Let’s face it: movie tie-in games can be terrible. Often, they’re exploration games that walk you through the plot of a movie that you’ve already seen but with the addition of stilted, repetitive dialogue that become pointless button-mashing exercises. Games targeted at kids and families are even worse, neglecting important parts of the game experience like up to date graphics, camera control, and plot.
How to Train Your Dragon is everything that a movie tie-in game should be. In fact, it ought to be called “How to Make a Movie Tie-in Game that Doesn’t Suck.” Sure, it’s not going to win any game of the year awards, and it doesn’t break new ground for graphics, gameplay, or interactive storytelling, but it’s got something most film-based games lack: it’s fun.
For starters, the game doesn’t take you through the movie. It presumes, though doesn’t require, that you’ve seen it, and so it takes the characters from that film and builds a new story. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that at the end, the vikings of the village start training dragons and keeping them as pets instead of slaying them (if you haven’t seen the movie, sorry I just ruined that for you, but you should still go see it anyway). That’s where the game begins, and it’s divided into two interrelated sections: arcade and story mode.
Remember Mortal Kombat: Deception? The Mortal Kombat that came out in 2004 for the original Xbox? No? Just me, then? Okay, well, IF you’d played it, you’d remember that it was basically a fighter, but it had a story mode that allowed you to level up your fighter by learning combinations and winning tournaments and generally doing RPG-ish missions, quests, and things. That’s what this game is like but with dragons and less gore.
Story mode is a nice blend of questing and fighting, alternating fairly evenly between the two. Throughout the course of the game, the player can acquire a team of four dragons and buff them up to level 20 or higher. I found there to be a little bit of tiresome grinding towards the end of the Hiccup tournament, the penultimate round of dragon fights, but the mini-games available for leveling were mostly enjoyable and not hard to master. In fact, I was able to outsource most of my item gathering and novice level point grinding to my five-year-old, who thought chasing chickens in the village was hilarious fun.
This brings me to my favorite thing about How to Train Your Dragon. It’s G-rated and family friendly without being simplistic or dull. Although it’s primarily a fighting game, there’s no blood or gore. The controls are simpler than Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter‘s, using mainly A, X, R and L. My son did get upset the first time that he saw two dragons fight, though, so if you have a child who is particularly fond of the cute, cuddly Night Fury in the film, you might want to take a Deadly Nadder or Gronkle into the ring the first time through.
The differentiation between the different species of dragon is a stroke of genius, as each dragon has different maximum point values for such traits as speed, strength, and firepower. As in the film, Night Furies are lightning fast but generally weaker in hand to hand combat than the slow moving Monstrous Nightmare. The combos are the same for each species, though the animations are unique, so once you’ve learned them for one species you can fight with any dragon in the game. And the animations are fantastic — the graphics are only fair to middling, but the fights are larger than life and filled with fire effects and slow-mo combination hits that make the game look and feel much more exciting.
The best part of the game, though, hands down, is the feature that allows you to customize your dragon (created in story mode or in the Dragon Creator) in appearance and fighting style. The most powerful dragons will be leveled up through the RPG, which unlocks more characteristic points and tech tree advances than are available in the creator (it also unlocks a kickin’ new species that doesn’t appear in the film).
Other touches make How to Train Your Dragon a complete gaming experience with no corners cut. The original cast of the film was brought back for voiceovers, and the music sets a mood without being overpowering. What it loses in originality, it makes up for in polish — something you expect from a publishing house like Activision . I only hope that other developers tasked with creating movie tie-ins take a cue from Dragon and give us continued plotlines and games that fit into existing genres.