Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4

Year: 2010
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii
Publisher: WB Games
Developer: Traveler's Tales
Genre: Action/Adventure
Review Date: 7/20/10
Rating: ****

Another iteration on the popular Lego formula, lovingly recreating the events in the first four "Harry Potter" films. Naturally, nearly everything takes place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and even though you spend almost all of your time there, the layout is a constant point of confusion and bewilderment. It really helps to make a map of the school grounds to help you find your way around. Fortunately, while you're playing through in Story Mode, Nearly Headless Nick physically shows you the way to your next destination, ensuring that you don't get lost. As the events of the story unfold, Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn new spells and abilities which allow them to access more of Hogwarts' numerous rooms and secret areas. It's amazing to me that after 30 hours of play I was still finding new areas.

Like the other Lego games, "Lego Harry Potter" has both a Story Mode and a Free Play mode. Free Play is unlocked when you complete Story Mode for each chapter, and allows you to go through the same area with an entourage of characters who have different abilities so that you can collect treasures and access areas that were unavailable in Story Mode. The combination of Story Mode and Free Play makes up about half of the game, while the rest of the game consists of non-scripted free exploration of the Hogwarts grounds. There are lots of collectibles to track down, including gold bricks, parcels, house crests, extra characters, and students in peril. There are a total of 167 characters to collect in the game, which will certainly satisfy even the most rabid Harry Potter enthusiast. (however, about half of those are simply variations on other characters, like twelve versions of Harry wearing different outfits) Different characters have different abilities, and it's important to use the right character for a given task. Harry can expertly ride a broom and attack while flying, which no other character can do. Ron's pet rat can access small areas, and Hermione can read runes. Some characters are strong and can pull heavy chains, some characters can dig, and some are able to summon dark magic (similar to "dark Force powers" in "Lego Star Wars II"). Students from different dorms also have exclusive access to particular areas. Unlike other Lego games where you can change characters simply by walking up to them and pressing a button, in "Lego Harry Potter" you have to concoct a transformation potion and drink it. The advantage to this is that you don't have to aimlessly wander around hoping to run into a certain character, as the polyjuice cauldrons are all in fixed locations (assuming you remember where they are and how to get there).

The gameplay is quite fun and the characterizations are cute. Unfortunately, the cinematic story elements are too long and try too hard to be funny instead of going for a more subtle translation of the material. The game has no dialog, and characters only communicate with body language and various non-verbal sounds (grunts, groans, sighs, giggles, etc). Unfortunately, the characters are extremely chatty, and listening to everyone's constant vocalizing is maddening. It's tempting to just turn down the volume, but that would eliminate the helpful audio cues that are used to track down treasures. Most of the gameplay objectives are simple and straight forward, especially if you've played other Lego games. However, boss encounters can be overly frustrating due to the wonky spell controls and unclear objectives. For example, there are two ways to perform a Wingardium Leviosa spell, but only one of them works against bosses (the unintuitive method). In-depth knowledge of Harry Potter mythology is also required for some areas, and now I finally know what it must be like to play "Lego Star Wars" if you're not a hardcore "Star Wars" fan. The game just assumes that you know only Harry can fight Professor Quirrel, even though Hermione is also at your disposal and they both have the same abilities. I was stuck there for about twenty minutes until I finally switched to Harry and realized that only he can make progress. The game also assumes that you're familiar with terminology and expects you to know the difference between a Patronus and a Leviosa. At one point in the game, you receive an obscure hint saying that "Hermione can use Crookshanks to dig." I was stuck on this for about a half hour. What the hell is a Crookshank? Is it a spell, or something that I have to collect in the field, or what? It turns out that it's the name of her pet familiar, which I didn't even know she had.

However, after you learn all the terminology, master all of the spells, figure out which characters have what abilities, and memorize the names and colors of each of the dorms, the world of Harry Potter is immensely fun and rewarding. It's also by far the longest Lego game I've played to date as there are tons of things to collect and lots of secret areas to explore. There's a lot of backtracking and revisiting the same places over and over, but the world is consistent and persistent, so you rarely have to perform repeat actions. It's also the first Lego game I've played where currency isn't a problem - it's EVERYWHERE, so buying new characters and abilities is never an issue. The biggest complaint I have (apart from the overly vocal characters) is with the clunky control scheme for selecting spells. By default, you have to hold down a button and move the thumbstick towards the spell you want to enable, which is awkward, absurd, and time consuming. You can also use the shoulder buttons to cycle through spells, which is quicker and more intuitive, but doesn't work in Free Play mode because those buttons are used to cycle through characters. Finally, at the very end of the game, I discovered that the left and right triggers can also cycle through the spells, which is conveniently undocumented. Overall, the game's warts don't diminish its enjoyment, and it's a worthwhile investment for Lego fans and Harry Potter fans alike.