Gamers have it good nowadays. In the 16-bit and 32-bit days- or the “Dark Ages” as the kids would say- the mere mention of a movie-based videogame would induce groans, winces of pain, and maybe a seppuku overseas. Back then, most companies would throw together recognizable characters and crummy game play to make a quick buck. Gamers could count on slapdash shovelware from Acclaim and Ocean as games to avoid (” Cutthroat Island “, anyone? “Cool World?”). But times have changed, and so have the standards for a quality game. Game players have wizened, and companies know they can’t pass off a “Total Recall” as a real game. With the continued mainstream acceptance of gaming, publishers are finally investing the resources into their licensed games. And for the most part – with a few duds (cough*EnterTheMatrix*cough) – they have resulted in better games.
A good example of this upswing is in games like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban . Loosely based on the book and movie, Harry’s continuing adventures are faithfully recreated in digital form. The graphics and audio breathe life into the tale, and the partner-based game play system makes for interesting play. However, the rough edges and predictable game play dull some of its luster. While the game is overwhelmingly geared towards kids, players of all ages will find some magic in the digital world of Hogwarts.
The dark and ominous story of Azkaban plays like a Cliff’s Notes version of the movie. The developers took a few liberties with the original book, creating some unique challenges. On the train heading to Hogwarts, Harry is knocked out by a Dementor. Once he comes to, our hero learns of the lurking threat Sirius Black- the evildoer responsible for the death of his parents- and his plans to kill Potter. For a young lad, Harry seems to have a laundry list of enemies, and the menace of Sirius Black poses yet another danger to Harry and his friends. Oh, the joys of childhood.
In the visual department, Azkaban is mostly solid. The developers opted for a cartoonish take on the characters, and the animated caricatures are nicely rendered. In particular, the three heroes- Harry, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger- are adoringly crafted, with a likeness that mirrors the celluloid actors. Most of the side characters match their flesh-and-blood brethren, although a few barely pass for their resemblance. In particular, Professor Snape looks like Meat Loaf gone Goth. Many of the enemies are equally impressive, although some lower-level foes are crudely rendered. Objects are simple and are passable. Lighting and shadow effects are passable. Character animation is decent, with a special mention going to the flowing robes of Gryffindor’s finest. The cut scenes- using the in-game graphics engine- look and animate capably. Environments are impressive, bringing the imaginative world of Hogwarts to life. Although lacking significant detail- additional elements to distinguish the rooms and corridors would have been nice- the large-scale sets are modeled well. The frame-rate is rock-solid for the most part, but does lag a bit with a ton of activity onscreen.
The aural aspects of Azkaban also benefit from the source material. The soundtrack is a wonderfully orchestrated set of tracks that captures the feel of the game nicely. Some of the more sublime offerings tend to fade into the background, though. The voice acting is another highlight, with the sound-alike cast mimicking the celluloid actors to a tee. Even the minute touches like Ron’s sniveling and Hermione’s nagging are convincing. The various quotes do have a tendency to repeat at irritating amounts- especially when Ron or Hermione hint at puzzle clues- and sometimes continues after the puzzle has been solved. An option to remove the voices in these cases would have been nice. The script is good for the most part, but some lines are suspect (if only Hermione could hear Harry exclaim, “Look at that chest!”) in the wrong context. The sound effects are done well, with little nuances like footstep taps on wood flooring versus muted thumps on carpeted wood.
The control setup in Azkaban is simple and logical. The face buttons cast spells, determine character actions and allow you to swap between the three characters. L1 calls over the other characters- handy for solving certain puzzles- and R1 targets enemies and objects, as well as centering the camera behind you. The left analog stick controls movement while the right analog spins and zooms the camera. L2 (in certain situations) switches to a convenient overhead camera view. The layout works well in theory and in function. The only knock on the controls is a slight lag in movement when going from zero to running.
Game play is improved over past Harry Potter variations. Once again incorporating a third-person system similar to the recent Legend of Zelda games, the kid-friendly play provides hours of solid play for fans of all ages. There’s no Quidditch in this game, but there’s more than enough to keep you occupied.
The puzzle-heavy Azkaban plays almost identical to past games in the series. New to this incarnation is a team-based system involving Harry and his two comrades. All have the same basic skills and spell set, but each has talents necessary for accomplishing particular goals. Harry is the athlete of the group, scaling objects and leaping over gaps like a fugitive on “COPS”. Ron can detect secret doors and walls, along with discovering hidden objects. Hermione can squeeze herself into spaces the boys can’t, and learns the majority of the available spells. In time, the trio acquires unique spells to complement their distinctive talents. The puzzles themselves won’t strain the cranium, but do provide some entertaining moments. While some of the tasks- both individual and group-based- feel forced, the inclusion of the brain-teasers goes farther than hack-and-slash game play.
The single-player mode is the main attraction, with the most depth of the modes. In the solo go-?round, the levels are broken up into various days. Loosely following the plots of the movie and book, the multitasked stages require several objectives to be met to advance to the next day. Many of the goals involve fetch quests for maps, spells and potions, but a few go off the beaten path into action and stealth territory. The days trekking through Hogwarts are long ones indeed. The sizeable school of magic is broken down into eight floors, with each filled with nooks and crannies of interest. Most of the time is spent inside of the school, but a few side adventures force the lads outdoors for some exercise.
The wide-open spaces of Hogwarts present one of the flaws of Azkaban . Until you memorize every inch of the school, getting to each new level requires aimless wandering before you stumble onto your point of destination. The aggravating whining by Ron and Hermione do little to guide you in the right direction (“So where is this Defence of the Dark Arts you’ve been pissing about for the past two minutes, Ron?” ). A guiding system or signs would have helped loads. On the contrary, backtracking to past levels is cut off by locked doors, forcing you to go forward for a large part of the game.
The camera system is a little clunky, incorporating both the panning and circling function into the same stick. There are several instances of bad angles as a result. Also, the overhead camera angle is static, which can limit your view of specific platforms and angles. The inclusion of the overhead angle is thoughtful, but the ability to spin the camera around the room would make the feature more useful.
The computer A.I. is suspect, and brick-thick dumb in the case of your friends. Enemy A.I. varies between devious and dim, but Ron and Hermione are stuck on stupid. You have to constantly call on them in order to keep them in sight. And in major battles, your supposed buddies will sometimes have their backs turned to the bad guy as he attacks. It’s nice to know that your pals have your back.
The load times in Azkaban are frequent and maddening. Opening a door to a new level or staircase is met with load times between five and fifteen seconds, and occurs often. Since the present level is devoid of much action and on a smaller scale- unlike a role-playing game- the long loading times are questionable. A more mild annoyance is the brief lag between pauses and returning to the game.
Azkaban’s puzzles won’t rack up RPG-like playing times, but it will take a long sitting to beat the game. The one-player game offers a number of distractions in addition to the main game. Collecting the Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans can buy helpful items in Fred and George’s joke shop. Along the way, you collect house points in each level towards your group’s overall ranking. You also find collectible cards- gathered in the Folio Universitas- and pages of the Folio Bruti, a collection of creatures. This gives incentive to seek out and find the various secrets. While the modes are few in number, they promise to while away the time. The bonus games- Dueling Club, Owl Racing, and Hippogriff Flight Challenge- offer some fun diversions with Owl Racing and the Flight Challenge being unlockables. In addition, this version of Azkaban includes six EyeToy mini-games from the start. Unfortunately, only the Seeker Practice EyeToy game has multiplayer capabilities. Beating the game will earn you a picture gallery for the character models and a trailer for the movie. Not the most thrilling incentives, but the extra goodies are a treat for the diehard fans.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is further proof that a major license does not automatically equal a shoddy game. The delightful storyline, solid visuals, great sound and easygoing controls make for an engaging experience. A few rough edges in game play mar an otherwise solid adventure. While the difficulty leans towards the easy side, it’s no reason to dismiss the game. For fans of the mega-magical franchise and action/platforming gamers alike, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best reason yet to admitting to liking the young wizard of Hogwarts.