I remember a time, before the first Lego Insert Popular Franchise Here came out, when it was cool to be skeptical about these games. After all, how good could a kid-focused Lego title be?
Pretty darn good, as it turned out. Since the original Lego Star Wars came out, developer Traveller's Tales hasn't looked back, pumping out multiple titles across nearly all the gaming platforms known to man. And so here we are with Lego Harry Potter, the latest large (some would say freakin' ginormous) franchise to get the block treatment. Surely things are getting a bit stale now? Well, perhaps not.
Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 covers the first four years of Harry's life at Hogwarts, as you may have picked up on. You'll see the Lego Harry delivered to the front door of his aunt and uncle as a baby, you'll see him win the Tri-Wizard Tournament thing at the end, and you'll see all the major points in between.
Let's talk about structure. In nearly all previous Lego games, you would have a small hub (such as the Star Wars cantina) that allowed you to access multiple episodes, and then multiple levels within that episode. Generally speaking, each episode would have six distinct levels. Lego Harry Potter mixes things up somewhat, providing a more open experience based largely around the grounds of Hogwarts. You're free to wander around (although some areas are blocked off until you progress) interacting with other students and performing a myriad of tiny tasks in order to gain more Lego studs. Hogwarts has been impressively rendered — these are certainly the best graphics out of any Lego game. More impressively, the developers have managed to make the area feel alive, and have taken pains to ensure that while you'll see the same locations a lot, you'll never grow tired of them.
And when you're done wandering around aimlessly, you can follow a helpful ghost to the next story location. This time round, there aren't simply story levels — you will also play through a series of bite-sized school lessons. These provide an opportunity for more movie-inspired cutscenes, but they also act as handy tutorials for new spells you acquire. Again, it works great, providing a much more dynamic feel to the game than previous Lego titles. Overall, the structure of Lego Harry Potter is one of its biggest strengths — you can tell the developers thought long and hard about this. Or hey, maybe they're just really good at making Lego games now…
When it comes to the puzzles and other gameplay elements, two new additions keep things interesting: spells and physics. Through lessons (or even a shop in Diagon Alley), Harry and co will learn how to levitate objects, shine light, tie up peoples' feet, and much more. You can cycle between the spells at any time, and they certainly provide a lot of depth and variation to the game's puzzles. Likewise, a more robust physics implementation means that block placing and moving objects becomes quite a fleshed out feature. You'll often use your wand to guide parts of stairs around, for example, in order to progress. Thankfully, the developers have actually made good use of these new abilities, providing a ton of different puzzles and situations that exploit them. The end result is a Lego game that feels fresher than anything since the original Star Wars title.
One of the best parts of the Lego titles has always been their portrayal of scenes from the movies/books/whatever on which they're based. It's here that Lego Harry Potter tries really hard, but doesn't always pull it off. It's not that the cutscenes aren't good — I'm a sometime-jaded games reviewer, and even I was laughing a lot in places. The problem is simply that Harry Potter works best when visual splendor is combined with iconic dialogue, and the Lego titles can only provide the first half of that potent mix. Hearing the Lego characters make grunts and other noises is fine, but you do feel like there's something missing. Partly because of this, you'll definitely need to be familiar with the franchise to know what's going on, although I somehow don't think that will be a problem. The story sections are still impressively realised, and there's certainly a very good amount of cutscenes, but it's the first time I've considered this aspect of the Lego games as a limitation.
Not to worry — you, or your child, or both, will be entertained throughout. There's a lot to do here — it's like catnip for hardcore completionists. I'm not traditionally a "100%" kind of gamer, but I found I had to drag myself away from smashing every object in every level to get all the secrets and other goodies. Seriously, you get "rewarded" for almost everything you do, and the developers have gotten the whole audiovisual feedback mechanic down to a tee. If your kid simply needs to gather up everything in sight, then I really feel for you.
I touched briefly on the graphics already, but wanted to emphasise again how slick they look — it's good to see the developers constantly improve their engine. And as you'd expect, the audio quality is top notch, seeing as they can draw on the solid work as heard in the movies. Even though there's no dialogue, this is one game you'll want to listen to as well as see.
It's easy to recommend this game if you're a) a fan of the series, b) a fan of Lego titles, c) have children, or some combination of all those things. Traveller's Tales has gotten pretty darn good at this sort of thing, and while I was expecting it to feel stale this time round, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is one of the best in the series. I can't decide if it beats Lego Star Wars — that just worked well on many levels — but it's most certainly better than both Indiana Jones and Batman. So, hats off to the developers for keeping things fresh — now go buy this game and lose yourself among all the butchered latin phrases that make up spell names in this insanely popular world.