Traveller’s Tales (TT) took the video game world by storm back in 2005 when they released their first game in
the LEGO franchise. Most of the industry didn’t know what to expect from LEGO Star Wars, but
and the game ended up being a huge hit, both financially and critically. The success of that first game was only the beginning as TT then proceeded to released at least one LEGO themed game a year since, and in many cases multiple titles. The most successful of those games were those which crossed over the LEGO franchise with popular IP’s such as Batman and Indiana Jones. Amidst all of those hit games, rumors began swirling about whether or not a Harry Potter-themed rendition of the LEGO games was in the cards for the developer.
In mid 2009, those rumors finally became a reality as TT announced LEGO Harry Potter for pretty much every platform imaginable. Considering the high standard of quality that the recent LEGO standard games had set, expectations were pretty high for the Harry Potter game(s). Finally, this past month, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 was released and not only lives up to the standards and expectations, but sets a new standard for LEGO-themed games to come.
If you have played any of the LEGO “insert popular IP here” games over the past couple of years, you know what sort of formula to expect out of the game(s). The groundwork of the games is pretty much the same across the board: traverse through familiar environments based on the popular property being used while breaking objects, solving puzzles, and collecting LEGO bits which will be spent to unlock collectibles in the game. You did it in the Star Wars universe, Batman, Indiana Jones, and now in Harry Potter’s world. All of the aspects that have become familiar up to this point return; players will constantly be searching the world for more bits, gold (and red) bricks, hit bit collection quotas on missions to improve their ranking(s), and spend collected bits to unlock additional items and characters in the game. The underlying goal of the LEGO game hasn’t changed but the package that envelops that core concept has been taken to an entirely new level this time around.
When I say that TT has taken things to a new level, I am referring mainly to the level of detail and depths that have gone to in order to create the world of Harry Potter. Nearly every single aspect of this massive game is a painstakingly accurate representation of the environments and settings that fans have become familiar with through the movies and the books, both visually and audibly. You are given basically a free pass to explore the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with little to no bounds aside from the limits of your abilities; you can explore as far as your powers will take and allow you. Although you can wander aimlessly throughout the entire world, you will need various tools or more specifically spells, in order to reach many of them and to experience various events. Learning a new spell will allow you to interact with different objects in areas you may have already passed through. Even towards the closing chapters of the game, you will find new reason to go back and visit some of the areas you may have thought were previously exhausted.
Nearly everything that you come in contact with throughout the incredible recreation of Hogwarts can be manipulated or interacted with. Fellow students and teachers can be toyed with, plants and desks can be broken or moved, torches and candles lit and blown out… even the famed living pictures as well as your necessary interaction with them are featured in the game. The only hindrance on your interaction lies in whether or not you have the necessary spell(s) to trigger said action. To this day, well into my time with the game, I am still passing through hallways and rooms and finding new triggers and puzzles which lead to collecting more LEGO bits for my spending.
Aside from the amount of interaction offered in the Hogwarts setting, the fact that the school is pretty much “alive” and ever changing is perhaps the most impressive feature of the game. You are given the feeling as if you truly live at Hogwarts, just like the characters in the original tale(s). Anything that you change or trigger will forever be changed throughout the rest of your stay as the environments are never reset. Decisions and changes that you make early in the game will carry over throughout the rest of your adventure; landscapes will be altered and pathways will be changed. It boils down to being a huge LEGO playground in which you can pretty much do whatever you please.Hogwarts isn’t the only locale that you will traverse, although it is the main one. Many other popular and recognizable places from the stories are included in the game. The Leaky Cauldron, which is traditionally a pub / inn for witches and wizards in the stories, serves as a hub in the game to access many of the game’s areas. From within the pub you can access freeplay versions of previously completed missions and view cut scenes that you have already experienced. The pub also serves as an outlet that allows you to access many of the important locations in the game; you can either resume the “story mode” portion of the game and travel back to Hogwart’s or perhaps head out to Gringott’s Wizarding Bank or Diagon Alley to spend your hard earned LEGO bits.
Heading to Gringott’s gives you the opportunity to spend any gold bricks that you have earned to unlock bonus stages which will reward you not only with more gold bricks, but lots and lots of bits which you will need to unlock more spells and characters for use in the game. These levels also serve as LEGO Builder levels, which is a feature that was introduced in the previous Indiana Jones game. These levels, aside from filling your pockets with bits, also allow you to unlock various LEGO objects to use for constructing your own levels. Unfortunately, just as in the last time the feature was used, players will not be able to share their creations with other users. The addition of this feature would be huge and is honestly the next, logical progression for this mode.
As I mentioned, the other important location accessible from the Leaky Cauldron is Diagon Alley, aka the “5th Avenue” or “High Street” of the Harry Potter universe. Anything and everything that you need can be found in Diagon Alley. It is on this strip that you will access stores such as Eeyclops Owl Emporium, Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, and Madam Malkin’s Robes. Each of these locations give you a chance to spend the LEGO Harry Potter’s in-game currencies (bits, gold and red bricks). Gringott’s and the Leaky Cauldron are also accessible from the strip. It is from within these various shops that you will purchase additional support spells for your characters, playable characters for the freeplay mode(s) of the game, as well as construct your own custom builds of characters using the game’s massive customization engine. You will want to collect more bits than you can ever imagine as there is a ton of stuff to purchase… so those of you with a “completion complex” will find yourselves thoroughly entertained for a long, long time.
This accuracy and openness of the game isn’t only the games’ strongest selling point, but it may possibly be its biggest detriment as well. The player is allowed to move forward through the adventure at their own pacing; this is a great thing for those who are familiar with the story and lore behind the game and have a sense of how things should progress but casual gamers who may not know the source material and story’s flow may feel a bit lost. It makes no sense to someone new to Harry Potter why they are simply roaming around this massive “castle” and they are given little indication as to what all they can do within its confines. As I have stated repeatedly, LEGO Harry Potter is extremely accurate. That “charm” is a huge selling point to the die-hard fans but doesn’t hold any weight with non-fans.
In an attempt to help those new to this wizarding world, as well as make it overly clear to the fans, gamers need only interact with the character known as Nearly Headless Nick to progress the storyline of the game at any given time. Nick appears throughout the Hogwarts school and will lead the player onto the next location / mission required to advance the story. The storyline itself follows the first 4 movies from the series very closely; gamers are treated to the usual silent LEGO portrayals of the important plot points from the motion pictures. TT does a great job in progressing the story visually in their cut scenes and really recreates the movies in a very entertaining manner. Those who don’t know the source material coming into the experience will definitely know the story on their way out. Granted, there are a few scenes that may fly over the heads of some, but those serve more as comedic bonuses to the hardcore HP fans. Following the completion of a story-driven mission, Nick will appear in whatever room you happen to be exploring and will leave a trail of “ghost bits” for you to follow to your next location. It is a nice feature and helps to move things along but those unfamiliar with Nick and his purpose in the school / game may wander aimlessly looking for their next goal until they catch on.
Your journey through Hogwarts and the rest of the world will be done as a group, mainly consisting of series mainstays Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Occasionally, the makeup of your party will change slightly (through the story mode) with additions of people such as Hagrid and Malfoy. All of these characters, and a TON of others (approx. 160 in total) can be unlocked and purchased for use in the freeplay version of completed stages. As in the previous games, solo players can switch between the playable characters on the screen in real time though the real fun with the game is had with its 2-player cooperative features. Up to 2 players can participate in any mode of the game in split screen format. It makes absolutely ZERO sense why online cooperative play was left out of the game; it is 2010, and the online component of games is becoming pretty much an industry standard, especially when multiplayer is included. If you happen to be playing alone though, you can rest assured that TT has greatly improved the AI of the computer controlled characters in LEGO Harry Potter. Many of the puzzles that you will encounter throughout the game require the cooperation of 2 or more of your characters; while this is easier to perform with a real life partner, the computer controlled characters more than adequately perform their duties this time around. In the previous LEGO games, this has been noted as a major hindrance as the computer never seemed to perform the functions or actions that you needed them to do; this time around though, they are usually rather productive and right there when and where you need them.
Unfortunately though, the one aspect of the game that TT has not addressed is the aging save system used in the game. Your game(s) is only saved upon the completion of a major event. Gamers have no means of simply selecting the option to save their progress at any given time. Considering that this is a game where you will spend a lot of time simply roaming around and collecting bits, it is often hard to quickly save your progress and time / progression is often lost. More than one occasion has occurred where I resumed my game only to find that I had lost some gameplay time since I quit playing. While this doesn’t affect things such as the acquisition of new characters of spells, as the game autosaves on those events, periods of time that I spent simply collecting funds to buy new items were simply wiped away. This was definitely disheartening and extremely annoying, but never really served to ruin the experience for me overall.
Another great move TT has made with LEGO Harry Potter is to the physical combat system. Most of the previous LEGO themed games had heavy focus on physical combat sequences with enemies; LEGO Harry Potter ditches that in favor of focusing largely on the magic used by Harry and his friends. You won’t be punching and kicking your way through this adventure; instead, you will be waving your magical wand to manipulate the environment and those within it. The few times in the game where combat is required utilize your assortment of spells in order to inflict damage on the enemies. Most of the time, you will simply be launching items at the bad guys or even reflecting their spells.
Speaking of spells, as you progress through your story, you will learn and acquire new spells which can all be accessed through a selection wheel triggered by pressing and holding the Y button; conversely you can progress through them all by pressing either of the bumpers on the controller. The list of spells that you can acquire is quite extensive, though only 8 can be assigned to a character at any given time. You will be using Wingardium Leviosa to lift and move people and objects, Lumos to light your way, and Solem variations to handle plants and vines you will encounter from a distance. In addition to spells, your selection wheel can also be equipped with magical items such as Harry’s invisibility cloak and various characters’ magical pets. All of these tools, spells, items, and animals alike, will be necessary in order to explore everything that Hogwarts has to offer.
All of these features are simply tools for you to use on your massive adventure and the term massive is probably a little bit of an understatement. There is a ton to do in this game. Aside from the story progression, which will last from 8-12 hours (give or take), the addition of collectible golden and red bricks, 160-ish unlockable characters, “students in perils” to assist and unlock, and a wide variety of puzzles make for a very long gameplay experience for those willing to put in the time.