Movie tie-in video games are generally made much too quickly, since they need to come out simultaneously with the movie. The result is short, shoddy games. So the developers of the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince game lucked out when the movie’s release date was pushed back eight months. Those eight months gave developers a chance to make something that comes very close to being a good game.
The Story: Bare Bones
Prince follows Harry in his sixth year at the magic school Hogwarts. Harry learns some new potions, plays a bunch of quidditch and instructs students in the art of magical dueling. Along the way, he learns a little more about his arch nemesis Voldemorte.
While previous Harry Potter games consisted of disconnected snippets from the movies they were based on, Prince at least tries to tell a coherent story. It does not, however, try very hard. The game is less story telling and more story recapping, reminding me of some children’s play in which all the action has been boiled down to 10 minutes of expository dialogue and a lot of kids standing around giggling.
Subplots are either deleted or simply hinted at. Harry exhibits some level of sexual tension with Ginny and there is friction between Ron and Hermione, but these things go nowhere, feeling as obligatory and purposeless as an actor thanking his publicist at an awards shows. I don’t recall that much of the book, but I recall it being far more interesting than the bare bones narrative of this game.
I have always felt video games are a perfect medium to let people experience a Harry Potter book first hand, but alas, no one seems inclined to try that. The philosophy in movie games is that they are played by people who have seen the movie and know the story. Imagine how terrible movies would be if they were made on the assumption that everyone had read the book and didn’t need to hear the story again.
Gameplay: Generally Enjoyable
There are three main game types in Prince, potions, quidditch and magical dueling.
Potion making is a magical take on cooking games like Order Up! You can pick up ingredients with the Wii remote and drop them into your cauldron. Heat the cauldron by shaking your remotes; heat it for too long and the air will fill with smoke which you must disperse by shaking the nunchuk. Players must perform an indicated action, like stirring or heating, until the potion turns a certain color. Potion-making is timed, forcing players to move quickly and choose potions accurately. The result is a simple but engaging mini-game.
In the quidditch portions of the game, Harry is presumably chasing the magical flying snitch but is actually just trying to fly through a series of star-shaped hoops, which involves a lot of dodging and weaving. Miss too many hoops and you lose. This seemed very unpromising in the tutorial level but turned out to be pretty exciting as the hoop positions became more extreme.
Dueling involves using your wand to cast spells at an opponent. You acquire more spells as you move through the game, learning to shoot fire balls, create an impenetrable magical barrier or turn your opponent upside down.
All these tasks are woven, sometimes awkwardly, into the game’s story. Harry is often accosted by hostile students who need to be dispatched. He must prepare potions for class, and in a particularly absurd moment becomes convinced that he can get the truth out of a mendacious teacher by impressing him with a really good potion.
Game Design: How a Small Thing Can Have a Big Detrimental Effect
The game requires players to wander hither and yon through Hogwarts. To help players find their way around, ghost Headless Nick can be summoned for a tour guide.
While it sounds like a small thing, this is actually a terrible game design choice. In the last game, Order of the Phoenix, you could press a button to draw a line towards your destination. Players would travel along this line, and if something caught their attention – a collectable object or a student with a problem – they would stop their journey for a moment. But as silly as it may sound, stopping to do other things when you’re following a tour guide feels rude, and because of this I rarely stopped along the way. The game has crests hidden here and there that can be retrieved in ways that sometimes require minor amounts of puzzle solving. There are also students standing around who need your help. But in my single minded determination to follow Nick to my destination, I tended to ignore these distractions.
Thus, while the previous game had a sandbox quality in which players would explore Hogwarts at leisure, Headless Nick virtually forces players into a more linear gaming style. This is a particularly egregious mistake in a game that, if played straight through, will take at most five or six hours. While I did spend some time exploring and collecting crests after the story had played out (and discovered that the game has far more of Hogwarts than you would realize from simply playing through the story), wandering around without a framing story felt rather pointless, and I soon got bored.
Conclusion: Short but Entertaining
Still, there is fun to be had in the game. While there are annoyances like unskippable cut scenes and a running mechanism that fails on stairs and is uncontrollable on turns, there are also cute ideas like a section in which Harry drinks a luck potion and is suddenly able to mix potions and vanquish enemies with remarkable ease.
Prince is fun, and surprisingly good looking for a Wii game, with beautifully rendered weathered stone buildings connected by long pathways. The visuals are clearly something the developers wanted to use their eight months of additional time to improve, and the results are rather impressive.
Prince is certainly a better game than its predecessor, and that may well be because of that extra eight months of development time. The short but enjoyable game that resulted just makes me wish that the movie’s release had been delayed for two years. Then Prince might have been worthy of the book upon which it is based.