“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” PC game

Review by Matt Casamassina

Harry Potter‘s a huge phenomenon. If you’ve never heard of The Boy Who Lived then you probably are in a cupboard under the stairs with your broomstick shoved in your ears. The stories of the young magician have spawned countless tie-ins and licensing deals, and this game (and the recently released movie) are just the latest in a long line of cross-merchandized products. But does that make it a good game? Well, sort of… first and foremost, this game is a really faithful adaptation of the book and succeeds in getting the spirit just right. The whole environment is full of little details from the books – beyond the inclusion of the settings and characters, things like knights turning their heads or chocolate frogs jumping around really add to the atmosphere. Any one who hasn’t read the books won’t necessarily care one way or the other, but it’s nice for fans to see some authenticity here.

The characters (Hogwarts included) are spot-on accurate and although I’ve yet to see the final film, seem to draw quite a bit in sound and appearance from the preview materials we’ve already seen. Sadly some of the believability of the license is ruined because some of the characters constantly make reference to the game as a game. They tell you which mouse buttons to push for certain actions or let you know how your game can be saved. If you’ve bought into it at all, these instructions can knock the willing suspension of disbelief right out from under you.

It also seems to me that most of the budget for the game went into licensing. I can’t see that a lot of effort was actually spent on the production of the game side of things. Certainly a game is a huge undertaking, and even a mediocre game is the result of thousands of hours of labor. Still, there’s not a lot going for this game other than the Potter license.

For the two of you who aren’t already familiar with the idea, Harry Potter is a boy who finds out he’s a magician and goes off to study magic at a school for wizards. Harry takes classes in spell casting and engages in various competitions with the other students. It goes a bit deeper than that, of course, but the surprises are part of the enjoyment of the series.

But while it’s a stirring story, the interface is incredibly simple and not terribly well-implemented. You can run forward or backward, turn, look around, cast a spell. and jump. That’s about all there is to it. The controls for the flying and Quidditch matches are even more scaled down. One would write this simplification off as another concession to the game’s younger target audience. All I can say is that the game and the structure of the puzzles seem a bit more sophisticated than the controls.

Using these controls, you’ll progress through the game through conversation, exploration, and exasperation. Most of the time you’ll be running around trying to earn points for Gryffindor. There are numerous items to be collected here (but nothing in the way of inventory items). You’ll look behind paintings, climb bookcases, and flip switches in an effort to earn stars. Even though you’re earning these stars pretty much all the time, there’s rarely a sense of direct competition. The real reward of the game is in experiencing the story, not in any display of skill. Well, the frequent jumping puzzles require some skill, but you can actually select an option that lets the computer handle the jumping for you.

For a game about a wizard, the spell system is rather one-dimensional. To learn a new spell you’re forced to trace an outline à la Black and White. Each spell is a different shape, and you’re graded on how accurately and how quickly you can reproduce the shape. But once you’ve been through the pantograph stuff, you won’t ever need to remember them again. The game automatically selects the appropriate spell for whatever you happen to be pointing at. This turns out to make the action even more one-dimensional. I will say that the spell effects are nice. The Levitation Charm actually requires a bit of cognition as well.

Many will simply excuse the flaws of the game by saying that it’s a children’s title. Okay, I’m hip to that. But the Potter phenomenon has branched out into so many diverse age groups that I know some older gamers will be considering the title. Never mind the fact that most software retailers are stocking the game in the general section rather than the kids section.

As a game for kids, Harry Potter is fairly rewarding. I can see lots of kids genuinely enjoying it merely for the sake of the story. But while the limited interactivity can add a new dimension, there’s nothing here that can’t really be experienced in the book (or maybe even the film for those too lazy or spastic to read). The decision to bring the game to the PC (and the various other platforms) is more than just an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the license and the timing of the movie, but it’s not much more than that. That’s particularly disappointing for those of us who genuinely enjoyed the book and were hoping for something more like Alice – not in terms of tone but in sophistication.