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Dark Souls II seems to lack something, maybe it's interconnectedness?

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The Dirty Achievement Diaries, Vol. 4... The Harry Potter Edition

I’ve never thought too highly of live-action role-playing. Those guys that wore full-plate armor and chainmail on my college campus never quite sold me on the principle, and the weird dudes playing lawn quidditch don’t exactly inspire me to jump on my broom and fly to glory. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from playing the worst stuff around for achievements, it’s that sometimes crazy is necessary. So, being out of my mind, let’s give a classic Hogwarts spell a try… Accio Sanity!

...anything happen? No? So I’m still nucking futs? Oh well, it was worth a shot.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’ve spent the last week or so playing through a trio of Harry Potter licensed games. I figured with the last movie tearing up the box office, and with many of the Potter games having simple achievements, that I might find my own way to embrace Pottermania. And thus the fourth entry in my “Dirty Achievement Diaries” finds me locked away in the blackest depths of Hogwarts’ dungeons. If I could conjure one word to summarize the whole experience, it would have to be pain. We’re talking a full-on cruciatus curse to my soul. I wasn’t expecting that to be the case, mind you; I do like the Potter franchise. I read all the books when they came out, and I’ve seen the movies. But I don’t love the series, which means that (unlike Nintendo) I need more than just character licenses to give my seal of approval.

But when you stop and think about it, what would make an exciting Harry Potter game? I think this is a valid question, one that the developers should probably have taken time to consider. Why? Because for one reason or another, the first Harry Potter games on the Xbox 360 embraced the whole “go to school” aspect of the series, instead of the “use awesome spells and beat those Slytherin punks” concept. I do realize that the most recent titles (the Deathly Hallows entries) are basically Gears of War clones. But while those games are fine for what they are, they don’t have easy achievements, and they’re still overpriced for what they deliver; hence, they’re not on my list. So, instead, it’s time to enroll at Hogwarts:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Remember when I said that the developers of the Harry Potter games never really considered how to make them fun or exciting? Sure you do, it was just a couple sentences ago, but bear with me: apparently, for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “compelling gameplay” is delivered through a barrage of mundane tasks, fetch quests, bad mini-games, and a generous portion of glitches. Prior to playing this, I didn’t realize the Order was some kind of janitorial guild. However, I have since come to understand the joys of tidying up Hogwarts. And yes, because you asked, they are indeed legion.

Dumbledore's Army. They could stop the Dark Lord, if only they didn't have that paper to write.
Dumbledore's Army. They could stop the Dark Lord, if only they didn't have that paper to write.

Let’s back up a step. The game itself is painfully short: after some brief introductory events at Grimmauld Place and Hogwarts, roughly 80 percent of the remaining “story” involves the recruitment of Dumbledore’s Army (Harry’s makeshift defense against the dark arts club). There are 26 students that need to make it to club practice, and once they’re enlisted, the narrative catapults the player straight through to the endgame. And before you get excited, the “recruitment” process is not some intriguing mode where you persuade allies to your cause. Rather, it’s a matter of finding the DA members standing (like statues) in the hallway, and (literally) completing their homework so that they can go to club. This generally involves some sort of fetch quest, many of which hurt to even think about. Lee Jordan, for example, needs you to scour the castle to find four talking gargoyles, while the Patil sisters need you to come with them to divinations class. Believe me, there are no highlights to be found during this process.

As in any poorly conceived licensed title, there are ways to pad out the time spent. And where achievements are concerned, there is a whole insane asylum’s worth of padding to wade through. Roughly half the points in the game are earned by reaching a particular “discovery level.” To earn discovery points, you have to cast spells (generally lifting and/or repairing spells) on random items throughout the castle. In practice the, most of these points get earned by repairing broken statues, hanging wall paintings, mopping up the floors, and completing fetch quests for NPCs. The remainder of the discovery points can be earned by completing abysmal minigames, such as wizard’s chess (which is just chess) and gobstones (the latter of which might be the slowest, most arduous thing I’ve done during this project.) Much of my consternation comes from having to play the game on hard, which makes all the tasks, duels, and challenges almost comically difficult. For example, being terrible at chess I used a chess computer to play my games for me, but the CPU (on hard) literally caused my online game to crash.

This is Harry Potter in 40 years.
This is Harry Potter in 40 years.

Speaking of glitches, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix also gave me my first massively broken achievement. Simply put, the 100g earned from beating the game on hard doesn’t unlock when you, you know, beat the game on hard. As a result, all the added frustration I received from playing on the highest difficulty was entirely wasted. To make matters worse, before playing the game I read that you could still get the achievement by turning off the autosave before starting a new game. Well I did that, which meant that I had to go through the whole thing without turning off my console. I literally pulled an all-nighter as Harry Potter: Hogwarts Janitor, only to be denied my 100g at the end. None of the workarounds listed online fixed my problem, so instead of replaying the whole thing “just in case,” I took my 900g straight up the leaky cauldron and moved on.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I wouldn’t call Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince a good game; far from it, in fact. However, I can safely say that Harry’s sixth year on the Xbox 360 is a dramatic improvement over the previous term’s adventure. When taken in comparison, there is nothing that hasn’t been streamlined or just plain fixed. For example, the clunky “Marauder’s Map” interface was replaced by Nearly-Headless Nick acting as a kind of spectral GPS; the “repair everything in Hogwarts” tasks are gone, and the central staircase actually works (in the previous entry, waiting for staircases to move felt like waiting for a train to arrive). In addition, characters move more fluidly, spells work as intended (for the most part), and best of all, none of the achievements are glitched.

Get Used to it...
Get Used to it...

That said, the HBP is still not a quality title. Clocking in at around 3-4 hours (without sidequests,) there’s not much to the game. Gameplay itself is divided into four basic mechanics: run around Hogwarts, fight in wizard duels, mix potions, and complete quidditch events. Without exaggeration, that is all there is to this game. However, this wouldn’t be a problem if all these activities weren’t miserable, broken, or just plain boring. For instance, the bulk of the game involves potion-making, which is simply a matter of navigating items into a pot in a poorly presented 3d plane. Likewise, quidditch events, despite what you might think going in, are just races through colored hoops; no actual playing gets done by the player. Finally, duels become pointless because the levicorpus spell breaks the challenge. The rest of the game (for achievement hunters) becomes one massive collect-a-thon, as finding all 150 Hogwarts crests makes up the lion’s share of the gamerscore.

And this too...
And this too...

In retrospect, all these flaws become magnified by the fact that HP:HPB doesn’t explain a damn thing to the player. One might think that a game so in love with its three basic game mechanics would want players to understand them, yet at no point does the game describe how to get higher scores in events. For example, the best potions scores are actually earned by slowly stirring, shaking, and adding ingredients until the appropriate change occurs. There’s a noise that indicates when this is done well, and this also adds more time than would be earned by rushing. Yet this is never explained; instead players are led to believe that only by acting fast can they win, which isn’t the case. Likewise, it’s not explained that players must fly through the exact center of the glowing rings to max out quidditch events. Also, the game never bothers to tell players how to activate items to get the most mini-crests (which are compiled into big crests, and therefore achievements). I figured these things out later on by repetition, but judging from most forums, I don’t think methods for effectively competing in these activities are common knowledge.

It’s always frustrating to see a game fail on such a basic level, especially when a few small changes could drastically improve the situation; but such is the case here. Hell, even the ability to play quidditch in some rudimentary form would have represented a welcome shift. I’d even take a re-skinned blitzball (from Final Fantasy X)…that’s how desperate I’m getting. So, in summary: three mini-games, a four-hour campaign, and frustrating collectibles. I can’t exactly say that it was my favorite 1000g ever. I’d encourage you to watch the quick look of the game (below), because that short video contains literally everything you’ll be doing in year six.

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4

It was long overdue I suppose. Having read many Trueachievements and X360A forums, I know that Traveler’s Tales’ LEGO games all contain easy (if not quick) achievement points. And since Pottermania is in full effect right now, LEGO Harry Potter, years 1-4 proved a natural jumping-off point. There isn’t a whole lot to say about the LEGO franchises: once you have seen one game, you have seen them all. Yet there is an undeniable whimsy and charm to these titles. Though some may disagree, I find the no-dialogue, comic approach of the cutscenes totally endearing. And even though I love my M-rated titles, playing something designed for all ages just feels good every now and again. Moreover, I am truly impressed by how crisp both the graphics and frame rate hold up. I never saw the game drop below 60 frames-per-second in my 20-plus hours with it, and every texture – LEGO or otherwise– looks fantastic.

Full CompletionAll that said, I do not think I will be playing more LEGO titles in this achievement project. The games seem perfectly suited to short play sessions (because long stretches are exasperating), but at the same time, demand constant focus and attention. Why? Because LEGO Harry Potter – and I’d assume all other LEGO games – are collect-a-thons to end all collect-a-thons. I am relatively certain that Rare’s Banjo Kazooie never stooped to the level of random crap that Travelers’ Tales throws into the mix. For this title, there are 20 red bricks, 24 Hogwarts Crests (comprised of four pieces each), 50 students to save, 24 true wizard levels, 167 unlockable characters, and 200 (yes, 200) gold bricks to earn and find. These collectibles would be manageable if each were tracked by location; however, particularly where the gold bricks are concerned, there’s no way to know which ones you have or don’t.

In practical application, this means that you need to have a super-guide or checklist to work from, starting from the minute you begin the game. Meticulously working through a guide is NOT relaxing gameplay, not when there are over 400 things to check off. To make matters worse, I’ve read that many of the collectibles in LEGO Harry Potter are glitched, though I did not encounter any during my playthrough. In addition, there is no in-game map to work from, which makes navigating Hogwarts for collectibles way more of a headache than it already is. I suppose if I had played through the game over a solid month, it might not have been an issue. As it stands, the kid’s game required the most focused diligence of any title so far in this project.

Good luck...Bitch
Good luck...Bitch

Well, thus ends my brief wizarding career. It’s always a shame to see a franchise you like given such pitiful treatment. For most of these titles, the insistence on the mundane – whether that be mopping up stains on the floor, or fixing yet another potion – keeps them from being anything other than boring, licensed cash-ins. Playing these games felt like work in the purest sense of the term, which isn’t surprising given that most of the tasks you complete could be considered work by any objective standard.

Part of me would like to say that I’m done with this whole affair; however, there’s still some time before school starts, I still have a great friend at my local Gamestop, and yes, I still hate myself. I have a number of titles coming in, and as of this writing I can safely state that I have completed Avatar: The Burning Earth. And no, I don’t just mean achievements, I mean the whole thing. More on that to come…

So thanks again for reading, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comments and feedback. I’ve got nothing but love for the whole GB community. If you haven’t been following along, you can check out my other entries here.

Until next week…