upgrade your worn out armor.
The combat is really the main focus of the game. You explore the world on a touch-based map which is very similar to the one in Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. You’ll be given side quests by people in your village but these are usually accomplished through some light exploration and a few battles. There was an arcade-style overhead shooter side-game but I found it to be pretty rudimentary.
In terms of production values the game is pretty competent, even impressive for a movie tie-in. The range of dragons is limited but each one animates very well, expressing some genuine, if goofy personality through their limited number of polygons. While the supporting villagers are kind of rough, the main characters are well modeled and animated, with a good amount of voice acting for important conversations. The music won’t grab you like the infectious tunes from Clash of Heroes or the Pokemon series, but it gets the job done and is by no means annoying or repetitive. Griptonite did a good job making the game expressive and attractive, which is a lot more than you can say for most movie games.
How to Train Your Dragon is an easy game and probably won’t present much challenge to veteran Pokemon masters or RPG players in general. That said the core combat is still a lot of fun, and with upgradeable armor, multiple dragons and new attacks and items to unlock as you progress, there’s a decent level of depth in the game.
Most movie games are admittedly mediocre—shallow, barely functional action-adventures with sub-standard graphics and sound. Because of its outdated, underpowered technology the DS usually gets the worst of the bunch too. How to Train Your Dragon is a real rarity. It’s not only a turn based RPG—an odd choice for a movie game—but a focused, competent movie title and a DS game at that. It puts a fun new spin on the old formula and gets the most out of its main mechanic without spreading itself too thin. I had fun with it and it should be pretty addictive for younger players who are new to turn based RPGs. If you’re a parent with a kid who loved the movie, don’t feel bad getting them the DS game—it’s one of the few movie tie-ins worth your money.