When the LEGO series burst onto the scene with LEGO Star Wars in 2005, it was an instant hit. The game's simple controls, fun humor, and family-friendly gameplay made it a classic among players and assured it a spot in the upper echelon of licensed games. However, as the LEGO series started branching out and extending its trademark influence across other properties, it seemed as if some of the spark had faded. The LEGO Indiana Jones games in particular were criticized for having numerous glitches and having a general lack of polish.
When I started playing LEGO: Harry Potter, I had some serious concerns. However, it looks like Traveler's Tales has gotten back to doing what they do best with LEGO Harry Potter, and the love that they put into this title definitely shows.
Right from the moment you start the game, the affection the developers have for the series as a whole is apparent. The opening cutscene features a mish-mash of humorous takes on the opening scenes from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone mixed with a few nods to both the fans of the books as well as previous LEGO games. I won't spoil anything here, but it must be said that the cutscenes in LEGO Harry Potter are definitely on par with the best of the cutscenes from the LEGO: Star Wars series.
The cutscenes definitely continue the series' trademark humor, and the gameplay follows suit by providing users with more of the same puzzle-platform style of gameplay that has been featured in previous LEGO titles. Although this sounds a little disparaging, it's actually quite a boon for the game in this instance. The LEGO fanbase is one that must have some repetitious elements, especially when you consider that many of the players are quite young. Having a repetitious format may become tiresome in a game series designed for adults, but with a franchise with fans with single-digit ages, being able to hop right in and know what to do is key for success.
That's not to say, however, that there are no new elements in LEGO Harry Potter. Instead of a single action you can take with items in game, LEGO Harry Potter features more than ten special spells that you can use to achieve various effects in the game. These spells can be easily cycled through using the shoulder button, and add a new puzzle element to the game.
Although there are quite a few spells (including the always-funny Ridikkulus spell), the one you are most likely to use in 90% of situations is Wingardium Leviosa. This levitation spell is the first spell you learn and will be used to move objects around and interact with switches. The Lumos spell is also used quite a bit, along with various graduated intervals of attack-style spells including Expecto Patronus and Incendio.
And speaking of combat, there is a fair bit of magic-based fighting in LEGO Harry Potter. This is a change of pace from previous LEGO games, but it sits nicely with the overall tone of the game. The Harry Potter series of movies and books has always been well-known for its magical creatures and (at least in the beginning) fantastical battle sequences. Although boss battles generally do contain some amount of puzzling, you will be able to fire off magical spells from your wand fairly easily to overpower your opponent.
LEGO Harry Potter does a great job of refreshing and updating the LEGO series for the Harry Potter universe, but unfortunately, there are several problems that remain. One of the problems that returns from other games is the camera. Though you may not notice it if you are playing co-op and staying close to your partner, if you are playing with an adventurous partner or with a bunch of AI-controlled characters, you'll notice the camera following the wrong character or zooming out to the point of near-unplayability.
Another thing that you must know coming in is that the best way to experience LEGO Harry Potter is with a friend. Playing by yourself can be quite an exercise in frustration, and AI-controlled characters can be painfully difficult to deal with, especially when you need to get them to a certain platform or area so you can proceed. Sure, you can always use your Wingardium Leviosa spell to get them in the correct position, but this can become quite the chore and make the game feel more like Hogwarts' babysitting service than a real adventure.
A final complaint I have with this title is with the game's hub system. While hubs in previous LEGO titles have been expansive with plenty to explore, the Diagon Alley hub feels almost overwhelming. I had to search for several minutes just to find the character-purchase shop, and it felt like a chore going through the different areas, waiting for loading screens, and then tracking down who I needed to get new wardrobe choices, extra spells, or watch cutscenes. Though this may sound like a small gripe, I really relished the overall simplicity of previous games, and the complicated nature of the hub world just took away from the game's overall immersion.
Technically speaking, everything in Harry Potter maintains the status quo, which is a good thing. Cutscenes look polished, and in-game graphics maintain the signature brick-style that has become synonymous with the LEGO series. The only quibble I have with the game's visual styling (and it is a minor one) is that environments can get a little too busy at times and it can be hard to be precise with your targeting when you have dozens of interactive elements on screen. However, this only occurs in a handful of areas, and can usually be remedied by walking up to whatever element you want to interact with and targeting it directly (instead of just heading in the general direction and pressing a button.
LEGO: Harry Potter Years 1-4 is certainly the best of the post-Star Wars LEGO games. The story material is handled wonderfully (though if you've never read the books or watched the movies, prepare to be lost), and the gameplay is a great mix of familiar devices and new elements. Although the inevitable follow-up to this title may take a darker turn, I look forward to experiencing it all the same.
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