Video games aimed at kids can get away with murder. I don’t mean to say that most children’s games offer a ‘Manhunt’ like murder simulation experience, but that developers can often get away with all sorts of substandard game design, assuming that kids don’t know any better. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by DreamWorks Dragons: Dawn of New Riders. For a game aimed both at young people and also based on a film property, it actually offers quite a lot of fun.
The story follows Scribbles the Scholar, who received such a dubious pseudonym because he actually lost his memory and can’t remember his name. It makes a lot of sense that he has such as odd name seeing as it is the oddly named Hiccup, the lead protagonist of the How to Train your Dragon films, who has named him. Scribbles and his recently hatched dragon, Patch, are on a quest to uncover Scribbles’ true identity and simultaneously rescue an assortment of dragons who have been enslaved by a mysterious villain.
First things first, and to the potential chagrin of many under twelve, you don’t play as Hiccup in this game. Instead he and other heroes from the films take on the role of supporting characters. They are effectively shopkeepers you can visit to trade in loot and upgrade weapons and armour. That’s right, as you have been able to gather from the words ‘loot’ and ‘upgrade’, Dawn of New Riders is a dungeon crawling RPG, offering a lightweight Diablo experience for younger gamers. Played from a top down perspective Scribbles navigates the environment, solves some simples puzzles, hits some barbarians around the noggin and hacks up acres and acres of grass in order to gather herbs to trade in for health potions.
It’s a game that we’ve all seen and played countless times before. It’s like Diablo with some sub-Zelda puzzling mixed in and dressed up in cute kid friendly visuals. That’s perhaps to do the game a disservice though, because it plays rather well. Controls are tight, instinctive and reliable, which makes combat enjoyable as Scribbles uses combinations of light and heavy attacks, shield blocks, and dodges to overcome his foes. A greater variety of enemies would have been welcome, as fighting the same combinations of barbarians time and again can soon wear thin, though matters are enlivened considerably by the inclusion of Patch.
Patch is a Chimeragon that you can switch to at any time. Patch can launch different elemental attacks, unlocked through in-game progress, which serve as providing basic combos and tactics to the combat. Switch to Patch, unleash a freeze attack to slow the enemy and then return to Scribbles to finish them off with a flourish of his axe. It’s a competently handled mechanic and serves to add variety to the otherwise repetitive combat.
Patch is also instrumental in helping to solve puzzles. He can be left standing on a pressure pad to enable Scribble’s progress, shoot electricity to hit distant switches and even freeze water with his ice breath so Scribbles can walk on water.
All of these abilities should serve to form the foundation of some fun puzzles, though that’s not always the case thanks to some inconsistent and lacklustre level design. Climax Studios have provided us with a real mixed bag of levels here. Some are great fun, such as the first set of ruins which offers a nice range of puzzles that use a new ability in a variety of ways, whilst a late game dungeon separates the two protagonists to good puzzling effect. Then there’s the ice level (why is there always an ice level?) that just goes on and on, repeating the same basic puzzle of having to power up energy nodes ad-infinitum. At it’s best, the puzzling in Dawn of New Riders offers some satisfying head scratching for younger gamers. At its worst, they’re just really boring.
The story wrapped around all of this is enjoyable enough. I haven’t actually watched any of the How to Train your Dragon films, but I’m sure those that have will get a kick out of the plethora of character cameos that crop up throughout Scribbles’ quest. The plot is revealed in bite-sized chunks of dialogue that can be quickly skipped through if you really don’t care, but if you do care then the pacing of the narrative will feel a little off. Some levels are filled with dialogue, exposition and plot reveals – and are all the better for it – whereas in others nothing of any note happens, leaving the player plodding along to reach a distant location at the far end of the map.
Difficulty has been handled well by Climax Studios – always a difficult balancing act with a game intended for children. The map screen is clear, clean and makes a doddle of getting around the levels. In addition there is only ever one path to take in the game, but there are diversions that lead to treasure and give a sense of being able to explore without getting frustratingly lost. Finally, even the trickiest of combat encounters can be overcome thanks to a magical horn that summons any of the previously rescued dragons to come to your aid. It offers a reason for the Pokémon style character collection and is a nice touch; having your dragon pal launch deadly flame attacks at a particularly challenging enemy is a visual high-point and having to wait for the magic to recharge prevents spamming.
It’s ironic that a game based on a film that is all about learning how to fly a dragon has such terrible dragon flying in it. To navigate between levels Scribbles leaps atop Patch and soars into the heavens. The camera then switches to a third person view as you fly around a three dimensional environment. The problems come with the clunky controls which are, quite frankly, a mess. Rather than soaring majestically through the sky, Scribbles and Patch spend move of their times bouncing off cliff faces, slamming into the sea and glitching when they should have been barrel rolling. These sections are sure to put off the young players they are intended for and serve as a massive hindrance to making progress in the game.