Looking at a box of unconstructed colourful blocks, who would have thought that Lego could be so charming? It is no accident that the toy is classed as one of the greatest ever invented, with new advances and wonderfully designed sets released to the market as often as new video game titles arrive, though never polluting the simple, essential pleasure of building something out of little plastic bricks. Over the years, we have seen the Danish invention extend its market presence into other media, including board games, cartoons, and of course an upcoming live action film, but it is the Lego video games that represent the most enduringly popular addition to the Lego stable.
And this week, developer Traveller’s Tales have released the twelfth addition to the series, and the eighth in the “movie series”, in Lego Harry Potter Years 5-7, which arrives to just about every conceivable platform.
With Lego titles, you know what to expect, and there is a lot of comfort in the familiarity of HP Years 5-7. The core mechanics are the same as with the first game, with a few new tweaks, such as the very welcome new duelling system (it’s not difficult, but it’s very well conceived), as well as features honed throughout other Lego game titles, like the split screen set-up ported in from Lego Indiana Jones 2. Core objectives remain the same as well, on the whole: there are puzzles to solve, objects and characters to collect and unlock, environmental features to break and rebuild and studs to collect. It’s a system that has worked for eight games, so it’s easy to forgive the developer’s resistance to overhaul everything – seriously, this is the perfect advert for the old adage “if it ain’t broke…”
The story follows on from the previous game, taking in the final three books and four films of the Harry Potter canon, in which the wizarding gang’s story culminates in the final Battle of Hogwarts, and the game takes in as many of the events of the books as possible (cumulatively, those three books are about a million pages long, remember)
All in all, the world created by Traveller’s Tales feels like the authentic manifestation of a developer who cares about fidelity to the sources (both books and films): levels are very affectionately built, full of faithful reference points to JK Rowling’s world, and direct re-adaptations of some of the film franchise’s most iconic shots (like the excellent opening sequence to The Half Blood Prince). And still, there are unique touches that reintroduce that irresistible Lego game playfulness and humour, while still somehow fitting the spirit of the source. This is the sort of game where concept execution and adaptation concerns meet with perfect, magical results.
But despite the major similarities, there are some developments to note, which add to the gameplay experience, though most are evolutionary rather than revolutionary additions. The first notable new element is the broomstick flight over the Thames, which is fiendishly hard to master (anyone who gets anything above 30% of the studs in the sequence first time round should be knighted on the spot). The chapter is the first major on-rails section for any Lego game, and its brevity and difficulty mean it is a very welcome addition to shake up the gameplay a little. There’s also the addition of the Weasley Sticky Trainers, which allow the wearer to walk on designated parts of the wall, and which appear in the game after the Weasley twins unceremoniously leave Hogwarts to start their own joke shop empire, and the ability to use Muggle objects (with the help of Arthur Weasley’s mechanical help).
Pure gameplay is not exactly taxing, though there is a definite uplift from the last Lego Harry Potter title, and there are some tricky sequences. But that isn’t the point at all – the Lego games are an accessible lot, with simple, colourful entertainment for those who want to play it purely for the levels and not (rather unthinkably) for the collectible side of things, and the nature of the game is such that there is no age restriction or skill level obstacle to that. But as with Lego as a toy, the player gets out of the game precisely what they put in – for those who endure and achieve something close to 100% completion, the game is a lot larger than for someone who plays their way through levels and then abandons ship after only a few hours. The most difficult to find and unlock characters, such as Voldemort allow for a richer, more enjoyable game experience (because it’s obviously a lot of fun to be the Greatest Dark Wizard Who Ever Lived), and you really do get the sense that the game rewards repeated play and exploration.
And that collectible element is undoubtedly one of the major draws: in fact there are few games on the market that allow such a level of environmental interaction, or which reward that interactivity quite so well. Story often takes a secondary position to the experience of exploring every single screen in minute detail, noting features that will come into play later on when certain skill-sets have been unlocked and attempting to achieve the True Wizard status on each level by collecting enough studs to fill the meter.
Typically HP Years 5-7 has its own form of levelling up system: throughout the game’s progress, the player encounters and unlocks a host of characters, as well as spells and abilities (like potion making) that facilitate further progress towards the hallowed achievement of 100% completion. Rather cleverly, Traveller’s Tales don’t simply introduce these new unlockable elements when they are immediately needed – for instance, the very earliest levels include environmental features that require Dark Magic knowledge to advance beyond them, though without compromising the players ability to complete the level enough to progress to the next. So the player is forced to then replay that level or section of the Hub World at a later stage having acquired Dark Magic or a similar skill, and consequently occasionally unveiling entirely new areas as well as further collectibles.
The game design is gorgeous – levels and story are presented wonderfully and puzzles rank from simple to extremely hard – the in-game help system only assists to a degree and quite often you find yourself having to judge what to do next through exploration, which is a rare commodity in today’s market for spoon-fed gamers. The game is a very solid package, entertaining and humour as well as completely engaging for any level of gamer (albeit apart from those who value bloody-thirsty violence of course), as well as most ages. It’s never going to be considered as a genuine contender for one of the best game’s of the year in the collective critical consciousness, because of the nature of the game (and that it is essentially the second part of the first game, rather than a true sequel), but that doesn’t make it any less good.
The visuals are great too – the levels looks very impressive, and there is a lot of enjoyment in saying how the Lego versions of recognisable locations from the HP world turn out in the game. The graphical requirements aren’t huge, because everything is rendered in Lego which negates the use of foreground textures, but the backgrounds are impressively drawn and textured, adding depth to the charming interactive features.
The success of the game is nothing to do with the depth of the gameplay – everything is extremely simply done, including combat – but it is the depth of the overall package that counts here. Traveller’s Tales have achieved something magical here, bringing together their usual charm with a broadly engaging in-game experience that insists you stick with it, despite its lack of obvious gadgetry and gimmicky gameplay hooks. And sticking with it is rewarded immediately, with both in-game collectibles (like those 200 or so characters) and an enduring smile on your face.
At the end of the day, sometimes predictability is a virtue, rather than a problem – especially when the core experience of a game is this grin-inducing and charming as this. Some might question the lack of hugely noticeable advancements, but that would underestimate the developmental work Traveller’s Tales have put in on this new installment, and besides, you have to question the urgency with which some might call for a reinvention of the wheel when it fits the bill so perfectly.
Lego Harry Potter Years 5-7 is available to buy now on XBox 360, PS3, PC, Wii, DS, 3DS and iOS.