The folks at Traveller’s Tales have worked out a successful formula: License a popular setting; create a recipe for a the story told in a non-verbal cavalcade of exploding LEGO studs, an almost Simlish sort of “dialogue;” add in some platforming and puzzles; bake in a plethora of reasons for the players to go back in to the levels again and again; and serve to an eager family-friendly audience. Through two (soon to be three) Star Wars games, two Indiana Jones games, a Batman game, and now the first (of at least two) Harry Potter games, the formula has been battle-tested. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And so it has done with LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4, its latest LEGO title.
Keep one thing in mind: It is a very good formula and the Harry Potter universe is quite possibly the best setting for a Lego game. After all, in the world of Harry Potter, it actually makes sense that characters have the power to magically cause bits and pieces to whirl around in the air and assemble into a working whole, to move items from place to place by an act of will, or to reduce items into a pile of Lego studs. The whimsical world of Lego is well complimented by a setting where fantastical results come from muttering a few words and waving a bit of wood in the air. Is this enough of a reason to pick up LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4? Well, that depends.
I think nearly any adult can be charmed by the gentle humor and relaxed gameplay of a Lego game, and there’s a lot of harmless Lego mayhem to keep kids busy as well, but I have to think that even the most diehard fan of any age might suffer from a case of Lego fatigue when the sixth (or seventh, or eighth) Lego game rolls around. I can’s speak personally to the games in between, but I was completely charmed by the first Lego game (set in the classic Star Wars setting). As much as I love the Lego formula, and the Harry Potter universe, I don’t think that it brings so much new to the table that it is going to compel you to play it if you’ve kept up with the Lego games.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must also admit that I am a bit of a Harry Potter nerd. Though I came late to the party, by the release of the book Order of the Phoenix I was psyched to read the books at release (or as soon I could wrest the copy from my wife), and for the final release of Deathly Hallows, I (along with my lovely wife) had a tailgate party at a local independent bookstore for their midnight release and then began reading until I passed out somewhere in the wee hours.
While you need not sink to these depths to enjoy LEGO Harry Potter, it does help if you have at least read the books because you might have trouble following what is going on in the game otherwise. There’s only so much that the non-verbal Lego storytelling method can do, but if you are armed with at least some knowledge of the books, it should make perfect sense.
It is also worth noting that you will not experience anywhere close to the fullness of LEGO Harry Potter if you only intend to just play through the 24 levels, equally spread out over the first four years of Harry’s education at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This game, as you would expect from others in the franchise, is heaven for the completionist and anyone who gets excited over collecting. Saying there is collecting in this game is like saying World of Warcraft makes Activision money. There is a lot of collecting in this game, and if you suffer from Achievement Addiction Syndrome, to get the full 1,000 points you will have to rescue 50 students in peril, find the 96 crest pieces (four per level), amass enough Lego studs on each level to become a “True Wizard,” find 20 red bricks, and find 140 characters as you ransack every nook and cranny of the story levels (playing each level at least twice) plus the bonus and tutorial levels. That should keep you busy for quite a while, even if you take advantage of the cheats that are unlocked by finding the red bricks (which make amassing a wealth of Lego studs trivial and help in finding the collectibles, as well as tweaking the game in small but amusing ways.)
I’ve had a lot of fun romping through LEGO Harry Potter, and will definitely be continuing to return to the plasticized Hogwarts until I have collected every last little bit. However, I’ve been conscious of not enjoying it quite as much as I thought I would and have chalked that up to the first symptoms of Lego fatigue. If you have not tried any of the other games, you should definitely pick up this game, but if you’ve churned through most or all of the other Lego games, you might want to wait for a used or bargain bin copy.
As a final footnote, the Traveller’s Tales folks are clearly gamers themselves. Every time I see the achievement “Solid Snape,” gained by hiding in a barrel as Severus Snape, I just smile!
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4
Traveller’s Tales/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Xbox 360, (Also available on Playstation 3, Wii, Windoews, PSP, and Nintendo DSi
$46 on Amazon.com