With its magnificent Great Hall, moving staircases, hidden alcoves and secret passageways, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a magical place ripe for exploration. If you’ve been following the Harry Potter videogame series then you won’t be surprised to discover that Hogwarts in Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, the sixth game in the money-spinning franchise, is virtually identical to that in previous games. Fans will instantly recognize the impressively detailed interior and dimly lit corridors beyond the castle’s huge oak doors and will be equally familiar with the school’s exterior, with its courtyards, pumpkin patches, looming towers and bold architecture that superbly captures the look and feel of the movie interpretation of J.K Rowling’s magical castle. With such an impressive building and surroundings on display, Hogwarts is an enticing place that demands to be explored.
Ironically enough, however, Half-Blood Prince doesn’t exactly give you much incentive to want to explore the game world. Aside from searching every nook and cranny for school crests that unlock various rewards, and picking up a few good deeds from fellow students, there’s just not enough gameplay variety to keep you amused or retain your attention for that long. This is because the gameplay in Half-Blood Prince predominantly consists of three mini-games, which are a real mixed bag in terms of quality and fun-factor. Out of the three games, one is excellent, fairly challenging and good fun to play; one is not very challenging at all, but good fun to play for a short period of time; and the other one is only mildly engaging the first time you play it. Any more than that and it becomes monotonous. There's a real wasted opportunity in Half-Blood Prince. Even with such creative source material at the developer's fingertips, it hasn't managed to use it wisely to create an engaging game space full of interesting and exciting quests - it's all quite frankly, a little bit boring.
Instead of a game chocked full of engaging quests, mini-games take up an unhealthy chunk of your time. The best of the mini-games is potion-making. During potion-making classes, you’re required to follow on-screen prompts and pick the right ingredients to pour into the cauldron. You then need to heat the mixture up by flicking the right analogue stick up and down, which turns the liquid to the appropriate color. Though the premise of potion-making is brain-achingly simple, it is an entertaining and challenging game. In addition to the two main actions of pouring and heating, you’re also required to stir the concoction and wave any smoke out of the way should you get the measurements wrong. Having to do these actions with a timer ticking down to zero in the background adds to the tension and keeps you on your toes.
The other mini-games aren’t quite as engaging. Harry is invited to join the Gryffindor dueling club so you’ll spend plenty of time fighting for your house and moving up the rankings. It’s also a good opportunity to get some fighting practice for when you’re involved in combat outside of the club. Winning your duel is a fairly simple affair though, that requires little more than dodging out of the way of incoming spells and then unleashing a Stupefy spell to stun your opponent or an Expelliarmus spell to knock them to the ground. Seasoned gamers won’t find dueling challenging in the slightest, but younger children may get some satisfaction out of battling against some familiar characters from the Potter universe and trying to time attacks and second guess your opponent’s next move. You can’t fault the control scheme. Spell-casting has been mapped well to the control pad and it’s fairly enjoyable rolling the right analogue stick to repair objects (Reparo!) or levitating your opponent by hollering Levicorpus and then moving both the left and right stick in the same direction. Indeed, spell-casting and fighting opponents outside of the dueling club provides some of the most entertaining moments during an otherwise average Potter adventure.
The least impressive of the three mini-games is Quidditch. If you've ever played Quidditch World Cup or any other of the Potter games that allow you to play this school sport, you’ll be disappointed at the watered-down version in Half-Blood Prince. Instead of being involved in an actual game of Quidditch, which would have been enjoyable, you're really just testing out your broomstick skills and using your left stick to guide Harry Potter through check points around the pitch. Okay, so it's simple and accessible enough for kids to pick up and play (perhaps that's the idea behind its lack of depth?) but we were bored of flying through stars after just a couple of games. Where’s the creativity? J.K. Rowling would be appalled.
Indeed, the lack of challenge or stimulation in Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, plus a blatant disregard for the source material, are its biggest downfalls. Despite having J.K Rowling’s book at their fingertips, which is jam-packed full of brilliant ideas, tons of relevant information has been omitted from the storyline. The game has obviously been designed to be played by people who have read the book, or have already watched the movie. Though there are some key cut-scenes that will appease fans, anyone else will find it hard to make out what's going on, and even some Potter enthusiasts will be disappointed at the lack of attention to story-building.
It's not all bad news though. We can see how Harry Potter fans should get something out of the Half-Blood Prince (in the same way that they probably have out of the other decidedly average Potter games). An impeccably detailed representation of Hogwarts is certainly appealing and some strong voice acting from the likes of Adam Sopp as Harry Potter and Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, along with some excellent character likenesses, does bring the Harry Potter Universe to life. If you can turn a blind eye to some of the inconsistencies, such as the horrible caricature of Ginny Weasley and some irritating voice acting from Bellatrix LeStrange's voice-over, then there's no reason at all why you shouldn't enjoy waving your wand and casting spells around Hogwarts in the short term. If, however, you're hoping for an engaging adventure that oozes with the creative genius of J.K. Rowling herself, you'll be sorely disappointed. Harry Potter is a license that has the potential to be made into an amazing videogame, but for whatever reason the developer only ever seems to settle for average.
-The Final Word-
While Potter fanatics will get limited enjoyment out of the boy wizard's wand-waving antics, everyone else will be left disappointed at the lack of creativity.