With the exception of some of Nintendo’s recent retro Mario throwbacks, the Lego series of games stand almost completely alone in the current marketplace. They simultaneously manage to enchant two completely disparate audiences; children of a disarmingly young age for whom the format serves as an immaculate introduction to videogames, and members of the disillusioned hardcore. Both are catered for with equally nuanced tact and understanding. Although the surprisingly sly temperament of some of the puzzles means that very young children won’t be able to tackle it alone, its blend of boxed-in exploration and straightforward puzzling makes each game ideally suited for family co-op play. These are titles with incomparable mass-market appeal, and this latest installment is arguably the most accomplished and enjoyable yet.
Because the Harry Potter films tend to appeal to a slightly older (and wider) demographic than Star Wars or Indiana Jones, the puzzles have been ratcheted up a few notches this time. Although none of them could ever be accurately described as taxing, this iteration is much more densely packed with them, and the superb inclusion of diverse spell-casting means that you’ll always have to be aware of all of your options before tackling a puzzle. The initially daunting number of available spell slots does suggest at first that Traveller’s Tales may have completely disrupted the franchise’s relaxed atmosphere, but the spells are introduced at such a leisurely pace, and their exertion is so clear-cut and meticulously explained, that all it does is freshen the experience up immeasurably. You can also cycle between spells at the touch of a single button, so brisk trial-and-error is always an option for the very young.
Lego Harry Potter is a game in which developer Traveller’s Tales once again display an outright mastery of silent comedy, as well as some judicious editing skills. Anyone without an interest in (or knowledge of) the Harry Potter series will have all of the important bits of the first four film’s plots delivered to them via some devilishly efficient cutscenes of real wit and brevity. Not only are the uninitiated kept up to speed constantly, the fanbase are also certain to enjoy the way in which some of the more famous sequences, that they’ve known and loved for many years, are not only abbreviated cleverly but also gently toyed with in order to wring out the maximum volume of slapstick comedy. And as with all of the Lego games, not a single word of dialogue is uttered in Lego Harry Potter, and the developers have nurtured such finesse with this technique that the narrative somehow hangs together rather perfectly on its own.
In addition to making the core gameplay components of collecting and expedition both effortless and thoroughly rewarding, Traveller’s Tales also very shrewdly play to the decidedly obsessive compulsive fashion in which most young (and not so young) adults play their videogames these days. There are unlockables galore (including over 100 playable characters) and a large set of new mini-missions for those inclined to look for them; the most enjoyable of which involves the rescue of Hogwarts students in peril. Though racing through the main game is an option if you want it to be (and large blue arrows and ghost studs always prevent you from getting lost) but there is so much to see and do – and so much work is involved if you want to achieve 100% completion – that there is something to ensure that any gamer of any age is undividedly hooked in no time at all. To say that Lego Harry Potter offers pretty extraordinary value for money would be a rather gargantuan understatement.
Harry Potter fans will be pleased to hear that broomstick riding is included and is expertly done to boot, with one button dictating your height and the rest of the analogue controls remaining as normal. Some moments are so joyous in their innocence – like the way in which you’re given the ability, often for absolutely no reason at all, to ride around in wooden go-karts or walk around with empty barrels on your head – that playing it without an infant companion almost seems ruinous. But however you play it, Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 is a game filled with so much charm, so many well-placed laughs and so many instances of superlative game design, that it isn’t hard to recommend it to absolutely everyone in the strongest possible terms.