|System: 3DS, DS, PC, PS3, PSP, Vita, Wii, Xbox 360|
|Dev: Traveller's Tales|
|Pub: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment|
|Release: November 11, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Cartoon Violence, Comic Mischief|
by Shelby Reiches
The LEGO video game series, at this point, extends well beyond the original scope of the Star Wars franchise that bore it all. That game was an unexpected gem, popping up just in time to cash in on the as-of-yet unreleased third prequel movie, yet containing the content of that film in LEGO-ified form. It begot a sequel, as well as games set in the Indiana Jones continuity and a Batman outing. By the second Indiana Jones entry, though, the formula was starting to wear thin.
And a formula it is. LEGO games have unique settings, based on their particular franchise, and the characters change—as do their specialized mechanics—but the titles are all a combination of loose, forgiving combat and light puzzle solving in a world inhabited by LEGO people and objects. There's usually a hub world of some kind and the ability to revisit completed levels with your choice of characters, granting access to previously unreachable areas.
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7 has all of that. It also, however, happens to be the sequel to the game that breathed new life into an ailing franchise. In the wake of LEGO Star Wars III and LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, can it do it again?
First, the good: LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7 is a beautiful game. The environments are well-textured, incredibly faithful to the appearance of the movies, with sparkling particle effects and bright colors shooting forth as appropriate. Everything animates smoothly, from the characters to the jumbles of disorganized blocks and the fanciful devices they construct. A particular favorite animation: when players "carve out" a shape from a red wall, using the Diffindo spell, it peels out of the rest of the wall before crumbling to pieces.
The characters are expressive, too. It's amazing the amount of personality Traveller's Tales injects into the onscreen mini-figs. It's not just their mouths and their eyes, either. All of their body language, from slumping in dejection to Ron's cowardly shivering when spiders are present, makes it perfectly clear how they're supposed to be feeling at all times. Which is good, since no one talks. The mini-figs do communicate with a nonsensical murmuring, but they tend to speak mostly with their actions. You'll see them flirt with, chastise, and support each other in equal measure. Oh, sure, a bit of the story gets lost in the process (particularly if it's been a while since you've read up on your Harry Potter), but it's easy enough to tell what's going on, and who's supposed to be whom.
The audio, too, is wonderful. The spells sound powerful when they shoot out, whether the explosive blast of Reducto or the low thrum of Expecto Patronum. Gathering studs and golden bricks is as addictive as ever specifically because the game rewards you with a satisfying clinking clatter or a booming surge that tells you that you've accomplished something. Even destroying the many LEGO objects in the environments feels like you're actually picking up a handful of the Danish building blocks and letting them tumble onto a hardwood floor.
So, thus far we've mentioned Diffindo, Reducto, and Expecto Patronum, but there is a full complement of base spells the players gather over the course of the game, learning to use them under the caveat that, at least for the first two chapters, they are students at Hogwarts. When controlling a wizard, the spells may be cycled at any time, which allows for puzzles to have multiple steps demanding judicious use of more than spells to destroy and reconstruct objects, fill them with water, carve them from red bricks, even read a character's mind to find out which trinket he desires. More of the puzzles, however, rely on a specific character's, or type of character's, special ability. These are also formally introduced as they become important to one's advancement through the story.
Of note, the hub worlds become increasingly menacing as one proceeds through the game. I thought this was a nice touch, particularly when, by the end, one is traipsing through Hogwarts while Death Eaters apparate in all about, students and faculty running willy-nilly with their arms in the air, the school's architecture severely depreciated.
That's the good. Now for the bad: LEGO Harry Potter has a terrible difficulty curve. I understand that this is a game designed with players of all ages in mind, but the entire fifth year and most of the sixth consist almost entirely of single-note puzzles, where it feels as though the designers were afraid to do anything other than have you repeatedly reuse that one ability they just taught you. Speaking of which, due to all of the teaching sequences between levels in the Hogwarts hub, those years feel interminable. It's strange when The Deathly Hallows, which is split into two parts (all chapters of the game are six levels long, each, meaning that we're talking about what is purported to be half of the game), goes by incredibly quickly, in comparison. Late in the sixth year and throughout The Deathly Hallows, the puzzles open up considerably and expect players to figure out more from context, which makes the process of completing levels less like checking items off of a list and more like actually playing a game. It's particularly frustrating that the initial puzzles are so puerile, because there really isn't anything else there.
That isn't to say that the game doesn't have combat, because it does. The combat, however, is atrocious. LEGO games have never had strong conflict mechanics, but at least the Star Wars entries gave you characters with melee attacks and a defense against ranged blasts. It was imprecise, but allowed you to wade into battle and get through it quickly. All combat in LEGO Potter is ranged. All combat in LEGO Potter demands that you be annoyingly specific with where you're aiming to hit anything, Death Eater or Dementor alike. If you aren't careful, your Expelliarmus will crack open a nearby LEGO pot instead of the enemy you thought you were targeting, and your foes aren't as likely to miss. Combat of this sort is rare in the game, but it's almost always annoying when it shows up. This targeting issue, by the way, also applies to constructing objects in the world. They're frustratingly specific about your orientation and distance relative to them, lest the prompt to interact either not appear or manifest over another object entirely.