Lego Harry Potter: The Smashening

I actually played this a while ago, but I’ve been revisiting it and remembering how much I never liked it to begin with. Lego Harry Potter is split into two separate games, and I only played the first one, which covers movies 1-4. In no particular order, here are some observations:

  • 95% of the gameplay consists of blasting everything you see with your wand and hoping that something will happen. Mostly, you collect coins in the form of Lego studs, but you can also solve most of the major puzzles this way. Just blow up everything your cursor will highlight on and you’re golden.
  • In order to win for real, you have to unlock a bunch of characters and use their unique abilities to beat each of the game’s levels and collect the collectables. Of all the characters you can play, Hermione is the MVP, but Tom Riddle (AKA past!Voldemort) is a close second.
  • Indeed, there is an actual level where you team up with Tom Riddle, in the past, to blast the shit out of everything at Hogwarts.
  • There are a handful of other characters who are used for one specific task that almost no one else can do (Hagrid, Griphook the goblin), but everybody else is the LVP. The idea, I guess, is that you’ll have more fun by playing as your favourite secondary and tertiary characters, but there’s no gaming advantage to doing that. In fact, most of the time, it would actually hurt you to do that.
  • That said, the most satisfying part of the game is when you finally unlock a character who possesses one of the skills you’ve been missing. You’re like, “Yes. I can do evil magic, now. You’re my best friend, Tom Riddle. Let’s destroy Hogwarts together.”
  • It’s interesting to see how Lego reinterprets the story. The major events of each movie are there, but the circumstances of how they come about change. That’s partly because the story has to be simplified into something that can be communicated during quick, light-hearted cut scenes, and partly because the game is designed to work as a two-player co-op, which means at least two playable characters always have to be present.
  • If you play by yourself, the computer controls the other player characters until you switch to them. Very occasionally, this means the computer cooperates with you to do something that takes two players. More often, this means the other characters follow you like ducklings and grief you while you’re trying to do stuff. They have a special knack for standing between you and the thing you’re trying to target, or standing exactly where you want to be.
  • The biggest challenge of the game – rather than puzzle-solving or boss battles – is depth perception. That seems like it shouldn’t be.
  • The menu system is cool, but counter-intuitive. There’s a steep learning curve on figuring out how the game actually works. For instance, although you can bring up a pop-up menu, most of the menu functions are accessed through wandering around Diagon Alley and going into shops. The level selection menu is actually Hogwarts, and you navigate between levels by walking around the castle, where there are other puzzles to solve. Since the levels are also set in Hogwarts, it’s really confusing at first, and hard to tell whether you’re in a place where you can save your game and quit playing or not.
  • Activating the extras you unlock is also counter-intuitive. First you have to unlock them, then you have to buy them using Lego studs in Diagon Alley, then, every single time you load the game, you have to go into the pop-up menu and activate them. That’s a lot of steps to turn your wand into a carrot.
  • The internal logic of how some of the story elements translate into the game is also counter-intuitive at times. The best example of this is polyjuice potion. In the movies, polyjuice potion creates an artificial transformation, allowing one character to look like another. In the game, polyjuice potion allows the player to literally swap one character for another, gaining access to all of the new character’s abilities. From a game design perspective, this makes sense as a mechanic for changing characters, but it doesn’t make sense in terms of the story.
  • The in-game instructions show up inconsistently. Sometimes, if you can’t interact with an object, or a particular class of object, there’s a pop-up message explaining that you need to wait until you have another type of character or spell. Other times, there’s just nothing, and you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.
  • There’s this small annoyance where none of the vehicles you pilot can go in reverse.
  • One of the things I actually appreciated was that, while you can manually switch between spells, you usually don’t have to. You can load one spell to the z-button so that it’s ready to go, but, when you target with the b-button, the game automatically selects the most appropriate spell, even if it’s not the one you have loaded. This saves a lot of time and hassle.
  • The most interesting part of the game is trying to figure out which group of characters you need to bring to each level in order to get the collectables. The game sucks a little of the fun out of that by suggesting the best group for you. It reminded me of that Star Trek: The Next Generation game they made for Sega, where the only fun part was choosing who got to go on the away mission, and the game would feed you the optimal choice from the start. I would like it so much more if you could choose for yourself before seeing who the computer would choose for you.
    • When I was ten, I wanted to send Counsellor Troi on every mission because she was pretty and I liked her accent. Kids don’t care if you have no applicable skills.
      • So, I guess I concede that kids would probably be happy to send Ginny and Neville and Draco and whoever on a bunch of missions they’re not helpful for. They probably wouldn’t say, “God fucking damn it, I need that Hufflepuff crest, and you’re useless to me.”
  • The second most interesting part of the game is solving the puzzles in and around Hogwarts (menu!Hogwarts not level!Hogwarts). You get a lot less help from the computer, but the pay-off is generally smaller.
  • One of the small pleasures of the game is seeing locations that weren’t depicted in the movie, like the Ravenclaw common room, and getting a sense of the geography of the castle (as imagined by Lego).

 

In conclusion, this game is confusing, repetitive, and not very fun outside of the “immerse yourself in Hogwarts” aspect. The first time I played, I still went almost all the way to the end, playing and re-playing annoying levels in a quest for collectables, unlocking characters I never had occasion to use, jumping to my death because I couldn’t tell how far I was up stage. By the time I had a character who could do Avada Kedavra and kill everyone, I really, really wanted to.

I realize that I am not the target audience, and that this game is intended for children who want to go to Hogwarts and play with animated figurines of their favourite characters – in fact, I think games like this may have been a precursor to Disney Infinity – and I understand that Lego Harry Potter needs to be something that children can beat, but I’m not joking when I say that all you have to do is methodically blow everything up. Like, as soon as you arrive somewhere, just assume that you will need to destroy everything you see, and start an organized sweep – that’s the whole strategy.

Back in my day, we had a driving game on Atari that was stupidly hard to beat and a game about a plumber who always got killed by a turtle, and we were still happy. (Though, if I tell you the absolute truth, I was also pretty happy to play The Little Mermaid on NES, because I could actually beat it).

So, if you’re a child, raise the score to a three out of five and get an older child to explain the menu system to you. You will be able to beat this game while pretending that you’re at Hogwarts and want to destroy it. Fun!

Image: Lego Harry Potter; Warner Bros.| July 18, 2014