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Review: Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4
by Linford Butler

As a franchise, the Harry Potter brand has a long and illustrious history. J.K. Rowling’s septology of novels – following the adventures of young wizard Harry Potter as he grew up at a school for budding wizards and witches – became an unexpected success, having as much positive impact on children’s literacy rates as it did to Rowling’s bank account. Soon snapped up by Warner Brothers as a film franchise, the idea for the Harry Potter series – conceived on a train journey between Manchester and London in 1990 – has become an icon of both British literature and ‘magic’ worldwide.

However, when it comes to games, Harry Potter is somewhat of a grey area. Stacked against every developer is a key question: how does one weave the delicate tapestry of Rowling’s deep stories, about love and trust and magic and death, into an entertaining eight-hour-or-more gaming experience which will appeal to a wide demographic? This is, of course, the same problem which plagues the majority of ‘branded games’, a subset of gaming which most steer clear of. Putting across the whole of Rowling’s stories, with their complex canon and trivia, in game form is no mean feat.

That didn’t stop developers from trying. Since 2001, we’ve had better Potter games, such as the original PS1 version of Philosopher’s Stone and Prisoner of Azkaban on PlayStation 2 and Xbox; and not-so-good attempts at translating the Potter recipe into game form: the PS2 version of Goblet of Fire stands out to me as easily one of the worst of the series, alongside the spin-off game Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup. But despite the valiant attempts of EA Games to pull off Harry Potter in a videogame setting, any Potter gaming experience I’ve been brave enough to attempt has been distinctly mediocre.

So when I heard that Traveller’s Tales were planning on taking the world of Harry Potter and transforming it into Lego form, I was adequately intrigued to see how the final product – which arrived in June in the form of Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 – would come together. Almost every gamer knows the Lego game concept by now, even if they feign snobbery and pretend they’ve never played one. Still, the Lego series has been highly successful, and the choice to take on Harry Potter and turn the universe of the boy wizard into pixel-modelled plastic sounded like the lifeline which Harry Potter, as a game concept, needed.

Lego Harry Potter allows gamers to play through the key moments and plot of the first four Harry Potter stories (Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire), but with the cutesy yet charming aesthetics of famous building toy, Lego. Of course, you play as the key characters – Harry, Ron and Hermione – for the majority of the game, but also get the opportunity to take control of other supporting characters, such as Fred and George Weasley, Remus Lupin and even the lovable giant Hagrid. Indeed, the cast in the game is strikingly large, and is faithful to both books and films, only adding to the sense of familiarity which long-term Potter fans will revel in.

It’s this familiarity which really sets up Lego Harry Potter as a must-buy for Potter fans. Hogwarts Castle, whilst not an exact clone of the castle from the movies, features many locales which will be instantly recognisable to aficionados. The majority of the Harry Potter cast make appearances, all in Lego form; whilst the player has the opportunity to learn a range of the spells from both page and screen. The game is also largely faithful to the storyline of each book: although each story has been abridged and edited down in order to fit the first four books into one game, all the key moments of the stories feature, and whilst the full depth and colour of Rowling’s novels and their canon isn’t put across, both fans and newbies to the Potter series will have at least a basic understanding of the fundamental plot of each story.

I mentioned earlier that Lego Harry Potter is charming, an adjective which I seldom get opportunity to use in a review. You find yourself playing the game and smiling; it’s child-friendly, clean, innocent fun, and beautifully implemented too. Even the older gamers amongst the Lego ranks will find Lego Harry Potter irresistible once they’ve begun on the first two or so levels. At the risk of wandering blindly into the shady underworld of New Games Journalism, wittering on about the emotional effect of games, it does make you grin like a small child as you regress and re-experience your Lego-centric youth.

However, a game is nothing without good gameplay mechanics, and Lego Harry Potter is a thought out title. Controls are intuitive and follow the basic scheme of all the Lego games’ controls. The shoulder buttons are particularly cleverly used, allowing players a quick method to switch between spells in their inventory. Furthermore, changes of controls according to the context are a big win and, whilst they’ll go largely unnoticed by most, certainly keep the game feeling smooth and polished.

The latest iteration of the Lego games franchise also utilises the excellent ‘drop-in’ co-op mode present since Lego Star Wars back in 2005. It works flawlessly: one can play through the single-player campaign alone, but a friend can join them immediately and without having to change game-mode or setup a new player profile by simply connecting a controller and pressing the ‘Start’ button. It’s a simple addition which does a huge amount to make the game more attractive to those who enjoy a laugh with friends during their gaming sessions, but the lack of an online co-op mode may have been an oversight on Traveller’s Tales’ part, and a feature which I believe would have added a huge amount more lifetime to the game.

It’s genuinely funny, too. Traveller’s Tales have interwoven some truly fantastic moments of comedy into the game, following the same utilisation of comedy which Rowling herself uses in her writing: have a quick giggle and then move swiftly on. It adds sparkle, personality and fun to the game and, considering that there is no speech during the entirety of the game, was probably the saving grace which prevented the story from becoming dull after long play sessions. Some favourite moments include the Gringotts scene, where the camera pans round to show that the goblin is not hard at work doing some number-crunching, but instead drawing a picture of a house and trees. It’s comedy gold, unexpected and laugh-out-loud.

The actions which the player undertakes are largely consistent and unvaried, however, and in a game with no script and only comedy to pull some interest back, Lego Harry Potter becomes dull during long play-sessions. In short stints, there’s no doubting the attraction and success of Lego Harry Potter, but as a game for long-term play, there’s better choices out there. Of course, for completionists and collectors, Lego Harry Potter is practically a wet dream: not only are Lego studs (the currency) readily available in bulk, but the gold and red bricks, student in peril challenges and collectible characters provide a wealth of content to unlock for those obsessed with clinching that platinum trophy. For those who aren’t largely bothered with hundred-percent-ing their games, however, Lego Harry Potter will be trying after a while.

Combat is also disappointing, though thankfully doesn’t appear often. Duels between students or opponents are slow, clunky and ultimately unrewarding, and only serve to irritate the player. Every year has its own boss character, too, and the combat doesn’t really improve here at all – every boss battle is handled in much the same way as one another, and the disappointment which these battles serves ends up making the end of each year feel a little anti-climactic.

That aside, though, Lego Harry Potter isn’t about combat, instead rewarding players for exploration and the development of their characters through that exploration. It’s where the game really comes into its own; Hogwarts is huge, sprawling and confusing, exactly as you’d imagine it would be, and all of it is spectacularly presented (graphics are high-quality and impress, and framerate is stable for the most part). There is a real magic to Lego Harry Potter as you wander round the locales and see pixies holding key objects just out of reach, or locked chests which you can’t open, or objects which just can’t be destroyed – rather than being an irritant, they give the player a sense of drive as you know that, eventually, you’ll learn the spells you need to open those chests or defeat those pixies. Whilst I’d advise against long play sessions with Lego Harry Potter, particularly if you’re playing alone, short stints combined with this motivation to learn the spells you need to complete tasks is what will keep you returning to Lego Harry Potter, even years after your first play-through.

Despite the challenge of translating Harry Potter into a game context, Traveller’s Tales have certainly done an admirable job. There are flaws, yes – it is the only game I know to give me a physical headache after more than a few hours play – but it is a game more focused at fun and enjoyment in the short-term than addictive play appeal. The parts which matter – the exploration, comedic moments, Lego aesthetics and incorporation of the Potter canon – are developed and impressive, and do well to make Lego Harry Potter a must-buy game for fans of Rowling’s creation. Admittedly, the more experienced gamers may not find any real appeal here, but the point is that this isn’t a game for the hardcore. It’s a game designed to cash in on the cutesy Lego brand, whilst providing some giggles and quick entertainment. In that, it does superbly.

8/10 [?]

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- Linford Butler

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