We’re still mourning the death of Skylanders. Not the countless plastic toys – they can do one – but the games. Outside of LEGO, there weren’t many better games for strutting around large, colourful worlds with our kids in tow, switching elements to melt ice caps or burn through brambles. They were easygoing and charming in their own way, but now they’re difficult to even play, particularly on Xbox Series X|S. Activision, we need a combined reissue that has all the characters included. Digitally, of course.
With that in mind, we’re positively overflowing with happiness that DreamWorks Dragons: Legends of the Nine Realms is inspired by Skylanders. You could even squint and imagine its main character, Thunder, as Spyro. Everything is here: the charm, the colour, the element-switching and the button-bashing combat. Well, almost everything. There’s no co-op play, which is an absolute sin. Come on Outright Games: that was a slam-dunk.
DreamWorks Dragons: Legends of the Nine Realms is a licensed tie-in to the series Dragons: The Nine Realms. Our house is full of How to Train Your Dragon fans (books, films and the odd TV series), so we were a touch confused that none of us had heard of the series. A quick check shows that it’s easier to get hold of in the US and other territories than the UK, as it’s locked behind the NowTV paywall. That’s our excuse, anyway.
The story takes place moments before the beginning of the series, as best we can tell. None of the human characters have found the Hidden World (although the main character, Tom, narrates here), so it’s a slice-of-life tale for Thunder and the other dragons who live there. It’s a wisp of a story, barely even there: earthquakes are racking the Hidden World, and Thunder’s dragonmates, the other Night Lights, have been chased away by a pack of Skrills. Your job is to find where they’ve gone. This story doesn’t deepen or change over the course of the game.
The journey takes the form of five worlds, each with five levels (the last level per world being a boss battle with a dragon many times your size). As mentioned, the levels will be familiar with anyone who jumped into Skylanders while it burned brightly for five years or so. These are zoomed out, near birds-eye view levels, with you traipsing around vibrant and chunky levels that could have been 3D printed into playsets for Christmas.
The gameplay is a fifty-fifty split of combat and exploration. Occasionally, a dragon will swoop down and bite or fireball you, so you get to call on your arsenal. You have X and Y light and heavy melee attacks which will, if you fancy it, get you through the game without much issue. Our seven year-old kept to these and got to the end of the game with only the occasional passing of the pad to Dad. On B you have a projectile weapon, which can also be held for a larger version, or a channelled version, depending on your dragon. Holding RB has you soaring into the sky. By purchasing upgrades on your serpent, you can also unlock several combos, which gives a bit of pattern to the button-mashing.
As it goes, this isn’t half bad. You can find combos that work for you and memorise them, and you can easily adapt to the situation. Different dragons have different weaknesses, while others prefer long range to short. We soon got into the rhythm of switching to Wu and Wei when Skrills appeared, and back to Thunder for some of the larger dragons.
As you’ve probably gleaned, you can switch dragon, which is another arrow to your quiver in battle, and also gives you some options as you explore. Feathers, Wu and Wei, and Plowhorn are all unlocked as your quest progresses, and they have different elemental affinities, as well as changes to how they attack. We would have taken more than four dragons and their various unlockable skins, but we’ll take it.
The other half of the game, the exploration, uses these dragons well. Crystals dot the landscape, and they are destructible only by a dragon with the corresponding colour. Purple gems are shattered by the purple-tinged Feathers, for example. When they’re broken, they will erupt, stud-like, to give you lots of crystals that are used to purchase unlocks for your choice of dragon.
DreamWorks Dragons: Legends of the Nine Realms absolutely loves crystals. They represent the end of the level (you need to reach a crystal beacon that leads you onward), the destructibles, the collectibles and the levels are absolutely covered in decorative versions of them. Watching our girls play DreamWorks Dragons: Legends of the Nine Realms, though, it’s clear that there are too many. They spent more time than we’d like trying to destroy decorative crystals, and it was all noisy with the damn things.
The upgrade trees for each dragon are great, and contain far more depth than we expected. As mentioned, there are combos, but also increased health, power boosts and even new buttons to play with. Choosing which dragon to upgrade at a given time becomes a difficult, painful choice.
We wish it were more difficult, actually. Each level has a dragon that is dominant. On the ice levels, you will need to regularly use Plowhorn, as ice crystals are throughout and need to be melted. We wished DreamWorks Dragons: Legends of the Nine Realms had a little bit of LEGO in it, requiring you to use ALL dragons across the level. It would have enticed us to spread our unlocks a little more than we did. Instead, you feel compelled to keep the most recently unlocked dragon upgraded.
If we’re getting into flaws, there’s also a curious duality with the levels, and it tripped us up more than we would have liked. You actually have two choices of beacon to end the level: one blue and one orange. Find the orange one, and you unlock a Challenge Mode for the level. This orange gem is the hidden exit in the Hidden World, but finding it DOESN’T progress the game. It kicks you out of the level, and forces you to play it all over again to find the correct blue gem that unlocks the next level in the sequence. Rather than feeling like we found something secret and cool, we felt punished. It’s a crazy addition, completely fumbled.
Luckily, everything else is sure-footed. Outright Games, at least with their last few launches, have moved in a direction where their games have become increasingly thin and repetitious. Games like DC League of Super Pets: The Adventures of Krypto and Ace are a single idea, spread like butter on too much bread. But there’s a meal here, with enough ideas, dragons, unlocks and secrets to keep you and your dragon enthusiasts playing till the end.
So, if you have a Skylanders itch that Activision refuses to scratch, or have love for the DreamWorks Dragons series, then DreamWorks Dragons: Legends of the Nine Realms takes a bit of a run up and then soars. Just pack in some co-op next time, if you please.
You can buy DreamWorks Dragons: Legends of the Nine Realms from the Xbox Store