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PC Review - 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'

by Ben Zackheim on July 8, 2004 @ 12:55 a.m. PDT

In the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban videogame, Harry Potter and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As teenagers back for their third year of study, they are engaged in the mystery surrounding Sirius Black, who has recently escaped from the infamous wizard prison of Azkaban.

Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Games
Release Date: June 2, 2004

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Being a big fan of Harry Potter, I’m the first to admit the series can be like brain candy. Sure, the books are scarier than your standard kid’s book, and fear always adds a “mature” flavor. But, for the most part, the series is “in one ear and out the other” for me. If you were to ask me what happened in book 4, I have no idea. I just know I liked reading it.

It was with the same frame of mind that I approached the latest video game featuring our favorite scarred wizard-child. From the get-go there’s no question that the game will be heavily skewed toward kids, as it should be. Even the box hollers, “Best-ever graphics.” In the final analysis, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a simple game for us simple folk. If you like Harry Potter, no matter how old you are, you’ll enjoy the game, no matter how easy it is.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is, at its core, a puzzle game. Find the switch, find the trick to opening the switch and get the prize, but the fact that the game is set in such a rich environment and the puzzles are actually fun (for the most part) means the game rises above other puzzle games. For you purists out there, the game is about as faithful to the book as the movie – which is to say, it sorta kinda stays true to it. Just as the film art form calls for certain changes during adaptation, so do games. For the most part, though, you get to walk in the shoes of the characters nicely. Prisoner of Azkaban allows you to play as Ron, Hermione or Harry, depending on which adventure or mini-adventure you choose to play. The structure of the game is interesting, since it lets you follow a linear story but also allows you to run off and explore to your heart’s content.

The adventure begins when Ron’s rat, Scabbers, escapes the kids as they travel to Hogwarts in the train, Hogwarts Express. As you run through the cramped halls, you get mini tutorials on how to control the characters. The tutorials are spoken by Ron and Hermione, with talented actors providing the vocal chords. The controls in the game are as simple as can be. Move with the arrow keys, look around with the mouse and cast spells with the left mouse button. It never gets more complicated than that.

The effects of the spells are as fun as you’d want them to be. Things like Carpe Retractum, let you pull yourself toward objects, or vice versa. This spell is Ron’s specialty. His first solo adventure uses the spell often as he moves through a forbidden area of Hogwarts, dangling over bottomless pits, trying to collect all ten shields. Harry’s specialty is Expecto Patrnum, the spell that helps him fight off the Dementors. And Hermione, being good at everything, still prefers spells like Draconifors and Lapifors; spells that let you bring dragons to life and take control of bunnies, respectively. How girly. You must finish each adventure successfully for you to get credit in the game. And to make things more difficult, every adventure on the checklist must be completed for you to reach the end. While the game is easy to play, some of the specific tasks can be on the challenging side. For example, Ron’s first adventure requires you to gather all ten shields, and one of them is tucked away nice and tight. Anbother tough one is the Buckbeak course. He’s a bitch to control (in a fun way) and it took me a few times through to get the hang of it. Luckily you can go back and play any of the individual adventures at any time, and they pick up where you left off, so you don’t need to start from scratch.

There are some delightful highpoints, like riding Buckbeak through an obstacle course, flying a dragon through the greenhouse and trying to find where your next class is. It adds a lot to a game when there are just a huge number of tasks to carry out. From monster books on the loose, to rascally pixies, to angry ghosts, there’s no shortage of content. On this point alone, I could recommend the game.

But there are some disappointments, too. The world you can explore seems too small to get very excited about. The nooks and crannies are the backbone of the series. We all want every corner to have a trapdoor. While there are a number of surprises and secrets to find, Hogwarts ultimately feels constraining. Perhaps a bigger outdoors area would have opened it up a bit. But as it is, the outside areas have the invisible wall syndrome, limiting your movement to the confines of where the developer wants you to be (as opposed to being allowed to go where you want to be).

As promised, the graphics do look nice. The character animations, with flowing cloaks and specific mouth movement, gives the game a nice shine that goes well with the good voice acting. The characters’ mouths can sometimes look like a puppet’s, but it’s a small gripe when everything else is so well polished. The sound design is also a home run. Atmospheric stuff just rings true, whether it’s a thick forest or large empty chambers, Prisoner of Azkaban sounds excellent.

Other touches that make the game a success are the trading card system. For each mini-adventure you complete you get trading cards, or other goodies that can be traded in for cards at Fred and George Weasley’s Shop. Currency includes Pumpkin Pasties, Cauldron Cakes and Bertie Bott’s Beans. The sense of community is well-done. Students run all over the place, on their way to class. Many of them have words of advice, or even cards to trade.

Overall, the game delivers in every way it should. Naturally, there are always reservations about licensed games. It’s so easy for a developer to just assume that they can release a half-baked product and let the kiddies come spend their money, but EA and Know Wonder have done a great job with this series. It won’t win any awards for innovation, and it certainly won’t challenge anyone who’s been gaming for more than a few months, but Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will definitely please fans of the series ... and there are a lot of us out there.

Score : 8.2/10

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