Sinister Reviews #02: LEGO Harry Potter – Years 1-4

#02: LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (Nintendo Wii)
Genre: Third-Person Adventure, Brick-’em-Up
Platform: Nintendo Wii (version tested), PC, Nintendo DS, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PSP, Mac
Release Date: June 2010
I was slightly apprehensive at first about delving into LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4‘s comfortable, warm wizard’s sleeve robe. My previous experience of the LEGO video game series had been the staggeringly-awesome LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, which still ranks as quite possibly the best Star Wars game there’s ever been (give or take a few BioWare and Dark Forces outings). However, it came with the ever-so- slightest twinge that it hit a sweet spot that was entirely unique to the novelty of combining the Star Wars saga with a bunch of kids’ toys, and that its sparkle couldn’t last forever. Still, along came the boy wizard in the form of a cheap pre-owned sale, and here we are; back building bricks and saving the world yet again.
Traveller’s Tales  and their LEGO video game series seem to have been rattling through the major movie franchises like there’s no tomorrow (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and now Pirates of the Caribbean): Aside from The Lord of the Rings, it’s difficult to think of any major film series they haven’t plundered from in recent years (I’m still waiting for that LEGO Saw announcement). Gameplay-wise, it’s business as usual, as you must build your way through twenty-four puzzle-filled levels from the first four books/movies of the Harry Potter saga. If you’ve played any of the previous iterations before, you should know what to expect and you’ll nestle back into the action without even noticing that you’ve done so- that said, it’s just as open to newcomers as seasoned players, so if you’ve never joined the LEGO party before then jumping straight on board should be a doddle. There’s more of a lean towards adventurous puzzling than some of the previous games who focussed more on combat, such as LEGO Star Wars or LEGO Batman, where there’s melee a’plenty. The change in pace is more to fit the source material though, which suits adventuring and puzzle-solving a lot better than blasting everything in sight.  Free-for-all scuffles do still make appearances here and there and there’s still the standard ‘boss’ fights after few levels, but there are larger gaps between them than in previous games; into which there’s more puzzles to solve and classes to attend. So much so, that’s it’s often a surprise when a (typically dramatic) cutscene finishes and you’re suddenly thrust into pitched battle once more, completely unprepared. The puzzles that make up the majority of the main game are, on the whole, well-thought out and of significant enough breadth variety to keep things from going stale too soon. A good proportion of the puzzles and powers on offer are lifted from previous iterations or given a makeover, but such are the perils of developing a videogame franchise which is enormously successful, but neither the developers nor fans want the boat rocked too violently.
The game world itself is immersed in the lore of J. K. Rowling’s boy wizard; in fact, it’s so ‘immersed’, it’s almost drowning. Outside of the main game itself there’s a fully-explorable Hogwarts  (albeit without any sort of map, which makes navigating round there about as simple as tying your shoelaces with your elbows), along with Diagon Alley, The Forbidden Forest, Hogsmeade and any other Potter locale you wish to name. The main story progresses through six levels of each book, charging through set-piece after set-piece that’ll be familiar if you’re already onboard with the main storylines – this being the LEGO video game series though, it’s a ‘re-imagining’ of the events of the saga rather than playing them out word-for-word. Cut-scenes progress the main story in a pantomime fashion; using plenty of visual references and slapstick to act out the plot all without a word being uttered by any of the characters (minifigs don’t have vocals cords, dont’cha know?). It’s these moments that give the series its well-deserved charm, and the pacing and comic timing of the in-game movies is superb. The game never takes itself too seriously, and even some of the more SERIOUS BUSINESS aspects of the story are dealt with with tongue firmly pressed into cheek.
Level design has always been the series’ forté, and it’s present in full force here again with a huge range of obstacles to tackle, areas to navigate and rooms to explore. While ploughing through the story levels is as linear and straightforward as you’d expect, navigating Hogwarts’ sandbox environment is a somewhat different kettle of fish: The castle itself is enormous, with every kind of the classroom, dorm, corridor and outdoor environments you’d come to expect from a game that sticks closely to its source material. With no signposting, map or particularly memorable landmarks to guide you, chances are you can easily lose half an hour just trying to find your way to the next level (for reference, some nice maps can be found here). Nearly Headless Nick attempts to mark a breadcrumb trail to your next port-of-call by laying a path of ghost LEGO studs, but it’s very hit-and-miss and more often than not sends you blindly in the wrong direction. A map in the pause menu (or even in the manual, I’m not fussy) would have been useful; something I hope they rectify in the imminent LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7.
The main meat of LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4  revolves around the ample supply of spells that are unlocked during the story by attending and completing lessons; used to put bricks together, zap enemies, ward off nasties or blow things  to smithereens. Holding down the C-button opens up the spell wheel, allowing selection of the next piece of sorcery with the analogue stick, and upgrades can be purchased in Diagon Alley for some of the combat-based spells. Magicks on offer range from familiar tricks like Wingardium Leviosa and Alohamora, to more obscure spells like Anteoculatia; which can be unleashed to turn a NPC’s hair into antlers in a fairly amusing manner. Pretty much everything is destroyable in order to harvest LEGO studs which can be spent on new characters, spells and extras (providing you’ve found them in the main game first). New additions to the standard ‘brick-em-up’ grind are cauldrons in which ingredients (distributed around the level and sometimes requiring  some minor puzzle-solving to get hold of) must be collected to brew a potion and advance further in the level. Tonics that can be inbibed include strength potion, invisibility serum, or the real showstopper, Polyjuice potion. Polyjuicing permits toggling to a character that’s previously been unlocked in the main game (and subsequently purchased at Madam Malkin’s Robes For All Occasions), and can be dandy fun once you have a few recognisable characters unlocked and charge around Hogwarts causing mayhem. Some of the playable characters not automatically provided during the main game but unlocked by careful sleuthing are particular fun (especially Lucius Malfoy, who introduces Avada Kedavra into the spellcasting mix) as they often bring with them new abilities,  spells or comedic value. Voldemort and Dumbledore, meanwhile, are only accessed somewhere near the tail end of the ‘100% Completion’ spectrum; so by the time you get to the good guys, you’ll have unlocked so many Generic Ravenclaw Girls, that the novelty of becoming He Shall Not Be Named has somewhat lost its shine.
In single-player, you’ll be joined by a computer-controlled character; drop-in, drop-out co-op is offered if you’ve a friend. The series excels in providing a balanced co-op experience, even if most puzzles are solved by either P1 or P2 alone and there are only a smattering of co-operative (P1 + P2) puzzles to be solved. The game benefits greatly from the split-screen capability, meaning that both players are now free to explore around the whole level without having an invisible bungee-rope tied to each other preventing characters from leaving the same screen. Gameplay is still firmly pitched toward family/co-op play so players will have no problem getting through the main game; nailing 100% of the gold bricks, characters and extras will need some sleuthful adventuring, though. In addition to the gold bricks, character tokens and normal Lego studs there is to collect, there’s also a bunch of other collectibles to busy yourself with, from red Owl Mail boxes to find which unlock bonus modes (Score x10, Christmas mode or Invincability) to a variety of students  dotted around the gameworld who must be rescued from various “perilous” situations. To get through it all, be prepared to hammer through the main game several times to get the characters and skills required to complete certain tasks and hunt down all the collectibles on offer. There’s a special something for those who manage to find all 200 Gold Bricks, which is (arguably) the sweetest level of the game, but I won’t spoil the surprise. If that seems like a lot of content to rattle through, then be reassured that LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 never feels like a chore. Even prolonged periods of play should keep things interesting enough to keep you glued to your Wiimote for easily a few hours; re-affirming the  LEGO series’ ability to be just at home with sucking players in for extended periods of time as offering short, twenty-minute bouts in between gaming snacks.
The third-person adventuring of the main story is broken up with various mini-levels, including the aforementioned spell classes and  ‘chase’ sequences a la the boulder bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark. These typically necessitate the player to sprint towards the screen in an attempt to outrun some enraged nasty and if you like hopeless controls, getting stuck on scenery and not being able to see where you’re running to and falling straight into a chasm, then this is the minigame for you. For the rest of us, thankfully, they’re kept to a minimum and so are kept to just a minor irritation than anything more substantial; saved for the end part of a single chapter rather than an entire level themselves. Broomsticks emerge at various points in the story, but since only Harry can actually use the broom competently out of the main trio, if you’re playing co-op, then P2 will find their feet staying firmly on the ground. Aside from these minor inconveniences, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 possesses more substantial problems that it’s harder to ignore: Despite its heritage in the rest of the series, the game engine still shows the tendency to be subjected an often-alarming number of glitches and bugs: Characters getting stuck on scenery is routine; objects glitching out Geddan-style can occur spontaneously; or, even worse, NPCs spazzing out and running neverendingly into walls can often result in the inability to progress to the next area and demanding a console reset to put right. There’s also a nagging feeling that the experience runs out of steam near the end; as if the game shows its hand far too soon and much of the tail end of the story begins to feel like a re-run of the first half’s levels, action and puzzles. It’s not a deal-breaker, and there’s still plenty of fun to be had, it’s just that it can start to feel like it’s fun you’ve already had before, dressed up in a different set of robes.
Building on a series which has largely maintained its fanbase a success on not deviating from a winning formula, fans of the series will find this just as enjoyable and avid cynics will find little to convert their beliefs. For a game targeted at those enveloped the extended Venn diagram suggested by the game’s title, most players will encounter few challenges along the way; but that’s to ensure that the game remains accessible at at all times.While LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 doesn’t re-invent the wheel, it does succeed in combining the most entertaining bits of the LEGO series and the Boy Wizard’s exploits; if any of that sounds appealing and you can look past a few minor flaws, then you’ll have a hoot. [8]
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