[6 August 2009]
This review contains some spoilers
It was initially difficult for me to understand all the fuss surrounding Harry Potter. There was some vague notion of me being too grown up to get involved with this weird mythology that was promoting fanaticism and cosplay from people of all ages. I’d never even camped out for concert tickets, much less hung around at Barnes & Noble to pick up a book at midnight. Although the series was recommended to me many times by people whose opinion I generally trusted, I still avoided it. Stuck in the Houston airport several years ago, I bought the first two books on a whim. Though, I never actually read them.
Right before the sixth entry in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published, I picked up the Jim Dale narrated audiobook of Sorcerer’s Stone from the library, thinking that I would finally give the series a try on my way to and from work. Within days, I was completely hooked. I plowed through the rest of the series, often listening with headphones while doing household chores or getting ready for bed. In the span of time that it took me to get through the first five audiobooks, the sixth was released, and I devoured that as well. While I can’t speak to how much the growing maturity of the titles was evident while constrained by the original publishing scheduling, experiencing them in quick succession made the progression very clear to me.
While the earliest titles seem to have been intended to set the stage for later revelations, they were also certainly required to paint the image of this entirely different world and its unique rules in very broad strokes, introducing concepts that would become commonplace as the saga continued. Given both the relative brevity of these entries as well as this need for them to explain much of what the reader was experiencing for the very first time, their plots (though certainly very much related to the overall narrative in retrospect) were not nearly as meaty as those of later installments. As the series progressed, each novel was longer, denser, darker, and more focused on furthering the overarching plot of the series.
Harry Potter films have had the unenviable task of condensing these books into a few hours apiece. The earliest of these in my estimation were scatter shot efforts, trying to introduce far too many concepts at once. The breakneck pace made it seem to me that (even more than is usual in the translation from book to film) people unfamiliar with the source material might not only be missing texture but moreover that they might be completely confused. As time has passed and the franchise changed directorial hands, the filmmakers have slowly gotten better at picking and choosing the most important plot points to include and how to make the story easier to follow. There have been Harry Potter games released as tie-ins to coincide with film releases, and now we have the multiplatform Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Since games generally have a much longer running time than films, it seems that they would represent the perfect opportunity to explore pieces of the plot in more depth than the films were able to. This seems a particularly attractive concept for the later books in the Harry Potter series given how much more plot driven they are. It is with this expectation that I played Half-Blood Prince. Unfortunately, this expectation was not met. Although experiencing student life at Hogwarts as though playing in the sandbox of Rockstar’s Bully is somewhat interesting, it misses the core of what the story in this chapter of the saga is about and why it’s so important to the overall narrative. Moreover, given how much the setting of Hogwarts is relied on to give this game a Harry Potter feel and while gorgeously realized, I can’t help but wonder what the final games will look like given that so much of the remaining plot occurs completely removed from day to day life at the school. Although, Half-Blood Prince functions reasonably well as fan service, it’s difficult not to feel that it could have been a much deeper experience particularly given that it doesn’t suffer from the same constraints as the film version that it’s tied to. Over reliance on fetch quests and tasks that are necessarily inconsequential to the narrative make it feel like another game wrapped in Harry Potter skin. While this will likely be enough to garner respectable sales figures, it makes it difficult to give the game a hearty recommendation.
To be fair, the audience for Harry Potter games is very likely to be those already quite familiar with the plot, and as such, it may not necessarily need to be explained to them again. But even so, it would seem to make more sense to allow players to experience more aspects of those activities related to the plot than to send them on fetch quests that were completely fabricated for this medium. While the minigames around dueling, attending classes, and quidditch can be initially interesting, none of them is really deep enough to carry the game, and since that’s where a bulk of time is spent, the resulting experience is largely lackluster and forgettable.
While it would be easy to dismiss both the console and handheld versions of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as lame duck movie tie-ins, it seems more interesting to discuss why this game was always likely to fail. Really, this speaks to the problem of games that are adapted from other, tightly plotted media. Unlike the cast of characters in the worlds of Disney or Marvel Comics or even Mario, almost everyone in the world of Harry Potter serves some sort of purpose related to the narrative as a whole. As such, it’s not a mythology with facets that can either be played fast and loose with or can be subject to outright inventions. The personalities of these characters, though well defined and distinct from one another, have been crafted with attention to the story. So the choice to largely set the story aside, choosing to bring the world of Harry Potter to life without a good deal of attention paid to the narrative seems somehow incorrect. These are not characters that can successfully populate a sandbox minigame collection, which is largely what Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is.
Given the nature of The Deathly Hallows, EA certainly has an opportunity to craft a compelling action adventure next time out, though it remains to be seen how they will reconcile the decision to release the film in two parts with their own game publishing schedule. It seems quite likely that for monetary and marketing reasons, they will choose to make two games. Although all the other books in the series dealt heavily with school life at Hogwart’s, Deathly Hallows does not, and as it is largely a quest from beginning to end that leads to a final battle, it seems perfectly suited to an action adventure game in the Zelda mold, as opposed to the diversion heavy approach of Half-Blood Prince. While somewhat enjoyable for what it is, Half-Blood Prince is yet another example of a tie-in game that seems to misunderstand the appeal and depth of the source material, and as such, it’s ultimately forgettable.