Brains behind the fire-breath

With all the hand-wringing that goes on about schools to educate our kids, at least we don’t have to worry about a proper place to send our winged reptilian friends. That’s because JumpStart’s free-to-play, browser-based MMO School of Dragons has that covered, immersing players in the How to Train Your Dragon universe while also dropping some knowledge on them at the same time.

Just in case you haven’t seen the well-regarded animated flick it’s based on, School of Dragons is set on the island of Berk, a place where Vikings and Dragons coexist – though not without some challenges, to be sure. Your character is a young Viking who gets the opportunity to raise and bond with a dragon, essentially growing up together.

School of Dragons

As virtual worlds go, Berk isn’t a gigantic place, though it still has its fair share of interesting places to see. There’s the titular school, the village where the locals live, a beach, and some surrounding wilderness areas. The early gameplay will have your Viking undertaking various quests that mostly involve gathering or delivering items while you find out more about dragons and their history with humans.

Fans of the movie are in for a treat, as the main characters from the film are prominently involved as quest-givers, accompanied by their trademark dragons. Hiccup, Astrid, Snotlout and the gang have a fair amount of voice-acted dialogue, and they’re instantly recognizable since the game’s art style matches its source material to a tee.

Of course, none of that would be much fun without a dragon by your side, and you get to hatch one fairly early on. You’re free to select any of the game’s nine types, and there’s a personality test to give you a hand if the choice is too difficult. Be warned though – the decision is permanent, so unless you want to delete your avatar and start all over, you should heed the words of the old guardian from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and choose wisely.

School of Dragons

School of Dragons places a lot of emphasis on the human/dragon bonding process, and part of it is similar to many virtual pet games as you manage your dragon’s levels of happiness and hunger. The former is a simple matter of petting or playing fetch with him or her every so often. Feeding is a little more involved, as dragons prefer eating fish (who knew?) and you need to supply them. That means buying some or playing the fishing mini-game, which is actually an entertaining way to kill a few minutes.

You also get a farm which serves as a place to customize and a production center for various helpful items. Not unlike a scaled-down version of FarmVille, the idea is to plant and water crops and to feed and groom animals, all of which will yield different products at regular intervals. Plants, animals, and decorative items are purchased with coins, while the harvesting process can be sped up with gems, the game’s premium currency. Monthly memberships can be purchased to obtain free gems every month and a variety of other bonuses and discounts.

There’s even more to do once your dragon grows a bit bigger, something that requires you to chuck it into the lava to finalize. Seriously. Anyway, you can actually use your newly grown companion as a mount to fly around, breathe fire, and do more stereotypically dragony things. Hiccup’s Flight Club opens up the option of dragon racing, and there’s the Fireball Frenzy to master fire-breathing, both of which are a bit more action-oriented and worth plowing through the more sedate early stages of the game.

School of Dragons

Except for some brief loading screens when traveling between certain areas, the game runs smoothly in any browser window since it’s built on Unity, and technical issues are mostly minor ones like collision detection and the like. The plan is to have the full game go completely cross-platform so it’s playable on iOS and Android devices as well, but the mobile apps aren’t ready just yet.

Since JumpStart is known mostly for educational titles, and there’s a strong learning theme that runs throughout the whole game, parents will probably be happy to know that your child will probably get something useful besides entertainment out of playing School of Dragons. Occasionally theteaching can get a little heavy-handed, like the way the alchemist emphasizes the scientific method to solve certain quests. More often though, the educational aspects are woven in with the story and gameplay elements in such a seamless fashion that you don’t even notice they’re there. It’s like stealth learning. It’s worth noting that reading is pretty much a must, so without assistance, the game might be too hard for younger elementary school-aged kids.

So many games based on movies are low quality cash grabs that it’s very possible even people who are fans of the movie might overlook School of Dragons. They might regret that since it has both brains and heart wrapped in a non-violent package that will appeal to lots of different people. Plus it’s making sure the dragons grow up learned, and that’s important too.