If you’re a parent reminiscing wistfully on the peace and quiet of Thursday as your housebound kids simultaneously tear up the living room and complain about being bored, Traveller’s Tales has just the fix. LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4 is a light-hearted and irreverent romp through the first four books in J.K. Rowling’s beloved series, superimposed over an improved version of the LEGO videogames concept.
It could have gone horribly wrong, of course. Ever since LEGO Star Wars five years ago, Traveller’s Tales haven’t tinkered much with the essential building blocks of the series: players gather studs, unlock characters and collect special bricks, dissemble environments, solve puzzles and take on enemies in frequently comic combat sequences. The bricks are reinvested (this time in Diagon Alley) in upgrades and new content.
Where Harry Potter stands apart from other franchises that have been given the LEGO treatment is that Rowling’s books aren’t as much action-packed as suspenseful. Further, there’s no character dialogue in LEGO games which is a rather significant hurdle for a series that is as much about casting aspersions on Professor Snape while huddled in the Gryffindor common room as it is about fighting trolls in the girls’ bathroom.
So you’ll need to be a little familiar with the Harry Potter movies to understand what’s going on in the game. Happily, the puzzling in the books lends itself perfectly to building blocks. You control a rotating collection of characters (Harry, Ron and Hermione more often than not) each with their own unique abilities and a variety of spells that you’ll have to apply to each of the hundreds puzzles that must be negotiated to advance through the game. Ron, for example, can use his pet rat Scabbers to get through pipes and cracks to places where the characters can’t.
Players will learn a variety of spells as they attend classes at Hogwarts, each acting as a kind of small and entertaining tutorial that introduces where and how they can be applied. It’s the variety of spells and their multiple applications that gives LEGO Harry Potter much of its strength. Fan favourites such as “lumos,” “wingardium leviosa” and “riddikulus” are all accessed via a radial menu (or by scrolling with L1 and R1).
The puzzles themselves aren’t particularly challenging – if you’re adult playing the game you’ll often discover you’ve been over-thinking the problem – but their easy difficulty curve should keep kids engaged and thinking laterally for a great many hours.
Hogwarts is very carefully realised setting, full of secrets to be discovered and small, detailed accents that recreate so much of the charm of the source material. As you wander its halls you’ll be able to interact with the portraits and other students with typically humorous results.
The ghost, Nearly Headless Nick, will lead you through the castle to your next objective, leaving a spectral trail of studs should you choose to deviate and go exploring. Once again, you can interact with almost any object in the game, breaking things apart to unleash collectables or better yet, completing small incidental puzzles for a veritable bounty of the same.
It’s not a flawless experience. Some aspects of the AI continue to be as frustrating as they always have in LEGO games. Your companions’ apparent need for close proximity can make completing some of the team puzzles an exercise in frustration. For example, you may need to move one character onto a bar and then levitate that bar (and character) in order to reach a rare collectable, but you’ll be disappointed by their insistence on running back over to you when you switch characters.
Fortunately, the game can still be played co-op in the same room, making for a better experience and when two players run in different directions the screen now splits dynamically to accommodate both. Unfortunately, targeting becomes much more difficult in co-op as the screen moves according to the actions of both players while the reticule remains static.
There’s still no online functionality, something some LEGO fans have been calling for, and we don’t doubt Traveller’s Tales could tack it on, but we do believe that the developer is right in restricting the game to same-room co-op.
Some missions are flat out bugged. More than once, you’ll have to restart a level. It’s irksome for a player who might have the confidence to know the game is at fault – we’re not so sure a kid would think to hold the game to blame for their inability to complete a puzzle.
They’re minor gripes when weighed against the game as a whole, however. LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4 has great replay value for a singleplayer game. You’ll not uncover all its secrets in a single play-through.
The experience is silly, charming, engaging and fun - the best LEGO game to date.