It's surprisingly difficult to find a good game for kids to play with their parents. There are exceptions here and there, but they're pretty rare. It's a lot easier to point to something like Super Mario Galaxy for a co-op experience for all ages. One of the exceptions to this is the LEGO series, which adapts popular franchises into adorable LEGO form for gamers of all ages. The low difficulty level and forgiving mechanics make it clear they're designed for kids, but they have enough fun and charm that I've yet to meet an adult who hasn't enjoyed them. LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is an adaptation of the first four Harry Potter books/movies, a franchise that seems ripe for the LEGO treatment. Traveller's Tales has done an unparalleled job adapting the Harry Potter universe to the game.
Like most of the LEGO games, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 tells the story of the first four Harry Potter movies with reimagined LEGO cut scenes, which are told through mime instead of words, often with a few silly alterations. These cut scenes are amusing and cute, but it's also difficult to say that they have the charm of some of the LEGO Star Wars cut scenes. Harry Potter is a lot more dialogue-driven than Star Wars, so many cut scenes may be too heavily geared toward fans. There are more than a few that seem almost incomprehensible without prior knowledge of the events. A more casual Harry Potter-loving kid might be confused instead of amused, but if you and your child are die-hard Potter fans, there is a lot of funny stuff here.
The basic gameplay in LEGO Harry Potter is very straightforward and almost unchanged from previous LEGO titles. The LEGO games are platformers based around co-op play and simple puzzles and combat. They're designed to be very accessible to players of all ages, so they forgo difficulty in favor of forgiving mechanics and constant rewards. The primary rewards you'll find are studs, which are one-piece LEGO blocks that can be traded for new characters or bonus items. You earn studs by solving puzzles, defeating enemies or advancing the game. The only punishment for death is losing some studs. It's a simple but rewarding system in that it allows you to play the game without fear. Doing well earns you rewards, but even the youngest player will be able to get through the game with ease.
Since LEGO Harry Potter is a game about wizards, a good portion of the gameplay to revolve around magical spells. While there are a couple of Muggle (that's non-magic users, for you Potter neophytes) characters, most of the available LEGO folks are various witches and wizards with amazing magical powers. When you begin the game, Harry is a novice wizard and can't tell a wand from a stick in the ground, but you quickly gain new abilities as you progress through the story. Each spell is basically a different way to solve puzzles. Your go-to spell will be Wingardium Leviosa, the "lift stuff" spell, which is used constantly. There are other spells, like the light-summoning Lumos or the enemy-demeaning Riddikulus, but they're more puzzle-based. You usually get a lesson of some kind beforehand that explains how the spell works, and it's a good enough tutorial that even young kids should pick it up quickly. The aforementioned Lumos, for example, can light up dark areas or make magical plants back off. There's no punishment for using the wrong spell, so it's perfectly fine to experiment from time to time if you can't figure out what to do next. When in doubt, though, you'll find that Wingardium Leviosa will get you through most situations.
While magic is a big part of the game, various characters also have unique active and passive abilities. Most of these are based on powers the character gains in the series, so you'd have to be a little familiar with Harry Potter lore to understand them immediately. For example, Harry is naturally a good broom rider. If you try to drag Hermione or Ron onto a broom, it flails around and is basically uncontrollable. Harry can zoom up and down with ease, letting him get to studs and items otherwise inaccessible to the poorer riders. On the other hand, Ron begins the game with the ability to call out Scabbers the Rat, who he can send into small areas to unlock doors and collect items.
These abilities are not set in stone, though. As you progress, characters will change their ability sets depending on where you are in the story. Harry gains a wide range of skills and abilities, such as the Invisibility Cloak, with which to solve puzzles. Part of the fun is seeing which characters have which abilities, as some are necessary to access areas in the game's Free Play mode. Much like Jedi and Droids being useful for different things in LEGO Star Wars, you may find that powerful wizards are not the solution to all puzzles in the world of Harry Potter. Combat is toned down in Harry Potter, and there are a few fights, but they're pretty far between. The game is a lot more focused on puzzles.
LEGO Harry Potter is centered on the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. You rarely leave, and most of your time is spent within the school's enchanted walls. This gives it a rather interesting structure as, unlike most LEGO games, you have a giant hub to explore to get to your next plot point. Fortunately, this is made extremely easy for players. There are arrows that indicate where you should go next, and ghosts guide you step-by-step to the next location. On the other hand, you're also free to poke around Hogwarts to locate secrets. For example, there are a number of students in peril that you can find scattered around Hogwarts and in the game levels. These range from students trapped in the various odd geometry of Hogwarts to those being bullied by older students or endangered by strange animals. Rescuing them rewards you with shiny studs and other useful items. There are also a number of challenges to complete, such as candles that need to be lit, objects that need to be repaired, or various other tasks that you can solve with magic. You'll earn neat rewards, including additional playable characters and Gold Bricks, which can be used to access new areas.
Hogwarts is refreshingly fun to explore. While it's not quite as detailed as some of the recent movie-based Potter games, it has significantly more charm. Most of the famous Harry Potter sights, from the Quidditch Field to the Moving Staircases, have been re-created in ridiculous detail. There is an insane amount of things to interact with in each area, and you can spend a lot time blasting trees or fixing statues to get more studs. Portraits line the walls, and each has a little personality quirk. Some are there to be silly, while others are puzzle-related and must be tricked or charmed. You may encounter LEGO cats chasing LEGO mice, creeping monsters locked behind doors, or various other twists and surprises. There are tons of tiny details that really make the school feel alive. It's fun to see little things that only fans of the books would recognize, such as the grumpy groundskeeper Argus Filch and his cat Miss Norris stalking around and looking for students to lecture. A real sense of care is given to Hogwarts, and in turn, it is more fun to explore than the more "grown-up" version of the castle in the last console game.
The game is rather short. If you care only about the main plot, you can probably run through it in a single night, but that ignores the ridiculous amount of available side content. Unlocking characters and spells allows you to do things in earlier areas of the game that you couldn't on your first playthrough. Even if you do everything possible on a first run-through of the game, you might see about half of what it has to offer. Like most LEGO titles, the name of the game here is replayability. The more you replay stages, the more studs, Gold Bricks and extra characters you unlock. You can then travel to Diagon Alley to buy more characters and content. It's a cycle, but a good one, and encourages replaying the game over and over again. It's possible that this level of repetition might get tiresome for adults, but it seems endlessly entertaining for the younger ones. There are even some clever achievements involved — including a few funny ones where you do things like have Voldemort battle himself. There's a surprising amount of content packed into the game, and it should last players quite some time.
You should be warned, however, that a few problems have been reported with LEGO Harry Potter. Some players have had the game glitch and refuse to give them Gold Bricks or other items that are necessary to proceed in the game. I have encountered one or two situations where a LEGO contraption wouldn't work correctly, forcing me to restart the game in order to proceed. These problems are relatively minor but can easily cause some frustration for young gamers. Most of these glitches can be worked around fairly easily. Sometimes, switching back and forth between characters can quickly work out the kinks. It's still a good idea to be careful, and some parents may want to wait until a patch is released before they dive in.
LEGO Harry Potter is a great game to give to young ones. Even compared to the other LEGO titles I've played, there is a lot of stuff to do in this title just for fun. You can let your kid loose in Hogwarts, and they could probably spend hours finding all the secrets of the castle without even giving a thought to advancing the story line. Since the game is careful to balance how you gain powers and how you can explore, it's pretty unlikely that a very young child will find himself unable to progress without a parent's help.
LEGO Harry Potter is an even better multiplayer game. The co-op mode is great for multiple kids to play together or for a parent to play with their child. Since there isn't strict punishment for failure or death, you're free to let the kids goof off until they need their parent's help to solve a nasty puzzle. The basic gameplay is fun enough that even an adult can have a blast with the title. It may be a very easy game, but it's hard to not get engrossed with some of the events on-screen, even if you're not a Harry Potter fan.
LEGO Harry Potter is a pretty good-looking game, with all the charm and adorable quality that we've come to expect from LEGO titles. The LEGO aspect is used well, and the entirety of Hogwarts feels like something you'd see built from the plastic blocks. If I had one complaint, it is that the game could have used a little more variation in characters. There are over 160 characters, but a lot of those are slight variations on the same character, like Harry in a different shirt. It's not a terrible problem, as there are still a lot of different characters to choose from, but collecting all of the characters becomes a little less fun when they're all the same guy in a different hat. I encountered a bit of slowdown during a few of the game's more explosive sequences, but nothing that detracted from the overall experience. The soundtrack was reasonably good, mostly focused around the iconic theme from the Harry Potter movies.
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is a great game. The blocky world of Hogwarts is arguably the best rendition of the magical school yet. It's full of life and detail, and there is a mind-numbing amount of stuff to do. From battling Boggarts to making magical brooms sweep the floor, you'll never be low on things to do. A huge variety of collectibles assures that the game will remain fun once you've finished the fourth year of the story. Perhaps the only complaints are a slight lack of variety in the playable characters and a few potentially disheartening glitches. Aside from that, LEGO Harry Potter is one of the better kids' titles on the market. It's an added bonus that adults enjoy the game, too.
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