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LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (PlayStation 3) artwork

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (PlayStation 3) review

"Exploring every nook and cranny is oddly addictive, perhaps because there's usually something new to see or hear. Whether you're climbing the owlery tower to listen to compositions on an old phonograph or playing around in a room full of muggle artifacts and watching a car fly out the window, the incentives that the game offers the true fan seldom disappoint. They're almost enough to make a fellow sigh when he finally finds everything. Almost."

What I like about Hogwarts Castle as portrayed in the movies is the air of mystery that permeates each and every labyrinthine corridor. You just know as the characters head down a hallway that even though they're following a familiar path, there are secrets off to the sides that could be every bit as interesting as the ones that viewers ultimately get to see. The world that J.K. Rowling created is a fascinating one. An ordinary door isn't just an ordinary door because behind it there might lurk a magical beast, a moving staircase or any number of other secrets that we can hardly hope to imagine. Hogwarts Castle is truly fantastic, and what I like about LEGO Harry Potter is that the mystery is still there, just waiting to be explored.

To some, that fact may come as a bit of a surprise. LEGO is a terrific brand and it has accounted for years of fond memories, but comical interludes don't exactly do the best job of building a foreboding and mysterious environment. The sense of menace is gone when a character dies and the other folks around him just shrug and imagine his pieces being put back together. And yet somehow, it almost always works. The people at Traveler's Tales have rebounded from the disappointing LEGO Indiana Jones 2 with a project that is faithful to its source material in a way that makes for some truly compelling gaming... if you don't mind collecting things. A lot of things.

As the full title of the game makes clear, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1 - 4 depicts the events portrayed in the first four books and movies. The emphasis is on the big-screen adaptations. That's clear even in the introductory videos, which depict the wild cab ride along the London bridge, complete with levitating LEGO head. Other chilling scenes from the film are also portrayed in abbreviated fashion, like when the young boy choir sings "Something wicked this way comes" at behest of Dumbledore. There are no words, of course (LEGO pieces don't speak, just mumble) but the key moments from all of the films are here and represented. It seems like every time you turn around, there's a nod to nostalgia.

If you haven't seen the movies or read the books, most of what matters will make no sense. There are obviously spoilers, since every film ends with some sort of big reveal that is (sort of) repeated here, but the lack of dialog means that only character names and the like can really give away any big surprises. It's not like any of that damns the game, anyway; most people who would leap at the opportunity to play it will already be familiar with the ins and outs of the Potter-verse. Some of those folks can probably even recite key dialog in their sleep (I'm not one of them, but I can deliver a mean "You're a wizard, Harry" upon request).

For the sake of easy organization, stages are broken up by year and depict six selected scenes from each of the four movies, for a total of twenty-four levels. Those stages in turn are connected by the massive level hub that is Hogwarts Castle and surrounding environs. As you wander the ridiculously labyrinthine hallways, it's easy to get lost if you're not paying attention. Fortunately, one of the resident ghosts is on hand to walk you to your destinations. Nearly Headless Nick makes an awesome tour guide and leaves behind a spectral trail of LEGO studs that resembles the ingenious golden breadcrumb trail from Fable II. As in that game, you're welcome to venture off the beaten path if you wish (without a compass, as it were), but you never have to worry too much because Nick is always around to lead you to that next stage. All that you need to do along the way is solve a few puzzles.

For the most part, those puzzles simply require you to use the abilities that your characters have gained by attending class sessions between the proper story-centric stages. Instructors will help them to learn some truly impressive abilities. The central cast starts out knowing almost nothing, but by the end of the game the heroes can levitate blocks, blast Dementors, use their wands as flashlights and hop onto brooms to take to the skies. Those abilities come in handy frequently. For example, there might be a large lever on a wall that a weak student can't hope to pull. The solution? Gather a bunch of ingredients from the surrounding area, dump them into a bubbling cauldron and brew yourself a strength-yielding potion! Or maybe you want to break a glass wall that has gotten in your way. Equip some earmuffs, find a mandrake and carry the shrieking fellow up the stairs and to that pesky obstruction. The barrier will shatter and you can make your way to that next class.

It's impressive that LEGO Harry Potter does such an excellent job of capturing nearly everything that made the books and movies so enjoyable. What we don't see here, the mind can easily fill in on our behalf. The end result is an almost perfect game. The "almost" from that preceding sentence comes back to haunt the player like Myrtle in a bathroom stall. It comes back in the form of that most awful of game villains: item collection.

If you hate collectibles in video games, I'm going to have to recommend extreme caution as you consider a LEGO Harry Potter purchase. The game features more collectible items than I can recall gathering in any title that I've ever played before it. When you start playing and you access the pause menu, the enormity of the task ahead of you will hit you with the force of a brick wall. A brick wall constructed of 200 gold bricks, mind you, which happen to be just one of the items that you need to gather. There also are 20 red bricks, 50 students in peril and nearly 200 characters to unlock. That's a lot of hunting, and your search will take you from one fascinating end of Hogwarts Castle to the other with nary a warp in sight. To gather everything, you'll need to cover a lot of ground and you'll do so multiple times. Even the Story mode stages must be revisited in Free Play mode if you want to find everything, especially since the ability to open something like half of the treasure chests doesn't even come to you until you've worked your way through most of the game.

So much of the collection seems useless, too. Do we really need twelve versions of Harry? The developers seem to think that we do, and so you'll have to collect each of his various forms--one at a time--in order to complete your massive character collection. That way, you can choose to dress him in a tuxedo, or a blue shirt, or a Slytherin disguise or his Hogwarts robe or... you get the idea. While the other characters don't have as many versions, the options can still be over-the-top ridiculous. I like that I can take control of the fine lads from Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, but here my options are taken too far. Goyle in a sweater isn't much different than Goyle in his usual attire, after all, especially when you have to dig to find each form. Some of the options are too obscure, as well. I could have done without the 'violinist' character.

Of course, the item collection isn't really about finding stuff; it's about getting to know the wondrous Hogwarts environment. Exploring every nook and cranny is oddly addictive, perhaps because there's usually something new to see or hear. Whether you're climbing the owlery tower to listen to compositions on an old phonograph or playing around in a room full of muggle artifacts and watching a car fly out the window, the incentives that the game offers the true fan seldom disappoint. They're almost enough to make a fellow sigh when he finally finds everything. Almost.

To a certain extent, the Harry Potter books and movies were the simple story of some friends who worked together to overcome adversity and came to love and trust one another. It was a timeless tale made more magical by the wizardry, the detailed mythos and by Hogwarts Castle in particular. With LEGO Harry Potter, the developers pay homage to that dynamic and once again, the castle saves everything. If you love the license, this game can easily keep you and a friend busy for thirty or more hours of frequently rewarding gaming. The game owes that success to the many characters, to the puzzles and sometimes to the plot, but mostly it owes it to Hogwarts Castle. Who knew that brick walls could accomplish so much?


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Staff review by Jason Venter (July 30, 2010)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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