Not as Bad as a Cruciatus Curse
You all know me- by night. I, the mysterious judge of mainly crummy games, am the author of sage opinions. When you, the reader, begin talking about a game you’ve never played you can throw in my two bits and sound knowledgeable, erudite even. Does it shock you that I give away gold so freely?
Of course it does. However, you might understand it if i told you that I do this all for my poor, suffering ego. You see, by day I create no great works, warp no innocent facts, and contort no minds. Instead I organize, copy, cut and paste, rinse wash and repeat. Yes, by day I am a corporate whore.
As a result, I’ve gained a valuable view into the origins of uninspired, obviously rushed games like the new Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the PS2 and Gamecube. Essentially, developers are asked to produce a $50 game on a short budget and a tight schedule. Producers who take pride in their work want snappy dialogue, tons of lush cut scenes with convincing voice acting, boss fights, flashy graphics, a well-written story, and great game-play dynamics; but given time and money constraints none of these things are possible. As a result developers must pick and choose areas of focus while letting others languish. The goal ultimately shifts from trying to make a great game to just finishing and not getting fired.
Which explains EA Games’ new Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the PS2, Xbox and Gamecube. HP redux is a perfect example of a game where developers had too great a task before them and too little time and money (and possibly talent). However, this new HP does have something going for it that distinguishes it from your average, worthless, assembly-line game: it’s actually really hard in parts. Whether the game’s difficulty is the result of sloppy programming (as it seems to me to be) or not, the challenge is real, and as a result completing certain portions of the game can be surprisingly rewarding.
Unfortunately, for all the unexpected benefits of inconsistent programming, there are some obvious downsides. Among them, getting stuck in the terrain, having the audio cut out, having the game crash, not being able to control the camera satisfactorily, jumping to your death at the twitch of an analogue stick, and extremely substandard graphics in certain areas; all of which cheapen the gaming experience and are clear symptoms of low production values.
The entire game feels like a giant rough draft. The plot, for example, follows the Harry Potter film quite closely (with several identical scenes), but unfolds through numerous poorly synched, seemingly unedited cut-scenes. The facial animations are inadequate- Potter himself looks about as expressive as a ventriloquist’s dummy, and many cut-scenes end on weird notes, while others serve no perceivable purpose whatsoever.
Some of the voice-acting is choice (Snape’s voice actor does a fine job) while some is terrible (Dumbledore’s actor sounds like an older, wiser Towely from Southpark). So, even though the cut-scenes effectively relate the plot, they don’t manage to tell a very convincing story.
Harry Potter, as might be expected from the rest of this review, plays like a typical adventure game. There are stealth elements, platforming elements, and of course combat elements which directly mimic the devices used in the latest Zelda games. Harry Potter collects Bertie Botts’ Every Flavor Beans, and shouts out the name of each flavor with the appropriate amount of relish (Cawwwwfeeee, mmmmm) or disgust (Ew! Vomit!!). These can be traded in for Wizard Cards (collect twenty and Harry gains another life bar), ineffectual Dung Bombs and stink pellets, and bags to hold even more beans at once.
Representing one of the game’s cooler notions, Harry must brew the health potions he’ll use later in the game for Snape’s class. Once brewed, Harry can return to the class and restock whenever he runs out of potion.
Harry can sneak, walk and run, while jumping is handled automatically (just run toward a ledge). Sneaking is used in the stealthy episodes (you must sneak past Percy the Prefect if you want to buy anything at Fred and George Weasely’s shop), episodes which represent the greatest challenge Harry Potter has to offer.
Running and jumping, naturally, are mainly used in the platforming episodes. These episodes are entirely run of the mill, and are only remarkable for Harry’s propensity to jump way off of things and out into a void at the slightest provocation. Your spells invariably factor into the platforming puzzles and obstacle courses. In fact, the acquisition of each spell requires Harry to crawl through a random hole in the wall in each class and work his way through a platformy maze that is always riddled with gimpy enemies. Oh, and expect to push a lot of boxes, and hit a lot of switches.
The stealth portions of the game are somewhat singular, on the other hand, due to their difficulty. Basically, Harry can creep unheard, and stand with his back flat against a wall, which renders him somehow invisible even in virtually all lighting conditions. He can then lean out around a corner and launch a flipendo spell to create a distraction, while he creeps to a position nearer his goal. However, there’s never any telling how long a distraction will last, or what Harry’s enemies will hear. Also, once Harry has his back to a wall he sometimes randomly decides to just step out into the open (which is supposed to be controlled by a button), and its loud, and Percy hears you, fires a locomotor mortis through a book shelf (which he can only do sometimes) and you’re cast outside.
I honestly spent about a half hour trying to pass Percy the first time I encountered him. And after a brief tutorial at a wand shop, Percy is the first challenge you face. I suspect Percy will probably represent the end for most young gamers, due to the utter helplessness one feels when pitted against him. He’s uncanny, and way more challenging than anything I expected to face right off the bat.
Fighting trolls is similarly difficult. In most Zelda-clone adventure games (like the recently released The Hobbit, for example) bosses are a snap. Not in Harry Potter. Trolls are a pain in the ass! Harry can lock onto things, but the mechanism which cycles through possible targets is horribly flawed in Harry Potter. Thus, toggling between targets becomes unusually difficult. Furthermore, your control of the camera is extremely prohibited, and enemies will regularly throw projectiles at you from off screen that you’ll never see coming.
With most enemies, fighting involves creeping up on them until you’re just barely in range, and then shooting them before they get a chance to attack (Imps and Gnomes and Bowtruckles) or just running around and burning them with your lumos and incendio spells (ghosts and ghost dogs).
But with trolls, you’ve got to cast this spell called Spongify on special tiles on the floor and stand near them (preferably with the tile between yourself and the troll). Then, the troll comes to bash you, but hits the spongy (spongy means springy in Harry Potter talk I guess) tile causing his club to get fired back at his own stupid head. Do this five times and you usually kill yourself a troll (and you fight a bunch of em). These episodes are tough because trolls hit hard, are very aggressive, and Harry’s movement speed is slowed way down when casting a spell. The spongify spell doesn’t last long, so you’ve got a frantic couple moments to try and maneuver yourself and the troll into just the perfect position and pray he raises his club in the way that means he’s going to hit the spongified tile. Eventually, you’ll get trolls down pat, but they present a real challenge, and are definitely satisfying to defeat which is a lot more than I can say for most enemies in most crappy adventure games.
However, like all adventure games, Harry Potter includes missions. Fortunately for Harry, he’s got Neville’s rememberall, which he stole from Draco Malfoy (they don’t show it in the game, but it’s the only explanation right?), to remind him what he’s done and what he’s got left to do. Once a day’s tasks are completed Harry can choose the end day option, and just like that, day turns to night. Usually at night Harry, Ron and Hermione do some sneaking as they try and unravel the mystery of the huge three headed dog. Then, when the night’s chores are done you hit end night and it becomes day (each transition finds you standing next to your bed). There are about 8 days worth of missions, making for a fairly short first (er… third) adventure at Hogwarts.
Harry Potter is good for a couple graphical surprises, and a lot of let downs. The Gamecube and Xbox versions look much better than the PS2 version as far as general textures and lighting effects go. The Hogwarts entry way, the stairwell, and the Gryffindor common room are all really pretty, as each is thoughtfully done with lush colors, and covered in lots of cool portraits of witches and wizards. However, the castle grounds look awful. The detail level of the Harry Potter world drops off a cliff in all versions whenever Harry heads outside; there are no trees (except a wall of vague green polygons that are supposed to represent forest), and the grass and walk-ways are basically flat surfaces of green and light-grey. The platforming areas are as dull visually as they are to play through and some of the spell effects, particularly those corresponding to the lumos spell are OK, but only just OK.
And what Harry Potter game would be complete without Quidditch and flying on broomsticks? Unfortunately, this Harry Potter game isn’t remotely complete, with its sparse Quidditch offering. The only maneuvers available to Harry this time out are “accelerate’ and “turn.’ While these classic maneuvers are certainly useful, they aren’t exactly innovative.
Finally, I do love the fact that you can run around shooting flipendo spells. Running through the castle and grounds and flinging blue fireballs just because I damn well please is a refreshing bit of liberty. It’s just too bad you cant actually hit anything you aren’t supposed to. Perhaps when Harry grows up the games will too.
Until then, I have trouble recommending this Potter to anyone. I find the (accidental?) high difficulty level in some parts of Harry Potter refreshing, but the game clearly isn’t directed at 20-somethings. And, other than a couple isolated bits HP and the SS is a mess. And I didn’t play crap like this when I was a kid, at least not for long. I played Sonic. So there ya have it: Harry Potter is better than a Vomit flavored bean, but a little worse than Grass, and on a level with Booger. Hmm, some kids like boogers..