Take a spin down memory lane with the toy who lived.
The LEGO series from Travelers' Tales brings forth a blocky spin on yet another beloved franchise with LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4. The game takes the first four stories in the Harry Potter universe and presents them with the levity and light-action gameplay we've come to expect from the previous games in the series, while staying true to the adventuresome nature of the source material.
The biggest difference between Harry Potter and something like Indiana Jones or Star Wars is the focus on storytelling rather than action. The stories in the Harry Potter series break down as mysteries rather than action-packed affairs, so the LEGO games likewise place more of an emphasis on solving puzzles instead of shooting bad guys. As you explore Hogwarts Castle, you solve puzzles to gain access to new spells, which in turn allow you to access new areas of the castle. As a result, the hub world of the story mode feels somewhat Metroid-ish, allowing you to slowly unlock it as a giant puzzle and gain access to all of the nooks and crannies. Another hub world exists outside of the story mode in Diagon Alley, a street-side alley of shops that allow you to spend your collectable LEGO studs on all sorts of unlockable extras, such as ice rink mode, which makes your characters move as if on ice skates, and silhouette mode, which shows your characters as black shadows.
As in previous LEGO titles, the game gives you plenty to do. There are gold bricks to collect, red bricks to collect, studs that can be maxed out in each stage for additional gold bricks, secret stages, house crests (broken into four pieces per stage), and characters that must be discovered before they can be purchased. If you're a completionist, you'll weep at the sheer amount of collecting this game wants you to do. If you're a LEGO completionist, at least you're used to it.
Each of the stories in the game breaks down into five or six stages, each of which will take 20 to 40 minutes to complete depending on how easily you're able to solve the puzzles. I often found myself over-thinking the puzzles, but rarely found the game to unfairly hide the solutions to puzzles around the corner from a camera view. Many of the puzzles boil down to using your levitation spell on various objects in the room to build an object that will allow you to progress. As the game moves forward, the object you need to activate with your magic becomes harder and harder to track down, leading to some fairly clever puzzles.
The story follows the movies closely, finding the best scenes to recreate for the player with surprising attention to detail. The game brims with active scenery, from paintings that come alive as you walk by to books that fly off the shelves as if they were birds. The first time you set foot in Hogwarts, it's quite overwhelming to see all of the things that you can't do yet and the spots you just can't reach; it's a nice parallel to the character of Harry, who has been thrust into the world of magic without any real context.
The game chugs along with a few dips in framerate and some jagged edges, but for the most part, performs well graphically. There are some glitches in the game, as I had the game lock up twice on me at the same boss fight (Aragog the Spider) while testing out multiplayer. The lock-ups led me to do some research and I found that I wasn't alone in having problems with the game locking up. When I returned to Aragog's lair the next day (without a second player) the game proceeded just fine, so I don't think there was a problem with my disc.
The game supports only local two-player multiplayer, but the game shines when played as such. The controls are basic and lend well to children or inexperienced gamers joining you on your journey through the wizarding world. A second player can join in and drop out of play with the press of a button, and it won't affect the first player at all. When the CPU controls the second character, the first player can switch characters with a single button press.
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 brings a new kind of game to the LEGO franchise: one based on puzzle-solving and exploration rather than fast-paced action. The end result is a slower-moving game with plenty to see and do. Fans of the LEGO and Harry Potter franchises alike should enjoy the trip down Potter lane.