I think at this point it's safe to say that Backflip Studios has embraced the free-to-play market. From the acclaimed Army of Darkness Defense [Free] to iOS classic Paper Toss [Free / HD], most of its titles have gone free and are now supported by ads or premium currency options. DragonVale [Free] is something a little different, though. It's built from the ground up to compete in the crowded freemium marketplace that have you managing zoos, pet stores, restaurants or, in this case, dragon parks.
Just between you and me, dragon parks are pretty rad.
Even with it's blazing dragons, DragonVale isn't going to set the freemium sim world on fire. It's not revolutionary in any way. So if you're not interested in games where you breed animals, build habitats and collect resources, you're not going to be interested in this one. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a strong contender that's well made and has dragons, read on.
You begin with a floating island that is completely devoid of dragons. To remedy this unfortunate situation, the game walks you through the early steps of creating a dragontopia: building your first habitat, buying and hatching your first egg, and learning how to use gems, the premium currency. It kindly lets go of your hand almost immediately, and with the help of the Goals system you won't have much trouble finding your own way.
In the broadest sense, your goal in DragonVale is to breed or buy dragons to entertain the visitors who come to your off-leash dragon park. Seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen, but these dragons have a diet of treats, not people. You build farms to harvest those treats, habitats to house your dragons and decor to pretty up the place. Much of my time in DragonVale has been spent getting my habitats and decor laid out just so.
But dressing up your islands is just a sideshow to the main act: breeding. Once you put a few levels behind you, you'll start getting your hands dirty with the fine art of cross-breeding. You begin with access to a few basic types of dragons, like plant, fire and earth. When you unlock and build a breeding cave the game opens up. Nearly every combination of those basic elemental types has a hybrid or two to be bred, and getting them into your park will occupy the days, weeks or months you're playing this game.
It's not that it's particularly difficult to find the combinations to produce hybrids. All but one are eventually available for sale in the game's Market, and the combination of dragons to breed is plainly listed. But there's an element of randomness to the results, and hybrids take their time before hatching. It's not uncommon for hybrid eggs to be bred over the course of a dozen hours or more, and then the eggs take that long again to hatch. The impatient can purchase gems or get them from friends to speed up the process, but it won't be cheap.
There's still plenty to do while you wait for your dragons to get down to, um, business. Aside from decorating and farming treats, you can take your dragons to challenge the Colosseum, and then pop in fairly often to collect the money your dragon exhibits earn. Thankfully, DragonVale doesn't have a decay mechanism. The only thing to lose if you walk away from the game for too long is potential profits when your habitats fill up.
This is one of many smart decisions apparent in the game. Another is the granular notification control Backflip Studios has given players. There are four types of notifications available, and you're free to turn off any or all of them. It's little touches like that that make me so fond of this game. That and the dragons. Each one is adorable and weird in turns, especially as they grow.
Interested in taking up a second career as a dragon breeder? Then swing by this thread once you've picked up DragonVale. It's filled with folks who are looking for friends to give gems to. There's also an ongoing hunt for the secret of the Rainbow Dragon, the one missing breed. I haven't found one yet. Will you?