The Harry Potter games have always been something of a conundrum. You see licensed games, especially ones based on movies tend to be on the far side of entertaining. However, the shenanigans of the Hogwarts crew have somehow managed to be fun and appealing to anyone interested in the books or movies, and even to some that are not. I fall into the latter category. I have never been a fan of the series, and honestly when I fired up Half-Blood Prince I expected a world of disappointment. As it turns out these games are actually crafted surprisingly well, giving players excellent control, and a faithful recreation of their favorite characters and locations to play around in. This latest chapter also explores the darker side of the esteemed series, giving gamers another solid outing with Harry, Ron and Hermione.
The story borrows heavily from the movie, using it as a catalyst for most of the events in the game. Sadly if you are not a fan, and have not read the book or already seen the movie the game will not deliver you the strong narrative you might be hoping for. This is the sixth year at Hogwarts for Harry and company, and like always there is treachery afoot. The cookie-cutter plotline does feel fairly similar to all the previous outings, aside from the abovementioned more mature overall feel. All of your favorite activities from the movies are here such as Quidditch, potion mixing and wand combat, but without a proper storyline to progress what is happening, gamers outside of the Potter-elite will likely be lost. However, if you are a fan wanting to live in the world of the movie this is certainly going to please you, instead of having to sift through the same cut scenes and tired dialogue you already saw in the movie or book.
The core game feels like a typical action/exploration title with a bit of open-endedness thrown in for good measure. Most of the time you will find yourself restricted to certain areas and missions, while other times you are free to roam around Hogwarts and perform other objectives much like a sandbox game. Most of the events take place as sort of mini-games, but not in that groaning type of way, these are actually quite enjoyable, and work well within the universe. The majority of the games revolve around flying, mixing potions or dueling. Each one implementing a unique mechanic and a steadily increasing challenge that can earn you new badges, which also unlocks Achievements/Trophies.
Potion mixing was by far the most inventive and enjoyable of the mini-games. This activity places you into a first-person perspective and gives you a table full of various concoctions that you must mix and heat at the right intervals to create your potions. It works sort of like Simon Says, but with a more visual panache. The first time you do it, it will feel childish, but once you start going for the more advanced badges the difficulty ramps up. You have a timer that regenerates with each correct mixture, but failing to mix the right ingredients can cause smoke to distort your view and make things a bit more complicated. Some of the higher-up badges can take some dedication and a truly steady hand; great for challenging wannabe wizards.
The dueling portion of the game works better than previous efforts, but still has a long ways to go before being excellent. You start off in a third-person action state where you can move around using the analog stick while casting spells with the other. You can also sidestep attacks by pulling the left and right triggers. Opponents usually don’t put up much of a fight, and there are instances where you can spam certain attacks over and over for guaranteed victory. There is also a multi-player duel mode that can be accessed from within Hogwarts, but it really boils down to who messes up first, and who manages to get the upper hand, as strategy really plays little part in most battles.
The final piece to the gameplay puzzle is the flying. As you might expect the game does not give you free reign to just soar wherever you please. Instead you will always be on a set path, so instead of feeling like the sport of Quidditch, it feels more like a race. Contributing to this reality are the checkpoints that you have to fly through as you fly around. Missing one takes time off your clock, and if you miss too many you will have to start over from the beginning. While limited in their mechanics, these events still manage to be fun. The sense of speed is good, and you really feel like you are accomplishing something. The biggest problem though is that these segments tend to drag on far too long. Most of the events in the game suffer from this problem, but Quidditch/flying is by far the worst offender. Even the initial sequence at the beginning of the game that teaches you how to fly goes on for longer than it should.
As for the rest of the game exploration is key, you will spend a majority of your time fumbling around the school trying to find hidden crests. There are 150 total in the game, and some of them require you to collect mini-crests in order to build up enough to earn a regular one. As you can imagine there are also Trophies/Achievements tied to these, as are the badges you can earn in events. Navigating around the school is made much easier this time around thanks to the wonderful GPS known as Headless Nick. Whenever you get stuck you can summon Nick to guide you in the proper direction, completing alleviating getting lost, especially if you don’t know the layout of the school head-to-toe. The core game clocks in at roughly 5-6 hours in a normal play through, but obtaining all the hidden items and badges, not to mention earning all those Trophies/Achievements, will take an ample amount of time. Potter fans will be pleased.
Visually the game retains the persona of a licensed game. The character faces are well done, but their lip-syncing is off drastically in some areas. The school itself looks fantastic, spiral staircases are well done, and the texture work is surprisingly good for a game that has been ported a thousand times over. The rest of the game falters though at almost every corner. Frame rate drops plague the PS3 version and poor environmental effects really take you out of the universe. The sound doesn’t fare much better as the voice actors really sound like they are forcing it most of the time, but the music is spot-on from the movies. Presentation is one area where Half-Blood Prince really shows its licensed roots.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a solid movie tie-in game with a few setbacks. While light years beyond the mess that was Order of the Phoenix, it still needs a few tweaks to be considered a great game. As it stands Potter fans who already know the story will be pleased with the way everything has been handled here. The mini-games are enjoyable, the school looks fantastic, and there is enough to keep you busy until the crew returns for the obligatory sequel next year. Half-Blood Prince will suffice fans of the series enough to keep them playing, but anyone outside of Hogwarts fan clubs may want to be cautious before jumping in.