How to Train Your Dragon 2 Review
Posted by Jake Shapiro
Needs a bit more training
How to Train Your Dragon 2, developed by Australian studio Torus Games and published by Little Orbit, is a throwback to movie tie-ins of yore. Most big action films these days opt for cheaper, often microtransaction-based game tie-ins on mobile devices, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Edge of Tomorrow. It makes sense – iOS and Android apps cost less to produce than full-fledged home console titles, and the more 'casual' mobile market is perhaps more likely to purchase a film-based game despite the movie tie-in stigma that turns off more experienced gamers from buying these adaptations on home consoles.
In that regard, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a respectable effort; the real question becomes whether this console adaptation is worth the retail price point. It's essentially an arcade-style flight game, where you play as one of five characters (with two more unlocked later) from the namesake kids' movie and ride their corresponding dragon around the Viking island of Berk – you can engage in minigames and races against other dragons or simply explore the island for hidden unlockables. You can switch between dragons at any time; each one handles slightly differently and of course comes with its own collection of humorous voiceover clips, many taken straight from the film. There's no overarching storyline or "main quest," so How to Train Your Dragon 2 can sometimes feel like a collection of side quests without any primary objective; you'll have to go see the film in theatres for the plot, and use the game simply as supplemental material.
The flight-focused third-person gameplay with accessible controls brings to mind the wondrous Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series by defunct developer Factor 5 (a studio doomed, ironically, by its disastrous dragon-flying title Lair); the core gameplay revolves around simply steering your dragon with the left control stick and launching fireballs with ZR. You can accelerate, decelerate, make sharp turns and use special attacks, but the core controls are easy to understand; the GamePad and TV always show the same action, which allows for off-TV play. The camera controlled by the right control stick gets incredibly wonky at times, but overall the controls feel fluid.
How to Train Your Dragon 2's graphics are a mixed bag. On one hand, the island overworld with surrounding ocean is a fun place to fly around, with detailed Viking settlements to fly through and towering mountains with peaks to explore. The developers clearly took some inspiration from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with the Nordic semi-open world, particularly with the map screen that's a 3D-rendered visualisation covered in clouds. The sun reflecting off the ocean is gorgeous, and when you fly down low just above the water, the wind from your dragon's wings will create small waves – a nice touch.
In other aspects – perhaps to fit this whole island into one cohesive game world with no loading screens between areas – How to Train Your Dragon 2 can sometimes look like a GameCube title. Everything looks great from faraway, but get in close and the graphics become muddy; the trees dotting the landscape (which you can fly straight through with no resistance) are especially ugly.
The music, taken straight from the movie, makes you feel on top of the world while you fly to the highest peaks of the island; the Norse-flavoured tunes bring to mind Howard Shore's magnificent soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings, particularly the Rohan themes in The Two Towers.
Once the wonder of flying around the island wears off, though, How to Train Your Dragon 2 doesn't have much to offer. Most of the events (which you can luckily quit out of at any time) are variations of "race the other dragons," "fly through floating rings like in Superman 64", or "race the other dragons and fly through floating rings like in Superman 64." While flying lackadaisically around the huge world is fun, the racing minigames lack the nuance and depth of a dedicated racing title; as far as the ring collecting goes, it's about as fun as it sounds. Any time you brush up against a wall, your character falls off their dragon and must respawn again. To change the pace a bit there's a touch screen shooting gallery minigame, which took this reviewer a while to figure out because it doesn't tell you to use the touch screen and none of the rest of the game uses touch controls at all. There's also a sheep-collecting challenge where you're required to put red sheep in the red enclosure and blue sheep in the blue enclosure, but when playing we often found invisible sheep that made it a nearly-broken experience.
There's not enough variety to make the events worthwhile, and you'll have much more fun simply exploring the island on your own. There are hidden items to collect as you explore – 50 special coins for each dragon that unlock new abilities when you find them all – and perches scattered throughout the landscape that you can land on to admire the view. There's no dismounting your dragon, which limits the variety of gameplay but is perhaps a wise decision; flight games with on-foot segments often end terribly (see: Rogue Squadron III). Ultimately, though, the game world isn't large enough for the exploration alone to make How to Train Your Dragon 2 worth purchasing – you can easily find every nook and cranny of the island in a single afternoon. Tamriel this ain't.
Although the in-game menus and digital manual don't tell you about it at all, How to Train Your Dragon 2 features cleverly-integrated multiplayer that could perhaps give the game legs for big fans of the film or parents who want to play with their kids. At any point during the standard single-player mode, a second player can connect a controller to hop in with their own dragon. Unfortunately there's no Pro Controller support so the second player will have to use a Wii Remote with slightly more limited controls, but it's a welcome addition. The second player can explore the island just like the first player, and you can race against each other in the standard events, in addition to three multiplayer-specific minigames. Most impressively, there's no split-screen – one player plays on the GamePad screen, so the second player gets the TV screen entirely to themselves.
If you're a big fan of the movie and you can take advantage of the multiplayer with your kids, the exploration aspect of How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a soothing, enjoyable romp through a detailed island gameworld accompanied by a triumphant soundtrack. As a retail game, though, it's a steep asking price for a dragon adventure with repetitive minigames and little depth. Hopefully these building blocks will lead to fuller results once How to Train Your Dragon 3 rolls around.