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How to Train Your Dragon
Score: 55%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Etranges Libellules
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Adventure/ Fighting/ Miscellaneous

Graphics & Sound:
Tons of licensed games come pouring out of development studios around this time of the year, and many of them are forgotten before they even drop. How to Train Your Dragon is probably doomed to such a fate, and what's worse is that it deserves it. The movie (based on Cressida Cowell's 2003 children's book) was recently released to glowing reviews, and lo and behold, the game adaptation beat it (by a hair) to public release. The worm has cleanly eluded this early bird. This game knows its target audience and it has a few budding ideas, but it's clearly a rushed product. As a result, it never makes good on any of its promises and fails to bloom into what it could have been. In the end, it's a sloppy snooze fest that has about the same chances of entertaining children as it has of entertaining adults.

How to Train Your Dragon doesn't look terrible, but let's be realistic -- did anyone expect this game to give God of War III a run for its money? The best word I can think of to sum up this game's visual fidelity is "meh." It's ironic that the male hero's name is Hiccup, because that is exactly what the framerate does at odd and unfitting times. Additionally, I found myself heading for different areas of the island, only to be interrupted by a black loading screen for a few seconds at a time. How to Train Your Dragon also makes use of a problematic camera system that occasionally wrests control away from you to show you a number of particularly bad angles. During one play session, the camera got stuck behind a house and proceeded to back at least a hundred feet away from my character. To be fair, there are a lot of games that look worse than this. To begin with, the island looks lush enough. I like the statues and some of the character models, even if many of them are recycled versions of some stock prototype. On the downside, the animations are about as wooden as the sculptures that adorn the docks and the lip-synching is guaranteed to enkindle a "I am watching a foreign kung-fu flick" feeling in the back of your mind. Like I said, meh.

How to Train Your Dragon's sound design is throwaway from all perspectives. The music is forgettable, but fitting. The voice acting is pretty much what you'd expect from a game that's based on a children's movie: hammy and pea-brained. If there were more than a handful of quips used during and after dragon fights, I wouldn't really have any serious complaints, but I'm pretty sure I heard "Attack!" ten times during a single fight. That's not good.

If the good things I've heard about the film are true, I don't think that How to Train Your Dragon follows the story of the movie (or the book it's based on). If it is, it's an extremely loose adaptation. I'll relay what little I managed to pick up from the game, though. You choose to play as Hiccup or Astrid (the heroes of the film, I presume) and are let loose on the Viking island of Berk. These Vikings might be the sea-faring destruction-prone hooligans described in history books for all I know, but they sure don't act like it in this game. They seem to really love life... and dragons. Dragon husbandry is all the rage, and it's your job to acquire and take care of up to four of your own dragons. If this isn't what the film is all about, consider this game a side project.

This premise sounds pretty cool on paper -- to say that these kinds of ideas haven't found success in the video game medium would be an indefensible assertion. Alas, How to Train Your Dragon tries to do too much and ultimately spreads itself far too thin. Many of these tasks devolve into repeating training sequences ad nauseam and completing time-wasting fetch quests. In between all of this filler content, you'll have to trek back and forth across Berk. And when you finally get to the actual dragon fighting tournaments, you realize that there's almost no depth to it at all. While children's games tend to forgo depth in favor of accessibility, this one strips the mechanics down and makes them work only selectively.

As long as you complete the training missions, you should be able to breeze through How to Train Your Dragon's Story Mode... provided you can stick with it for long enough. The training missions are all but mandatory for each dragon if you want them to level up, and it takes some time to complete them. This really sucks, because the training regimen is of a "one size fits all" kind. All you're doing is inputting button combo after button combo, and it drags the pace of the game to a crawl. Then, you'll complete some random task/fetch quest/fight, and then you'll go train some more. This isn't difficult stuff, but it's hard to keep playing for more than thirty minutes at a time.

How to Train Your Dragon features a few quirks that shouldn't have anything to do with difficulty, yet they constantly impede your progress and cause frustration. You've got a rudimentary quest log, but the instructions are vague at best; there's no map of the island, and you won't know who the characters are unless you've seen the movie. Additionally, the log is initially very confusing when it comes to quest progress, and could have used quite a bit more streamlining.

Game Mechanics:
How to Train Your Dragon charges you with a number of tasks at once, and your agenda is quite full for much of the game. While tracking these tasks is more of a pain than it needs to be, finding where you need to go and what you need to do shouldn't take too much time.

Going into the Dragon's Den allows you to go into a Sims-esque personal management system. Dragons have needs, you see, and they're visualized with a series of meters. Your goal is to keep each dragon's meters filled as high as possible, and you can do this by feeding it meat, vegetables, mineral supplements, and other assorted goodies. You must personally acquire these items, either with your own money or by doing what any other right-minded Viking would do. Brutalizing livestock and pilfering crops really is the best way to go.

Once your dragons are well-fed and happy, you need to strengthen them up by partaking in training activities. Whether that's physical training or puzzle games, you need to play these games if you want to earn some valuable supplies (including some genuinely interesting dragon customization items) and succeed in tournaments. The games are contrived as all get-out. Why the heck are there sheep on isolated plateaus in the middle of the water? What good is Simon Says going to do when another dragon is trying to incinerate me? And here's the whopper: what use do Vikings have for ice sculptures? As the tone implies, I'm not a huge fan of these mini-games; most of them abuse context-sensitive button mashing mechanics and generally don't serve the subject matter well.

After thirty minutes of random activities, we finally get to the fighting. This is the part that kids will look forward to -- but when they actually play it, their giddy smiles will melt away to contorted grimaces. The game teaches you combos and encourages you to spam them while blocking enemy attacks every now and then. Each attack sequence ends with a one to two second recovery animation that leaves your dragon open to whatever devastating assault your opponent has planned. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, the controls aren't terribly responsive, and most times you'll resort to button mashing. You've got some movement controls, but you'll rarely have time to get out of the way when you really need to.

How to Train Your Dragon won't go down as 2010's worst game, nor will it even be in the running for the dubious title. It's destined to be forgotten, and quickly. The funny thing is, there's actually a decent game buried somewhere under the surface, but instead of fine-tuning the stuff that sort of worked, the developers chose to add a bunch of unnecessary and problematic fluff. If you're looking for a great title to entertain your kids, hold off a bit longer. Something worth your time and money is bound to come up sooner or later.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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