Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels would seem to be the perfect inspiration for a good game. The series spans a dozen books featuring warriors who ride dragons and fight against a terrifying parasite that falls from the sky. But Ubi Soft's Dragonriders: Chronicles of Pern is not a good game. It takes the primary elements of the Pern novels and uses them to fashion a run-of-the-mill adventure game that offers very little actual adventure and too many frustrating mechanical issues. And as in many other disappointing adventure games, you are supposed to be a great hero, but you do little more than perform menial tasks.
The basic societal structure of Pern provides the background for Dragonriders but not the substance. You play as D'Kor, rider of a bronze dragon. The Dragonriders have a sort of caste system, based on what color dragon you ride (they also have names like S'lon, F'ben, and V'hul, while nonriders tend to have names like Jim, Tom, and Kevan). The game does a poor job of giving any contextual explanations for Pern's strange society, though there is a large library of information available for players who don't have the necessary background to understand what people are talking about. Still, those who haven't read the books will likely feel lost at times.
When Dragonriders begins, the Weyrwoman of Fort Weyr has died. This is apparently a bad thing. D'Kor must help search for a replacement. There is some discord among the riders as to how the next Weyrwoman should be selected, and this leads to treachery. There is also a plague afflicting the people of Pern. Over the course of the game, you must investigate the source of the plague (consistently described as a "virus," which seems pretty advanced for a society pitched in scientific darkness), seek out treachery in your ranks, and help find candidates for the new Weyrwoman.
It all sounds very epic, but it isn't. In reality, your tasks will be much less dignified. Here's an example of one of Dragonriders' puzzles, which tend to be fancified by the fact that the game calls them "quests." A miner asks you to find his pickax. You walk to the next screen, and his pickax is propped up against some rocks. You grab it, and return it to him. Quest complete. You'll also help find ingredients for a meal, capture bugs for a young girl's collection, find a lost toy, and pull sheets off of statues. It's as if someone made a Lord of the Rings game in which Frodo must search the four corners of Middle Earth for collectible bottlecaps. Or a game that has Elric using Stormbringer to make fruit salad.
Dragonriders attempts to add some role-playing and action elements. For the former, you have a few key character statistics that improve as you progress. These have little impact on how the game plays and instead simply act as keys to open new quests. Certain characters won't talk to you, and certain areas can't be accessed, until your reputation or knowledge is high enough. And some quests can't be completed until your strength is high enough. Otherwise, the stats are meaningless.
The action sections of the game are bad. The simple combat system requires no skill--you simply hold down the space bar and bang the up arrow. Even when the combat is difficult, it isn't challenging. The game also includes some jumping puzzles, but they aren't really puzzles because there is no way to fail. These situations require nothing more than pressing the space bar when you see the jump icon, which triggers a cinematic of D'Kor making the jump.
There are two somewhat difficult combat sections, but the rest are easy. This is fitting because the rest of the game is incredibly simple. No skill or deductive thought is required. You basically steer D'Kor around and press the space bar when the game tells you to. If you read everything and pick up everything, you will finish the game. The game attempts to add some console RPG elements such as hidden items and optional side quests, but they have no impact at all on the game. You're given various options when conversing with characters, but the correct response is always so apparent that the choices aren't meaningful.
The voices of the characters are mostly decent, though occasionally poor. The dialogue can be a source of unintentional amusement because the speech won't match the text. And, frequently, the speech will just drop out for whole sections of conversation, while you watch characters' lips move and the text scroll across the bottom of the screen. There is no rhyme or reason for this happening--often, a conversation will begin and end with speech, though the middle is silent. You can't interrupt conversations, or even speed them along. And because you'll often have to speak to characters repeatedly, this is very frustrating. It's annoying to sit through an identical conversation several times because you thought the person might have something new to say.
This is slight evidence that the designers have no respect for your patience. There is better evidence, too. Every time you switch locations in the world, you must watch a cutscene of D'Kor changing into his riding gear, mounting his dragon, flying away, landing, changing into his street clothes, and watching his dragon fly away. There is no way to interrupt it, and though it is somewhat impressive the first time, by the 30th time it will only appeal to the most extreme dragon fetishist. This is the only dragon riding you'll do in the game, so those who want high adventure on the back of a high-flying reptile will be out of luck.
The cutscenes would be more bearable if the game looked better. The fully 3D graphics are mostly good but often seem a bit jagged. The dragons and environments are decent, but the people look strange, with awkward facial expressions and stilted movement. The story is interesting at times, but it gets odd near the end as weird plot twists that have no precedent and revelations that don't make sense suddenly unfold.
Perhaps they'll make sense to fans of the books. Perhaps fans of the books will be able to overlook all the small, frustrating things about Dragonriders and enjoy running around Pern finding things that people have lost. Dragonriders isn't a terrible game, but it is a pointless one. And likely it'll just get you frustrated as its characters keep talking about great warriors and the threat from the skies, while you're busy on a scavenger hunt--a very easy one at that.