It wasn’t meant to be this way, I’m burnt out on licensed LEGO titles for god’s sake. The frequency with which Traveller’s Tales rehashes its engine and slaps on a new coat of paint is grating, the repetitive nature of both gameplay and challenge taking its toll over years of playing and reviewing. The magic has fizzled, their pied-piper mind control has been broken, and all that remains is a cynical procession of commercial “products” aimed at a young audience that demands little in the way of progression. There are too many, and I don’t want to play them any more. I’m going home.
There was once a part of me that really believed that (last Tuesday), and yet here I find myself head-over-heels in love with LEGO Harry Potter, despite only a passing familiarity with the films and having never read any of the books. Regardless as to the mental fortitude you build up in the downtime between releases, the LEGO series has a knack of destroying even the sternest resistance, and Potter is undoubtedly the developer’s most refined brand of crack to ever gleefully wing its way from production line to the nation’s mainline.
The genius is largely borne of the licence however, with Hogwarts turning out to be the perfect environment to move the series forward brick-by-brick. Rather than a linear procession of levels, the majority of the castle is explorable from the off, with certain sections sealed away under colour-coded traps and puzzles that are gradually unlocked as Harry and co progress through the plot and learn new skills. Story missions are clearly signposted and can only be accessed in order, but are also triggered by the player whenever they choose, leaving the emphasis firmly on roaming exploration.
Never before has the level of distraction been so high. The sheer amount of interactivity packed into every scene is impressive from the start, only for the curtain to be lifted a little higher every time you pass through with a new ability. Far closer in structure to a Metroid or a Shadow Complex than previous titles, the drive to collect and play is unparalleled when the payoff is access to those bigger, better toys just out of view. The brand-new spell system used to manipulate gadgets works a treat for the most part, injecting a much-needed dose of variety without ever over-complicating things for the young ‘uns or game-averse.
The story too, displays the same humourous and masterfully-produced whimsy that accompanied the likes of LEGO Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but carries it much further into the persistent environment. Students behave and dress differently according to the chapter of the story you’re currently on, and their many background interactions alter to the pervading mood that flows through the halls. The closest analogue in that respect would be Rockstar’s Bully, whose Bulworth Academy shares many similar and commendable traits across its four-season timeline.
And for the completionists, Potter isn’t simply an average weekend dose in the manner that Indy was, but instead comprises a gargantuan nirvana of gold bricks, red bricks, studs, post boxes, students in peril, house crests and over 160 characters to unlock. On finishing the story my overall total stood at around 38% of content explored, and that’s with at least five hours of tooling around on top of the nine spent completing the story missions. If ever you meet a parent complaining about the price of gaming for their kids, feel free to beat them softly about the face with a copy of the manual; or the box if you’re feeling dangerous.
If there are any drawbacks then they come in the form of familiar problems that may as well be ‘features’ by this point. As per tradition, jumping sections are occasionally fiddly to navigate, the camera obscures some key items from time to time, and the screen couldn’t tear itself further without coming apart at the seams (v-sync is still hidden away in the options menu at the cost of a negligible frame rate drop). They are, however, as minor as they ever have been, and although it would have been nice to see TT tackling the more persistent issues, they never degrade the experience to a highly problematic degree.
As a LEGO game then, it’s the best of an excellent bunch and enough of an improvement to warrant investigation by even jaded fools like myself. And as a kids game and a film licence, it’s spectacularly good value and brilliant fan service combined. Where things skirted close to over-stauration with LEGO Indiana Jones 2, Potter shoves things forward with enough enthusiasm to rejuvenate the series as a whole. And what’s not to like about that? Magic.