Designed for release on the same day as the movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the latest in the series of adventure games based on the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling and their movie equivalents. Originally slated for released last Fall, both the movie and the game were delayed by several months. This extra time seems to have served the game well and makes Half-Blood Prince arguably the best of the series to date. Unfortunately, young Mr. Potter’s games still fail to capture the magic and wonder of their source material.
For those unfamiliar with the Harry Potter craze, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince continues the adventures of Harry Potter, a wizard in his sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This time, he must uncover an insidious plot hatched by his rival, Draco Malfoy, meanwhile captaining his Quidditch team, confronting villainous Death Eaters, and dealing with being an angst-ridden teenager.
You control Harry as he explores Hogwarts, as he mixes potions, as he duels, and as he flies through the skies during Quidditch matches while looking for the golden snitch. The potion mini-game, while well integrated into the overall plot, is a frustrating redundant race against time to shake your beakers, stir your pot, or mix your ingredients. I imagine that with the Wii Remote controller the mixing actions are more fun (the game is available for the Nintendo Wii), but with the mouse the novelty just really isn’t compelling. The amount of time in the books and movies Harry spends on chemistry is minimal; it takes too much time in the game.
The Quidditch matches aren’t true to the chaotic freeform revelry of the movies, but are true to the underlying flaw of J.K. Rowling’s absurdly-designed game: only grabbing the golden snitch matters, the rest of the game is just for show. The game designers understood this and put Harry in scripted practice and match settings where he flies in a set path around the pitch. You control him with your mouse where he is on the screen, meanwhile trying to hit the colored stars and dummies you encounter to increase your speed and time. You’ll also want to bang into opposing seekers when they’re flying close to the ground or the stands. Though scripted, it was fun to see the entire stadium come alive—the crowds cheering, the announcer explaining the match’s progress, and the other players racing around inconsequentially around you.
Through the rest of the game you control Harry through various environments around England, including the large maze-like campus of Hogwarts. Unfortunately, aside from collecting crests and moving a few objects, you can’t really do much in the school. Aside from flying, mixing, and dueling in the various clubs, Hogwarts is a museum with exhibits that you can gaze at but cannot touch.
Harry’s friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, make appearances throughout the game, but instead of being helpful they are awkward petulant naysayers who offer nothing constructive the entire game. You’ll have the opportunity to play as Ron and Ginny Weasley, but these moments do nothing to further the plot or provide anything in the way of gameplay variety. Ron’s mission is literally to walk from point A to point B while high on love potion—an encounter that is never really explained at all.
On my 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro I didn’t experience any slow down, but the graphics seem dated and the faces to be inconsistent in their likeness to human. Harry looked recognizable, but certain characters appear to have dandruff in their hair due to weird pixilation problems. Ginny Weasley is this oddly pale, lipless Gollum-like character. Despite the stellar voice acting, I didn’t really appreciate the romantic scenes where the character’s stiff automations tried to mimic human affection.
The difficulty, strategy, and memorable encounters with the Deatheaters makes the dueling aspect the best part of the game. There are some memorable fights in the bathroom, libraries, and courtyards of Hogwarts; their occurrences are frequent enough throughout the game’s progress to keep you playing.
In contrast, the story is hackneyed and incomplete. Without the exposition of the book or the tight pacing of the movie, the threads of the story seem loose and vague. You never get a sense of doom or what exactly is at stake; if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll just have to fill in the plot holes and random scene changes with your imagination. If you’re not a fan of the series, there’s almost no reason to buy this game.
In the end, this is fundamentally a kids’ game, a movie-tie-in, and an adventure game. All three of these genres are not my raison d’etre, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the battles and exploring the huge environments at Hogwarts.
The main complaint I have is that, while a nice try, this is still not the game that makes good on Harry Potter’s potential as a game. The frustration with exploring Hogwarts is that you can’t really interact with the other characters; the game’s lack of plot and backstory could have easily been flushed out by letting you talk to the various characters in the game. Interacting with your fellow students would also enable the possibilities for side quests, school-focused errands and missions, etc. Imagine if Harry Potter had the sandbox environments of Rockstar’s Bully while still retaining the Harry Potter PG-centric values and story? That would be a game that would truly deserve the franchise tag.
Macworld’s buying advice
It’s a shame that the game designers spent so much time minutely recreating Hogwarts from the movies and then forget to program things for the player to do. I spent most of the game traveling from point A to point B (usually following Nearly Headless Nick) and then doing one of the three mini-games over and over again. Still, the world is pretty stunning and the duels include a fun if simple combat system. While not fulfilling the franchise’s potential yet, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince refines some of the best elements of the earlier games and should satisfy Harry’s legions of fans.
[Chris Holt is an assistant editor for Macworld.]