It is not an understatement to say that I am a huge enthusiast of the Harry Potter franchise. The books drew me in when I was a teenager, and ten years later, I still adore them. The film adaptations have been, for the most part, as good as fans of the books could hope for. Like any series that is massively successful in one medium, Harry Potter has branched out into toys, apparel, and, of course, video games. Before Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the most recent installment based on the sixth book and movie of the same name, I had never played a Harry Potter game—and from the reviews I read, there didn’t seem to be any need to do so. However, for some reason, I really thought that EA would be able to improve the Harry Potter game experience this time around, and make Half-Blood Prince more than just another mediocre tie-in. Unfortunately, this series still has not come close to living up to its video game potential.
Obviously, I haven’t seen the movie version of Half-Blood Prince, which doesn’t come out for another two weeks. I am extremely familiar with the book, though, having read it multiple times. Because of this, I had no problem following the game’s story, even though it merely bullet-pointed a few plot points and steamrolled over almost every major story event. If you’re a fan of the movies, but haven’t read the Harry Potter books, I would recommend not even touching this game until after Half-Blood Prince is in theaters. I know that most people who play this game will already be familiar with the content, but I still think that the plot should have been presented in a way that actually makes sense.
As a novel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince contains a very emotionally charged story, as well as some of the most important and poignant moments of the entire series. Video games, as a medium, have been proven many times to be able to handle this kind of content, but as a game, Half-Blood Prince fails miserably at translating the gravity of these events. The game also reduced some extremely heartfelt moments to cheesy ones, which literally made me cringe. I know that the title is directed at an “all ages” audience even more than the books or movies, but if J.K. Rowling could write this story without dumbing it down for fear of upsetting younger readers, the game should be able to accomplish that too.
Story issues aside, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince offers a decent gameplay experience marred by repetitive missions and fetch quests. Hogwarts is presented as this huge, open castle, yet the game gives you no map to follow onscreen. Instead, when you need to get from Point A to Point B, you can call upon resident ghost Nearly Headless Nick to lead you around. This works well enough, but I constantly felt lost, and would have liked to be able to get around by myself. When you’re not actually trying to reach a specific destination, you are free to roam the castle grounds. Scattered throughout Hogwarts are 150 Hogwarts Crests, which give you unlockables and upgrade certain abilities as you collect them. Trying to track these down, and using charms to acquire those hard-to-reach crests, extends gameplay a bit. I collected around 50 on a single playthrough, so I imagine getting them all would be a bit of a challenge.
Other than walking from one class or mission to another and collecting crests, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has three mini-games that will make up a huge chunk of gameplay. The first is potions, which makes total sense in the context of the story, since Year Six is the first time Harry actually does well in that class. Potion-making is a mix of thumbstick movements to emulate mixing and boiling, as well as following recipes and adding precise, exact ingredients. Like Harry, I also excelled at making potions, and I found this to be my favorite of the mini-games. Quidditch is another large part of the game, and flying on Harry’s broom feels exactly as it should: simple and natural. Unfortunately, every Quidditch match and practice is exactly the same, and has you flying through a number of targets until you finally catch the Snitch. I would have liked to explore some of the other team positions, but instead I spent much of the game following that elusive golden ball. Because there is so little variety in each Quidditch match, this can get a bit repetitive.
The third activity in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is dueling. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, wizarding duels consist of two wizards facing off and throwing spells at each other; the last one standing wins. In addition to being able to join dueling clubs for all four houses (because Harry is just that good, I guess), any sort of conflict in the game will be settled by using your dueling skills. Spells are cast with precise movements from both thumbsticks, and as you participate in more club duels, you will learn more skills. I had mixed feelings about this portion of the game. It’s not particularly challenging, and your foes—right up until the very end—don’t seem to be very smart when it comes to spell casting. Even though I acquired new abilities, I found that all I ever needed was a perfectly timed “Expelliarmus!” followed by a barrage of stunning spells. Oh, it’s certainly cheap, but it got the job done. Two-player dueling makes this aspect a bit more interesting, but even that has limited appeal.
As I mentioned with dueling, Harry will join clubs for the three mini-games, and these can be accessed from the main menu (which was helpful since I could never find the classrooms I was looking for). Completing club challenges will earn you badges and new abilities; it’s sort of like leveling up, without any actual levels. I completed all the potion challenges, but grew bored of dueling and flying before getting all of my badges in those activities. Clubs are still accessible after the game is completed, which is convenient, and adds a little more gameplay to a relatively short title.
The presentation really could have taken Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to another level, but instead it’s very hit-or-miss. The castle, while easy to get lost in, has been recreated with a fairly good eye for detail. There are plenty of areas you will never need to explore when strictly following the narrative, but are still open for you to find. Small touches, like the conversations you overhear (most of which are about Harry), or references to the series that are never addressed, are certainly appreciated. The character models, however, leave a lot to be desired. While they look fine at times, close-ups of Harry, Ron, and their friends can be cringe-worthy; and what’s with Ginny’s impossibly shiny hair, by the way? This is made worse by the fact that none of the movie’s actors make appearances in the game, making the voice acting pretty forgettable.
I played through the entire game in less than six hours, and that includes the extra time I spent mastering my potions. There are no real boss fights, though you will end up dueling with Draco Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange, some Death Eaters, and a few unpleasant members of the House of Slytherin throughout the course of the game. Completionists and achievement whores will get a few extra hours out of finding every crest, mastering every potion, and completing every challenge, but even so, there are a finite number of things to do, and replay value is limited.
I’m not going to lie, I did have fun while I was playing this game. It was a fairly smooth experience that I completed in two sittings, and I didn’t run into any glaring bugs or glitches. However, it’s nowhere close to being a polished and innovative gameplay experience, let alone living up to the potential that this franchise has. Instead, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is mindless, shallow, and temporary entertainment, deserving of a rental and not much more. The way the story is presented as an afterthought is inexcusable, and the repetitive fetch quests and contrived missions can only keep one occupied for so long. It’s not a failure, and it is far from being the worst movie tie-in of the year, but Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince once again falls short of being a worthwhile game to add to your collection.