Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 leans heavily on its audience’s familiarity with the life and times of The Boy Who Lived. The pantomimed and grunted story sequences, a trademark of Traveller’s Tales’ Lego videogames, are as sweet and silly as their reputation from Lego Star Wars and Batman, but they’re also incredibly oblique. A mystifying scenario: Lego Albus Dumbledore and others fret over drawings of a scary bearded dude and a circle drawn on a wall during the game’s run-through of The Chamber Of Secrets. Unless you’ve memorized the books (as so many have), it’s unclear what the drawings depict, or why the Lego people are concerned. Lego Harry Potter’s inability to clearly convey the plot of J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus isn’t the game’s problem, though—the real problem is that the game is a squib.
Based on the movies of the first four adventures rather than the novels, the game recreates familiar architecture with pretty graphics, while most objects and people in the environments are made of the titular blocks. There are two bases of operation: Diagon Alley, London’s wizard shopping district, is where you unlock new characters and revisit previously played chapters outside the story. And at Hogwarts, you jump from plot point to plot point in the four self-contained stories. You can wander the castle to a certain extent, collecting scads of tinkling Legos and unlocking new students to control in free mode, but most of the time, you’re just following Nearly Headless Nick to the next task.
In all these spaces, you’re doing more or less the same thing. Point your wand at objects while pressing X until one explodes into a pile of blocks. Press X again until the blocks become something you can either jump on or destroy to remove an obstacle. For example, in Prisoner Of Azkaban, you meet the hippogriff Buckbeak. The next story-step is to ride him, but you need to feed him first. So you hop around an insanely busy forest, collecting blocks and pressing X until you find three Lego chicken legs. Then the story moves on.
This illustrates the game’s chief failing perfectly: the complete lack of creativity on the player’s part. As a game intended for young children, Lego Harry Potter is blessed with both a universe and a set of tools known for inspiration and creativity. Legos are all about sparking the artistic impulse, while Harry Potter is about embracing the unknown and delighting in the unexpected. But no game task requires you to build. You never even have to think about which spell to use for a given challenge, since the game automatically chooses for you. You point, jump, and pick things up. It’s a sadly mundane structure built from magical parts.