As an adult LEGO addict and self-confessed Harry Potter fan, I should be all over this game like Michael Bay and a steaming pile of crap. Adding to my geek love, LEGO have also had an amazing track-record since they started churning out their plastic-brick related video games. In fact, with franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and of course Harry Potter within their ranks, they have amassed over 40 different gaming titles. Most of which have been top-notch.
Just like the LEGO toy, their games have managed to blur the age boundaries and entertain both young and old alike. With every LEGO video game, users expect to be presented with solid gameplay, fun puzzles, an acute sense of humour, and a 'you can't lose' vibe with a generous learning curve.
However there are quirks with this latest Vita title that result in the title not living up to their usual high quality standard, which is surprising considering it's essentially a port of a game released back in November 2011.
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 - 7 is based around the last three books (or the last four films, depending on your perspective) in the series, leading up to the climactic showdown between hero Harry Potter and arch-nemesis Voldemort. All of your favourite characters are here, portrayed in adorable little LEGO mini-fig form and surrounded by a colourful studded brick rendition of Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and more.
The good news for LEGO Harry Potter fans is that on the surface, this is a pocket-sized jaunt through J.K. Rowling's universe. It offers all of the fun gameplay we have come to expect in LEGO videogames and it's extremely easy to pick up and play from the get go. Obviously a feature that lends itself to the portable Vita perfectly. The game’s infinite lives and friendly helpful hints for puzzles also makes this game ideal to keep the little ones quiet in the back seat of the car during long trips.
For those who haven't played a LEGO Harry Potter title before, it's an action-adventure platformer centering around the three main characters, Ron, Hermione, and the titular Harry. Being wizards and witches, the gameplay involves players exploring magical worlds, casting spells, creating potions, and battling Voldemort’s evil forces (of evil). The LEGO aspect also ensures that players will be collecting and building with plastic bricks along the way. Nearly every object in the game is interactive, spewing forth coins and bricks with every wave of your wand and there is seldom a dull moment from start to finish.
As readers of the books will know, players will be searching for Horcruxes, robbing banks atop an albino dragon, fending off Dementors, saving annoying house-elves, and plenty more. Non-fans can enjoy the experience; but common-sense would lean toward playing the previous LEGO Harry Potter game first.
Having said that though, I should warn players that this is certainly no example of epic storytelling. LEGO videogames are renown for their minimal, yet comedic take with cutscenes. There are very few lines of dialogue and instead everything is conveyed with basic facial animations and slapstick humour. The only reason this works is because the LEGO video games generally parody famous movies and books that have become household names. Anyone who hasn't read or seen any of the Harry Potter saga will probably be scratching their head in bewilderment here. Basically if you don’t know your Bludger from your Gillyweed, you will feel a bit lost playing this.
On top of the campaign story, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 - 7 also includes the dueling mode that was present in the original console version. One of the highlights of the game, it allows you to duke it out, wizard to wizard, against an assortment of recognisable characters including Professor Dumbledore, Severus Snape, Fenrir Greyback, Bellatrix Lestrange, and Draco Malfoy.
Dueling plays out like mini puzzles where players must cast spells strategically while either shielding or deflecting your opponent's spells. As players unlock harder rivals, the action gets more intense and soon rampant spells will be flying in every direction. It's a mode that works particularly well on the Vita, offering up a frantic, but stress-free distraction.
But onto the negative aspects. While we've been extremely impressed with the graphical capabilities of the Playstation Vita, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 - 7 fails to utilise any of it. The in-game graphics are often blurry which, when combined with the smaller screen, makes trying to pick-out detail as painful as an Avada Kedavra curse to the jeans.
Surprisingly, action-packed scenes can even cause the game to lag, an issue that surely has nothing to do with the hardware. This lack of polish in the visuals is even worse for the cut-scenes and you can’t help but wonder if the game has been lifted from the PS2 or Wii versions of the game, rather than a port of the current-gen title. They appear laggy and pixelated and even the sound effects are occasionally out of sync from what's happening on screen.
The other downside to the Vita version is slightly more acceptable, despite it being a blatant omission from LEGO video game trend. LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 - 7 on the Vita lacks any form of multiplayer. It’s a shame as allowing players to team-up with a friend to build or do battle was a highlight of previous LEGO titles. Furthermore, as fans will know, LEGO video games often rely on multiple character puzzles, where combining unique abilities of each player allows you to progress. In the past, cooperative play meant that players could team up and solve them seamlessly.
Playing with yourself (wands at the ready) means constant switching between characters on-screen or relying on the computer to help you out. Without any multiplayer, this game doesn't have the same feel as previous LEGO titles. Even the dueling mode doesn't allow you to connect to another Vita and challenge friends. Why have so few Vita games utilised online, WiFi ad-hoc or Bluetooth to deliver multiplayer experiences?
Despite these complaints, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 - 7 is still a decent Vita title. It's a complete waste of time for anyone who owns the original console version though as this is a basic port minus a couple of features. Even the included touch-screen controls fail to add anything; instead they simply replicate controls that are just as easily accessible with conventional buttons.
But for those yet to experience LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 - 7, this pint-sized port nearly does it justice. It's packed full of collectibles and secrets to keep players entertained and while it’s aimed at the younger ones, parents who pick up the Vita after dark can while away an hour with it too. Personally though, I'm waiting for LEGO Batman 2 to hit the Vita and hopefully this one will be more than just a quick port to the handheld.