Forget complex storylines, plot intricacies, and profound character exposition: The Lego version of Harry Potter has slapstick. That's really the only option left for a game where none of the characters can speak, but luckily it works just as well here as it has in past Lego games. Indeed, fans of the blocky adventure titles will take to Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 like Hermione to homework, reveling in the game's humour, familiar gameplay and variety of challenges. What separates this game from its Lego cousins is the renewed focus on exploring and collecting: the game invites you to explore its detail-rich environments with promises of more rewards and secrets than you can poke a wand at. The gameplay also drives the narrative with more purpose than in past Lego games, which means you get a real sense of progression as you learn different charms and earn new abilities. There are some minor flaws, like scattered bugs and a disproportionate difficulty in combat, but these aren't enough to mar the magic.
If it's green you can touch it; if it's red you should watch it. (Credit: Warner Bros)
As its title suggests, Lego Harry Potter is four adventures in one. You will begin with Harry's induction into Hogwarts in Year 1, move on to the secret-Riddle-d Year 2, jump to the Sirius-ly lupine Year 3, before arriving to face the magical challenges of Year 4. The game is modeled on the Harry Potter films rather than the original text, but you'll hardly notice the difference: the narrative has been considerably shortened and numerous liberties have been taken for the sake of comedy. The results are often hilarious. There's also subtle brilliance in the game's environments, which are colourful, well detailed and full of contextual accuracy, from the Dursley's home in Little Whinging to the draughty corridors of Hogwarts and everything in between.
The action takes place on the bottom DS screen, where you can move your character around with the stylus and tap on objects or people to interact with them. A 2D map of your current environment sits on the top DS screen, with your current objective marked by a blue star. The Room of Requirement is your hub in the game, where you will be able to collect studs, practice spells, spruce up your unlocked characters with some basic customisation options, and replay through unlocked chapters. You have the option of playing in two modes: Story mode and Free Play mode. While the content of the two modes is the same, Free Play allows you to select any of the unlocked characters and make your way through these levels with an entirely different collection of spells. Apart from just being fun, there's certainly more worth in doing things this way because you are able to explore more areas and collect more goodies.
Each spell has its own unique outline: to cast it, you must trace the outline with the DS stylus. (Credit: Warner Bros)
One of the first things you notice in Story mode is that there are some objects you can't interact with right away (objects with a green outline are a go; objects with a red outline mean you have to wait). This is because you have to learn spells as you go along — it doesn't all come at once. This structure creates a neat and coherent relationship between story and gameplay, which gives you a sense of progression and achievement. Can't light that torch or bring that platform down from the ceiling? Not to worry, you'll be learning those spells next! This gives you something new to consistently look forward to and adds anticipation. Gameplay is guided by a series of short, snappy missions that propel the story forward: you’re either asked to fight baddies, solve puzzles, find lost objects, or learn a new spell, but never in the same order and never just one at a time, which means things always stay interesting. Spells start out easy and get more complex on a need-to-know basis (for example, Harry doesn't learn to cast the patronus charm until Year 3 when he needs to fight Dementors). Reducto is used as the main attack, while other spells, such as wingardium leviosa, lumos, accio, revelio, reparo and stupefy also make an appearance.