As Kotaku's resident LEGO fan and game reviewer I approached LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1 - 4 with more than a bit of trepidation. It's the first time I have ever been asked to play a LEGO game and didn't really want to.
After having played through more than a half-dozen LEGO games from developer Travellers Tale I was officially burnt out. LEGO Harry Potter was one LEGO too many, it seemed. But then I played it.
LEGO Harry Potter still has you playing through a beloved franchise rebuilt and reimagined with LEGO bricks and minifigs, but this time around the developers seem to have solved a lot of the issues that were starting to make their popular games feel tired. Everything from the way the world looks to how minifigs move through it has been overhauled. And then there's the magic.
A Living World of Brick: This is the best looking LEGO game to date. The minifig characters can finally, fully interact with the LEGO world they inhabit. Physics have been added in a way that allows you to knock over chairs and kick loose bricks. It may sound like a minor thing, but coupled with the gorgeous new graphics, the world of LEGO Harry Potter sings.
Play At Your Speed: LEGO Harry Potter still has a central starting point of sorts for every level, but it doesn't really feel that way. A bulk of the game's action takes place at Hogwarts, but instead of having you walk through a door to start a level, or forcing you to aimlessly roam around on the hunt for the next story-triggering event, the game uses the fiction's ghosts, specifically Nearly Headless Nick, as a guide. If you want to explore, feel free to. But if you want to continue the story, then pick up Nick's trail of ghostly LEGO studs which guide you to the next key moment in the game. It's a fantastic way to balance free-roaming play with narrative story-telling.
Magical: Instead of just giving each of the game's characters a couple of special abilities, LEGO Harry Potter has you working your way through the school years learning spells. Once learned, the spells are added to your arsenal of magic and can be used at any time. This adds a surprising amount of depth to the gameplay, puzzle solving and exploration. It's also quite a bit of fun to use in little impromptu duels with your son. I especially love encasing him in a bubble as we race to the next area.
More Puzzling Puzzles: LEGO games have never featured particularly difficult puzzles to solve, and that hasn't really changed for LEGO Harry Potter. But there is a lot more variety this time around thanks to all of those wonderful spells you learn at Hogwarts. By the end of Harry Potter, when you're controlling characters with access to all of the magic of the game, you'll find yourself switching between spells on the fly to work your way through levels.
Free Building: Another neat addition to this latest LEGO game is the ability to freely move LEGO bricks around and snap them together however you want. This can only be done in very specific places and the movements of bricks are mostly limited to a single plane, but it's still a neat addition to the game and, perhaps, a sign of bigger, better things to come.
Fan Service: J. K. Rowling's fabulous books are packed with a lot of details, details sometimes lost in the movies. Fortunately, the game seems to have found room for a lot more of those wonderful little things. Because of the nature of the game, you'll find yourself going places never fully explored or explained in the books. Places like the Slytherin common room and Hogsmead.
Slight of Story: The Harry Potter books are packed with complex story lines, ideas and concepts, all of which have to be conveyed without a word spoken in the game. While those familiar with the books and movies will get what's going on in the game's cut-scenes, if you're new to the world of Harry Potter you're going to be completely lost.
Bugs, And Not the Eight-Legged Kind: Even the complexity of making a deep, open world populated by interactive pieces of LEGO can't excuse the bugs found in this latest LEGO game. Travellers Tales has been doing this long enough to be able to deliver a totally problem-free experience, but that never seems to happen. This time around I ran into a couple of screen-locking freezes which required a system reboot. I also got stuck in one scene, forcing a restart of a level. And is it just me, or did the game change the way you write over a save spot? Somehow we managed to wipe all of our progress through the first half of the game with a couple of button pushes and were forced to start over.
Split Confusion: The addition of a dynamic split screen was a huge boon to the series when it hit and it's back in LEGO Harry Potter, but the split seems a bit buggy this time around. Sometimes it doesn't split when you want it to and, worse still, the camera angles in the split screens can sometimes make it hard for you to see what's going on all of the time.
So much of what makes a LEGO game enjoyable is the source material. If you love Star Wars you're going to love the LEGO Star Wars games. Hate Indiana Jones and you won't find much to like in the LEGO Indiana Jones games. But if you strip that away and look just at the mechanics of the game, the depth of exploration and innovation, Harry Potter is most certainly the best of the bunch. Of course, if you're not a fan of the books and movies, there's nothing that can be done to make you like this game.
Having played LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1 - 4 with my 9-year-old son, I'm ready to go back now, armed to the teeth with newly mastered spells, and replay it on the hunt for unlockables and secrets. While the idea of gaining access to more of the 167 characters in the game is attractive, what really compels me to replay Harry Potter is the off-chance that I might find entirely new unexplored levels, each artfully detailed in brick.
While I've enjoyed all of the LEGO games to date, until now Star Wars has always been my favorite. As blasphemous as it sounds, Harry Potter manages to unseat it.
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1 - 4 was developed by Travellers Tales and publishers by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the DS, PC, PSP, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 on June 29. Retails for $49.99 USD. A copy of the Xbox 360 version of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the entire game with my 9-year-old son. Played through half the game on my own.
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