It’s fair to say most licensed tie-in games these days – with the exception of TT Games’ LEGO output -– tend to fall somewhere between ‘awful’ and ‘meh’. Usually developed and shipped out in double-quick time to save money and hit a theatrical release deadline, these sorry bits of software are more often than not destined for bargain bins the world over. So, with the third How To Train Your Dragon film preparing to swoop onto the big screen, we’ve predictably found ourselves entertaining another gaming cash-in. Or have we?
Because while Dragons: Dawn of New Riders does nothing particularly new or outlandish – in fact, it doesn’t really have any unique mechanic or element to claim as its own – it still manages to prove itself worthy of a spot on Nintendo Switch. By taking the simple premise of a top-down dungeon crawler and dialling back its systems and difficulty, you’re left with a fun and enjoyable adventure that’s ideal for young gamers who want to get into the genre, but a) don’t want to over-encumbered with menus and subsystems, and b) are a little too young the more adult, hellish landscapes of Diablo III: Eternal Collection.
Instead of repurposing the plot of the third film into an interactive experience, British developer Climax Studios (an outfit that has Silent Hill games and plenty of VR titles to its resume) has set Dragons somewhere in-between the second and third films. Instead of playing as main heroes Hiccup and Toothless, you play as Scribbles, a young man struck with a cliched bout of amnesia and a dragon hybrid called Patches. Together, the two set out to foil a plot to enslave dragons and solve the mystery of your new winged friend’s hyperactive ageing.
There’s a simple plot to sink your teeth into, but it’s never shoved down your throat. Instead, Dragons: Dawn of New Riders simply lets you get on with the action for the most part. It’s a welcome decision as young players are unlikely to want to sit through reams of text and unvoiced cutscenes; some scrolls that reveal more about the story are entirely optional and can be completely bypassed without losing much narrative clarity. It’s a focus on simplicity that carries through into every part of Dragons: Dawn of New Riders' six-hour journey.
You can flit between Scribbles and Patches at any time by pressing ‘L’, and each has their own set of abilities. Scribbles is your basic melee character, gradually unlocking a sword, shield axe and hammer for use in battle. With one button for blocking, another for dodging and a final one for attacks, it’s a control scheme that really couldn’t be simpler. Ranged attacks come courtesy of Patches, who hurls balls of energy at his foes. As the game progresses and your dragon pal grows older, you’ll gain access to ice, fire and electric powers as well.
Much like Scribbles’ hammer – which can be used to knock square blocks onto switches – Patches’ elemental attacks also serve a practical and puzzle-based purpose. By flicking between them with ‘ZR’, you can use ice to freeze lakes and reach new locations, utilise fire to warm up icy floors to stop blocks sliding too far and unleash bursts of electricity to power switches from afar. Those puzzles start off easy enough, but they gradually increase in complexity as you visit new islands. They’re never too difficult, so young players won’t be scratching their heads for long, but they’re tough enough to at least require a little head scratching.
There are no XP bars to fill or skill tree menus to unlock. Instead, Climax Studios wisely boils everything down to a need to collect resources while exploring dungeons. Gathered from smashing boxes and opening chests, these ingredients can then be traded with Ingrid for health potions or with Gobber to purchase upgrades for your weapons or better armour. You’ll need to do a little exploring to unlock three special artefacts to really soup-up your weapons, but by limiting the need to explore and the requirement to collect loot to a degree, it keeps Dragons: Dawn of New Riders entertaining without drowning it in needless extra ‘stuff’.
It’s all top-down dungeon crawling, though. You’ll also get to explore the Viking-inspired realm of the films on the back of Patches, swooping through the clouds and across the sea to visit all manner of locales. It’s sad there aren’t any other things to do bar fly from one location to another (there’s no real-time landing, instead you’ll hold ‘X’ then land before entering said dungeon). Some races, flying challenges or aerial enemies would have really helped bulk out Dragons: Dawn of New Riders shunted run-time, and seems a waste of a series all about riding dragons.
There are some other problems, and while they’re far from game-breaking, they do start to grate after a while. The lack of a proper aiming system for Patches makes launching your elemental attacks more difficult than it should be, especially when you’re boxed in with a lot of enemies or you need to aim at a statue-shaped switch during a boss fight. The fact your AI-controlled partner can take damage while you’re not in control of them is also a poor design choice. Whether you’re currently controlling Scribbles or Patches, the AI simply isn’t clever enough to serve as anything other than a distraction and an attack sponge, forcing you to waste needless health potions to revive them while you’re doing all the hard work.
That being said, Dragons does an admirable job of offering up a safe, friendly and enjoyable dungeon crawler without being too violent or needlessly scary. Fans of Skylanders who miss that mix of exploring, puzzle-solving and combat will definitely lap this up. The Switch port runs really well too, in both docked and handheld modes, so if you want to grab the portable version, you won’t be missing out on the full experience.
Despite being a licensed tie-in, Dragons: Dawn of New Riders is anything but a broken, half-baked money-grab. It’s not particularly remarkable in its features – and it really misses a trick by not adding more things to do while riding your dragon between dungeons – but for recovering Skylanders fans and those a little too young to go loot crazy in Diablo, this is still a family-friendly adventure that’s well worth your time on Nintendo Switch.