If you haven’t played any of Traveller’s Tales’ earlier Lego game franchises—Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Batman—let me explain what they’re about. Each of these games lets you play through famous scenes from the movies they’re based on, but created entirely with Lego blocks. The characters are all built on the Lego-person template: cylindrical head, trapezoidal body, creepy hooks for hands, and big, sturdy pant legs. It’s all very, very cute.
The added bonus of Lego worlds from a gaming standpoint is that you can build new structures on the fly and destroy everything else. You haven’t lived until you’ve used a lightsaber to slash Jar Jar Binks into a quivering pile of Lego body parts. Still, after five years the Lego games’ novelty had started to wear off. Fans had no reason to suspect that Lego Harry Potter would be either new or different. Thankfully Traveller’s Tales surprised us all.
The first major difference between Lego Harry Potter and the rest of the Lego games is level design. All of these games have a central hub in which you run between different levels or view secrets and collectibles you have found so far. Where Star Wars had the Mos Eisley Cantina and Batman had the Batcave, Harry Potter immediately separates itself from the herd by boasting two enormous hubs: Diagon Alley and the whole of the Hogwarts castle and grounds.
Between each story level, you’ll burn around either locale as the trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. As first-year students, the three have access to very few of Hogwarts’s secrets, but completing the story missions and attending classes along the way will teach you new spells like Wingardium Leviosa and the Patronus charm.
Indeed, there is so much to do at Hogwarts that, like first-year students who attend there, you would become lost without a guide. The Gryffendor ghost, Nearly Headless Nick, guides you all around the school throughout your first four years, leaving ghostly Lego pips in his wake. Lessons and missions will require you to travel from the castle’s highest tower to its lowest dungeon, from the Forbidden Forest to the Black Lake to the Quidditch Pitch.
As I mentioned, exploration between levels initially limits you to the central characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione—a tap of a button lets you decide which to control—but the story levels are more varied. The first mission, for example, lets you control Harry, Hagrid, or Fang the boarhound, and each one of them can do something different. For example, Hagrid doesn’t know many spells because he never finished his magical education, and Fang can dig up mounds of Lego blocks to find collectibles.
By the end of the game, you will have access to nearly 150 characters (some duplicates in different costumes) through the use of cauldrons of Polyjuice Potion spread liberally throughout the castle. Only a handful of characters have unique abilities necessary to unlocking the game’s hundreds of secrets, but true treasure hounds will glory in the extra 7-10 hours of gameplay it will take to hunt down every last hidden spell or object.
Storywise, each of the first four Harry Potter novels (or movies if you prefer) is broken into six story levels. All locations in the game are based on their appearance in the Harry Potter movies, but with more details and nods to the book series, leading to some genuinely hilarious moments. Try not to laugh the first time you see Percy Weasley at King’s Cross Station or climb onto a broomstick as Hermione.
The Lego games all tell their stories through simplified but fully animated storyboards to move the stories forward. To keep the production time and budget to a minimum, these animations eschew voice acting for highly expressive pantomime from the Lego people. Traveller’s Tales programmers are obviously huge fans of their source material, and manage to stay true to the original sources while taking some humorous liberties or making clever inside jokes.
For stories like Star Wars that are largely dependent on visuals anyway, this formula works perfectly. But Harry Potter is, forgive me, a rather more nuanced tale. Players with only passing knowledge of the books or movies will find the story animations in Lego Harry Potter mystifying if not downright impenetrable. However, if you know Ernie MacMillan from Justin Finch Flechly, or which of the Patil twins Harry and Ron each took to the Yule Ball, you’ll feel right at home in Lego Harry Potter.
In my opinion, the saga of Harry Potter is the richest and most fully realized English-language fictional world since Tolkien set pen to paper. To paraphrase Stephen Hawking, it’s a tribute to J.K. Rowling’s imagination that she could even conceive of such a story (he was discussing Albert Einstein, another very smart person). The fact that I could spot so many of the nuances and in-jokes from the Harry Potter books in Lego Harry Potter—a game without any dialogue, remember—is truly staggering. Bravo to J.K. Rowling for her brilliant imagination, and bravo to Traveller’s Tales for harnessing her vision into such a fun and clever video game. I cannot wait to see how they handle the inevitable sequel, Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7.