Earlier this year, Smallest Thumbs and I went to the movie theater and saw How to Train Your Dragon 2. It was one of those movies that one would fully expect to be just “okay” (as most sequels tend to be), but it was far better than we expected – and we enjoyed it immensely. Recently, at the Canadian Videogame Awards, I noticed that Ludia, a Canadian developer from Montreal, released a free-to-play game called Dragons: Rise of Berk for Android, iOS and Facebook. This hand-held title is based on Dreamworks’ high-flying sequel, and it won the 2014 Fans’ Choice Award. After I congratulated them for their victory, they encouraged me to give their title a try; and after spending some time with it, it is not difficult to see why Ludia took home the prize.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the franchise, How to Train Your Dragon is all about Berk, a village full of Vikings who have to deal with a very unique problem: Dragons. At the risk of spouting spoilers: they eventually learn to coexist thanks to a young viking named Hiccup, and the dragons move in with their new friends. The sequel involves the further adventures of Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless, as well as his friends. It also features a few new players, and a threat to both the people and dragons of Berk. The game is based on something of an amalgamation of the two films packaged up in a city-builder shell, and it follows the formation of the Vikings’ relationship with the dragons, and their continued symbiotic relationship.
The game begins with an introduction to the village of Berk (by way of text dialogue between the main characters). Berk looks nothing like does is at the end of the first film – so it’s your job to get it up to snuff. Your goal is to build up the village to be as impressive as it can be by searching for dragon eggs, bringing them back, and hatching them in the hatchery. To aid in the care of your dragons, Berk will require a steady supply of fish (to feed them) and wood (to build structures and help train them). Berk also needs Vikings to take care of the dragons, and as your village grows, you will be able to attract more Vikings.
To hunt down new dragons, you will need to rely on Berk’s heroes (Hiccup the Viking and Toothless the dragon) to scour the seas for dragons. At the beginning of the game, Toothless and Hiccup can fly short distances. However, as you raise Toothless’ level, the daring duo can go on longer sorties, and bring back new dragons to raise. Hiccup, ever the clever inventor, has created carrying bags that he can attach to toothless. When you go on one of your dragon searches, you are allowed to Toothless carries one of these bags by default, which means that you will only be able to bring back one item from your quest. This item could be a dragon egg, wood, fish, or other miscellaneous items (that feed into the collection system). If you wish to take more bags with you (and increase your chance of being able to bring back a dragon’s egg), you will have to pay a few extra runes (Rise of Berk’s in-game currency) – obviously, you will pay more to carry three bags than two.
Leveling up your dragons is a matter of feeding them (fish), and sending them to train at the academy (this uses wood). As dragons increase in level, they take more fish and wood to grow. Thankfully they are good at fishing (at fishing huts) and helping gather wood (at the sawmills). And so begins the delicate balance of feeding, training, and gathering. At the outset, you are limited in what you can do with what you have – but as you become more savvy, you will be able to create a successful village.
Most of the building types that you can place will increase the number of Vikings in your village. Other buildings, like the aforementioned academy, fish huts and sawmills are pre-existing, as are the houses of the primary cast members (which must be unlocked by expanding your village to be large enough to accommodate them). The largest building (that is there from the start) is Meade Hall, which is the ruling center of your city. Meade Hall sets the pace for how large your village can get (there are bridges to other parts of the island that are unlocked as you grow) – and this, in turn, is “powered” by the level of your dragons. Fish huts, sawmills and the academy can be leveled up as well, allowing more dragons to use them, which increases production. If you take a step back and look at the game, you will see that it is a number of well-constructed positive feedback loops that are all dependent on time (the mechanism by which Ludia sets the pace of the game).
Besides increasing their resource-gathering muscle, training your dragons also enables them to fight off raids in Battle Mode. After a little while, raids will be conducted against your village. You will be allowed to fight them off using dragons of your choice. Of course, at the beginning you are limited in how many dragons you can send out – but like everything else in the game, increasing your village’s status (ie: raising the level of Meade Hall) will allow you to send more grief at the raiders. Battles begin with a “scouting” phase, where you can tap ships to see what you’re up against. After this, the battle portion begins proper – it is here where you release your dragon force and guide them; you can also bombard the enemy ships with fireballs. You begin the round with a number of “action points”. Each activity (releasing a dragon, bombarding a ship, guiding a dragon) takes a certain number of action points. Destroying enemy ships will allow you to gain back some of them for use in repeated attacks. If you defeat the raiders before they kill off your dragons (or decimate your village), you will be eligible to collect the spoils of war (which could be anything from wood to runes, to collectible items).
The interface for the game is entirely touch-based (or click-based, if you’re on Facebook) and is very easy to use. Simply touch or click the object of your choice and you will be presented with a few options. As practically every exercise in the game is time-based, it will show you what you can do and how long it will take you to do it.
Visually, the game is amazingly detailed, and mirrors the design sensibilities of the films. Animations are smooth (and gorgeous, as you one can see when they pinch-zoom to focus on a spot in the village). Each dragon has its own distinct look and move set, which gives the game a lot of personality. While there is no spoken dialogue (which is too bad, but understandable), the official score from the film plays in the background, and really increases the level of immersion.
As with most freemium games, Rise of Berk relies on impatience to increase its bankroll. What is nice about this title, though, is that Ludia has made it very easy to play the game without having to fork over real dollars for runes to speed things up. Furthermore, they add have been steadily adding content on a regular bases, so it is a hell of a lot of value for a free game. If you haven’t picked this game up yet, I highly recommend it. Plus, given how amazing the production value and content are, I would suggest that dropping some coin on runes once in a while is more than fair given the quality of the game. Dragons: Rise of Berk is available to play on Android, iOS, and Facebook.