Snap to it, LEGO-boy! Don't fall to pieces on me. Hey! Leggo my LEGO.
There. Now that I've purged myself of those weak LEGO quips, I won't have to try to cram any more into the rest of this review. Fear not, you cubish-quip haters! We're going to get right down to the nuts and blocks of LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4.
If you've ever played any of LEGO's movie-adaptation games (among others, we've reviewed LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures and LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy), you have a pretty good idea how all of them work. The games condense their subject matter (in this case, the first four Harry Potter installments) into a series of comedically wordless cutscenes that keep the story moving forward as the game unfolds.
Here, the opening moments show a LEGO version of Professor Dumbledore dropping baby Harry off at the Dursley home. And then, poof, Harry is older and his adoptive family is being deluged with a truckload of invitations to Hogwarts—flying in from every window, chimney and letter slot. Voilà! Instant intro to young Harry's wand-waving school life.
Yes, it does help to actually know who Dumbledore is—and who Harry, Ron and Hermione are, for that matter—but the game lets you get by pretty well even if you don't. (If that's possible after a gazillion books and a bazillion movie tickets have been snapped up all around the globe over the last decade!) The LEGO characters never speak, but melodramatic movements such as the wringing of plastic hands or Hermione's painted-on disapproving frown can, amazingly, speak volumes.
Fire Burn and Cauldron Chuckle
It's in between these cute story placeholders that the gameplay happens. The majority of it is exploring the environment and piecing together LEGO blocks in various puzzle-solving exercises. Accompanied by the movies' evocative soundtrack, you begin play as either Harry, Ron or Hermione as they're being sent on missions to such locales as the village of Hogsmeade, the Hogwarts school's halls and dungeons, or the Forbidden Forest. Each place has its share of objects that can be pulled, cranked, puzzled out or zapped with a wand to yield scores of scattering LEGO studs.
These collectable studs substitute for currency and can be used to buy everything from new playable characters (including Dumbledore and the evil magician Voldemort) to goofy spells not generally taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (such as turning somebody's hair into flowers).
That brings us to the magic part of this cubed equation. Just because these little guys' world snaps together doesn't mean the plastic tubs they came from aren't half full of wizarding tricks—the majority of which are focused on the wands each character carries. Point the wand. Push a button. Make the magic happen. (The absence of talking removes the possibility of incantations.)
The list of wand-centric spells you learn includes most of the Latin-sounding enchantments from the books and films, including the levitating Wingardium Leviosa, the immobilizing Immobilus and the comical Riddikulus. In addition to those wand zaps, each character has his or her own special magical strength. Harry can use his father's invisibility cloak to slip by guards, for instance. Ron can control his pet rat, Scabbers, sending it skittering through pipes and mazes. Hermione can open special bookcases to, um, fulfill her book-loving desires, I guess.
Through it all, the game's creators make every effort to disarm and downplay the darker magical scariness—such as the creepy dementors and cobwebby graveyards—by playing out the shuddery goings-on in as goofy and amusing a way as possible. For example, in one scene Ron lets a ghostly boggart out of its box and it transforms into a giant spider with a key in its mouth—that you need. Ron zaps the critter with a Riddikulus spell and suddenly it's wearing roller skates, its legs slip-sliding in every direction.
That humor, though, sometimes crosses over into toilet-lite territory. When Harry and Ron confront a giant troll in the dormitory bathroom, the big guy is just coming out of a stall with a gaseous cloud trailing behind him. And, later, Hagrid is spied shoveling brown LEGO blocks from behind a unicorn.
Do LEGOs Muddle the Message for Muggles?
Combat is also given the endearingly blocky treatment. In fact, it's kept to a minimum even by LEGO video game standards. When there's a big boss battle to blast through, the worst outcome—for your hero or the bad guy—is to break up into a shower of LEGO blocks.
In one of the most harrowing parts of the movie series, Harry's friend Cedric is killed by Voldemort. In the game's reenactment, Cedric crumbles into a pile of blocks. At first Cedric's father is upset, but then the ever-wise Dumbledore pulls out a diagram showing how to reassemble a LEGO person. And all is well in LEGOLAND once more.
As we've said in past reviews, then, the most potentially problematic part of a LEGO game isn't any nasty content in the title itself, but the possibility that it could send young gamers back to the source material. The Harry Potter movies and books, though widely popular, glamorize a certain stylized form of witchcraft and celebrate the occultisms that are tied to it. That alone can be more than enough reason for parents to steer their kids clear of this campy plastic version. And if that is the case for your family, you'll have no trouble understanding the argument that can be made about what happens when you cutesy up witches and wizards: Maybe LEGO hasn't really disarmed them at all, but has instead merely trivialized them, trying to turn something that's actually quite dark and sinister into something fun and frivolous.