Publisher: EA Games
Developer: EA Games
Release Date: May 25, 2004
EA has been making serious bank off the Harry Potter franchise for some time now, and the gravy train is still chugging strong. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for the GBA represents only a single aspect of a multifaceted financial equation for EA, Warner Bros., and Ms. JKR. We’re a ways into the Harry Potter craze of the 21st century, what with half a dozen books in massive circulation and the third movie inspiring family outings of epic proportions. But popularity is waning. It’s only natural. The movie, on which this game is based, has only made about half as much at the box office as the previous movie. What I’m trying to say is that unless EA begins to seriously innovate then they may find that the popularity of the franchise alone will not be enough to line their pockets with hundred dollar bills anymore. Maybe they already know this, because Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the GBA is quite a departure from previous HP games or in fact any movie licensed GBA game. It’s a solid RPG that has what it takes to hang with the big boys of the genre.
IS THERE A SNOOZE BUTTON ON THIS THING?
Unfortunately, the developers couldn’t figure out how to retain the entertaining traditional RPG elements of the genre while being confined at Hogwarts. So instead of exploration players get all sorts of differently themed fetch quests. Sure, Hogwarts has plenty of places to explore – like Hagrids Hut, various classrooms, the dungeon, etc – but the explorable locales in this game pale in comparison to that of most RPGs.
The game is pretty interesting at first; you are free to roam Hogwarts at your leisure, collecting various wizard cards, fighting enemies and leveling up. But after an hour or two of that you’ll be inclined to start completing objectives. This is where things go considerably downhill. You’ll walk (not run) from classroom to classroom completing silly little bunny hill dungeons, retrieve an object, return it, rinse, lather and repeat. Or you’ll be tasked to collect multiple items and bring them back to a specific location. As you may surmise, the brunt of the action pertaining to objectives is nothing more than mundane fetch quests.
OTHER THAN EVERYTHING THOUGH…
Looking past the fetch quests, the game is actually very good. But since the fetch quests comprise the majority of the experience it’s kind of hard to look past them. Even so, there are entertaining aspects of the game. Like combat. Enemy encounters are not random. Baddies show up as representations on the playfield and your character has to come in physical contact with them in order to initiate combat. Whether or not you’ve cast informus on an enemy will decide whether those representations appear as smaller versions of the actual enemy or an unknown swirling cloud of white light. Once a battle begins Harry, Hermione, and Ron will appear on the left side of the screen and their opponents on the right. Characters will take turns hacking away, casting spells, and using items until one side or the other is defeated.
The turn-based mechanics of combat are very solid and while they do tend to get repetitive after a while (once I hit level 25 I was able to defeat most enemies by constantly tapping the A button, without even having to look at the screen) the battles are the most polished aspect of the experience.
You’ll start the game with three spells for each character. These spells can be used both in battle and on the actual playfield to complete environmental puzzles. Using a particular spell in combat repeatedly will result in an upgrade for that spell. For instance, if you cast incendio enough times you’ll earn incendio duo, use incendio duo enough times and you’ll earn incendio tria, etc. As you complete fetch quest objectives you’ll be rewarded with more spells. There are 17 unique spells in all that can be earned, most of which can be upgraded using the aforementioned method. Enemies have varying levels of sensitivity to different spells. Casting informus on an enemy will fill you in as to exactly which spell the monster is most sensitive to. Casting informus also allows you to see that particular monster on the playfield before you engage it in battle. You need only cast informus once per enemy to retain their statistics for future reference.
You also use spells to manipulate your surroundings; casting flipendo allows you to break barrels and move objects, incendio lights your way in the dark and allows you to make visible otherwise invisible bridges, repairo repairs broken objects like staircases, etc. You’ll also be rewarded with experience points when completing environmental puzzles, kind of like a Baldur’s Gate or its ilk.
Visually, The Prisoner of Azkaban looks well above average. The environments are particularly detailed and characters animate very smoothly. The pseudo-3D combat sequences add considerably to the game’s graphical sheen and the various spell effects are pretty damn cool looking. The audio is strictly a bargain bin affair, however. With repeating music, recycled sound effects, and just an overall lack of polish the aural presentation is nothing you’ll want to crank up on your headphones.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has all the ingredients for a great RPG; experience points, magic points, spells, solid turn-based combat, a made-to-order story …. But since the majority of the time you’re playing the game you’ll be slowly walking from point A to point B completing mandatory fetch quests, the game’s solid RPG foundation collapses under the weight of its own failed potential. Progressing through the game’s story is just not very fun. Though since the game’s target demographic is obviously that of the younger set, its straightforward and essentially simple action may be appropriate. Gamers looking for a decent and at least somewhat challenging RPG need not apply, however. This is a game for RPG fans of the lowest skill set.