Imagine that in just one day you found out that not only are you destined for greatness, but that magic is real, you can perform it, and that instead of ever having to go to regular school again, you get to live in a castle with John Cleese. These things – well, most of them, anyway – are what every child dreams of, and that's the appeal of Harry Potter. To be immersed in that world is the aim of LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4, the latest property to get the TT Games LEGO treatment and what the team calls their "richest" one so far.
And rich this magical world is, filled with countless things with which to interact and an abundance of impressive, entertaining animations. The fun is in the discovery as you never know whether something will simply rearrange itself or break into pieces and reassemble into something completely different. You make this happen by casting Wingardium Leviosa, a spell that does just about everything and operates similarly to the Force in LEGO Star Wars. It levitates objects to give you access to higher levels, lights candles, pops flowers into pots, and it does so almost always with little to no intervention from you. Sometimes you'll have to aim where you'd like to place a block, but most of the time you just hold Z.
That's just one of seven spell types you'll learn (eight if you count the Invisibility Cloak), and it's by far the one you'll utilise most often. The others come in handy in specific instances – banishing ghouls, scaring away treacherous plant life and immobilising little blue flying creatures, for example – but Wingardium's basically a catch-all. Once you've selected it, you can aim around while holding the B trigger or approach objects until one shines purple, then hold down Z and watch the magic happen. The former feels a bit shaky at first, but you'll get used to it before long.
Like the rest of the series, almost every occurrence is accompanied by a spewing of studs, the currency of LEGO Land. This stuff is everywhere, and its constant explosions frankly become a bit tiresome. You can't move a book without it flying out at you. You'll take these back to Diagon Alley, where you can buy all sorts of extras. Similarly to other titles in the franchise, these include countless costumes and characters, some fun spells and cheat codes that can shrink your friends' heads or turn everyone's wands into carrots, and even a nifty level creator. You can only access the stages that you construct within your own save file, but if you regularly invite your friends over then you should have a lot of fun watching them play through your inventions. You can do everything here from lay down scenery to create switch-triggered puzzles to raise and lower the ground, so it's pretty complex. It's easy to use, though, and explained through a decent tutorial. None of this directly affects any aspect of the gameplay, however, so how much you enjoy this type of thing will largely determine how much fun you have with the title.
There's not much to separate the gameplay itself from other LEGO releases, blending light puzzle and platform elements for this family-targeted experience. All in all, it's somewhat limited; while you may delight in the many hidden things to encounter and animations to activate, it mostly amounts to holding down Z and watching what happens. You'll solve most of the puzzles by searching the room for anything that you haven't yet cast magic at and casting magic at it. How to get yourself out of a bind is almost always unpredictable and there's therefore little logic to apply. For example, during one class you're to eliminate all of the treasure chest-dwelling ghouls. To find one of them, you cast magic at a cupboard, at the blocks that spill out, at the projector they form, and at the moving picture it portrays on the wall, depicting a dwarf struggling with the ghoul chest that you seek. It's quite imaginative and visually impressive, but your involvement is basically limited to searching for things you've yet to touch, pointing at them and holding a button. It also controls quite well, has an easy to navigate hub world and a good fixed camera system, the relative immobility of which almost never becomes an issue. Then there's Free Play mode, which lets you revisit past levels as different characters and re-explore them with your new abilities, though there's never anything terribly unique from one to the next.
Like other LEGO titles, a friend can always join in and play as your companion in some light co-op segments. This can make for a lot of fun, and if you're playing by yourself, the CPU does an admirable job of performing the requisite tasks.
The game includes some puzzle-infused platforming and combat sections, but since you can't really die, there's just no sense of urgency to any of it. Sure, some spots do take a bit of thought and it's not all random point and click, but when there's no consequences besides a few lost studs and no stakes higher than whether or not you get rid of an obnoxious wasp, there's not a lot of drama or excitement. Boss battles quickly become boring as even though the game provides the façade of a health meter, it just refills itself after Harry explodes into LEGO bits with a comical "aah!" This humorous animation, however, is one that we could easily watch over and over again.
Like the rest of the franchise entries, there's charm and wit around every corner, and without exception it's actually charming and witty. Whether it's the sight gag of popping off someone's hair to use in a potion or the subtle whimpers of a terrified LEGO Ron that does it, this game will make you smile. It's a wonderful world that TT's built, though each stage is extremely linear and mostly involves you blindly following the resident ghosts of Hogwart's and their trail of ethereal studs from one destination to the next. After you're through you can explore the areas freely, but they're a bit difficult to navigate as the game doesn't include a map.
Anyone who's played the other games in the series will find the structure of the main story familiar, which portrays pivotal moments in each of the first four Harry Potter films as told through LEGO. It's all cute and charming, but someone unfamiliar with the source events might have a hard time understanding what's going on through the toys' monosyllabic verbalisations. You'll never hear them utter a word, rendering some of the less obvious cinematics incoherent to the wrong player. Anyone who appreciates the witty language of the Harry Potter universe will find this especially unfortunate.
The graphics rarely disappoint and do a great job of merging the simplicity of the LEGO look with the complex world of Hogwart's. There's a bit of slowdown here and there, especially when two players move apart and the screen splits in half, but otherwise it's all colourful, bright and impressive. It's also detailed in the interactions that go on around you: Slytherin kids taunt you and pick on one another while other classmates read, doze, stand on their heads, chase each other around or perform any number of amusing tasks. It's fun just to stand in a room and watch the interactions that take place around you. The soundtrack is wondrous and cinematic, every moment featuring a sweeping score that perfectly reflects the tone of the action, whether excitingly climactic or bucolic and peaceful, and anyone familiar with the films' soundtracks will recognise their evocative themes. The sound effects equally dazzle, full of laughing kids, chirping birds and mumbling dwarves. This world could draw any player in, making it a worthwhile experience for someone already used to LEGO gameplay who's looking for something unique about this most recent title.
One of the best aspects of the game is that there's always something new to discover, a lock left behind or an item just out of reach to come back to later. But no matter how good it looks and sounds, how much fun each animation is to watch or how many nooks and crannies there are to explore, everything suffers from the fact that the actions that you perform and extras that you unlock never directly affect the gameplay. There's no improved wands, useful spells or better brooms to buy, only extras, making the endless barrage of studs somewhat meaningless if this isn't your type of thing. They may enhance the comedy and silliness of the gameplay and give you something to collect, but they never enrich it.
This may be the best virtual incarnation of both the LEGO and Harry Potter worlds so far, but the experience might still fall short for some. It's a ton of fun to watch and explore and full to the brim of amusing animations, and its world is charming, immersive and presented beautifully, but most of your interactions involve holding down the Z button down while Wingardium Leviosa does all the work. Similarly to the rest of the franchise, the gameplay is somewhat thin and without consequence, and these factors combine to form a fun but limited, overly automated experience. On the other hand, if collecting things and customising your experience for the fun of it are up your Diagon Alley, and if the light gameplay aspects appeal to you in spite of the fact that at times you'll do more watching things happen than thinking them through, this game's a winner.