Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban GBA Review

With the new movie on its first week of release and J.K Rowling’s bank account fit to burst, yet another piece of merchandise based on the Harry Potter phenomenon is here to grace our beloved consoles. If this were a wizard game from the good old days I might be typing in commands like “Hit Gandalf with wooden pole”. But thats not how we do it these days. How can everyone’s favourite (or most detested) little wizard fare in the dog-eat-dog world of handheld gaming? Read on, Muggle companions.

Graphics

Far nicer than either of the previous GBA Potter outings. A cutesy graphical styling has been applied to Harry and his chums, comprising of strong colours and bold outlines reminiscent of the SNES/Megadrive sprites of yesteryear. This works extremely well for the game, even though Harry’s glasses give him a rather absent expression; perhaps even Hogwarts isn’t entirely free from the drug racketeering affecting our own Muggle schools. The battle sprites, displayed in a manner similar to Golden Sun, are doubly impressive in their cutesy appeal; there are also some nice spell effects to witness, and plenty of well-animated beasts to tussle with. The environments are largely no better than those that went before – indeed, often some appear bland or too dark – but some sections do not fail to impress; the Grand Staircase and some great animation of trees whipping past the train carriage spring to mind.

Unlike the previous games, the profile pictures shown when characters are speaking are based directly on the actors/actresses from the movies. This will no doubt please fans of the films and books, as will the appearances of characters like Neville Longbottom and Crabbe and Goyle; however, players will quickly find that all the other kids in the school bear a striking resemblance to one another. Potions class, I was surprised to discover, seemed to be made up of several pairs of twins, of which the missing triplet could be found wandering elsewhere in the school. It’s a bit lazy and detracts a little from the otherwise quite well realised Hogwarts world.

The status screens also boast some pretty artwork, particularly in the form of a rotating 3D model of your chosen character which really does look impressive; sadly, it’s a bit pointless as nothing you actively do affects the appearance of your character. Unlockable mini-games like Buckbeaks’ Hippogriff Glide also display some nice 3D action; while the slightly more realistic models of these modes are quite far removed from the usual cartoony appearance of the game, everything manages to gel together quite well. There is some glitchiness involving characters being visible through portions of objects, and the 3D sections do appear a bit blocky at times; however, all-in-all this game shows a great deal more effort towards appearance than the previous versions.

Gameplay

The basic structure of the game is no different from the other Harry Potter GBA titles; you have to attend lessons – each of which involve some perilous challenge at the end of which a new spell is learned – all the while unravelling the “mystery” behind Harry’s latest persecutor. The new addition to this instalment comes in the form of multiple character control; while most of the time you will still be guiding Harry about, you will also be able to control Ron and Hermione at various points in the story. This is quite an interesting aspect to the game, even if it offers nothing that hasn’t been seen in gaming before; Ron has spells that allow him to open doors and make things “spongy” so that they can be bounced on, while Hermione can repair things and freeze water. Many puzzles require that you put these skills to use alongside Harrys’ own skills of destroying things (!) and lighting up dark places; however some sections require that you choose a partner to accompany you, or are forcibly paired off with one of your cohorts. This offers some slight replay value, as levels are designed for either eventuality; if you have Ron on your team you may be able to open a door and go a different way through a dungeon, whereas Hermione may be able to repair a staircase to get by. Sadly, there appears to be no way to permanently leave Ron someplace behind a broken staircase, but this certainly shows that a great deal more effort ahs been made to make this game less of a blatant movie cash-in and more of an enjoyable gaming experience.

Also new to this game are turn based battles, which give it a far more RPG aspect as opposed to the “action” based approach of the previous games. Enemies appear onscreen and gradually drift around making them easy to avoid if you would rather not take part in battle; bumping into one moves you to the battle screen. This is staple fare; you can cast a spell to attack (Flipendo Uno is the standard spell that costs no MP to use, whereas Incendio Tria requires a great deal of MP to cast), heal yourself using various traditional Potter paraphernalia or run away. There is also a nice addition in the form of a Bestiary that shows the weaknesses of your foes; this can be updated by examining an enemy using Informus. While all of these ideas are blatant rip-offs of classic RPG ideas, they work well in this game. However, one interesting aspect of this battle structure is the use of Wizarding cards to cast spells. In previous games, collecting cards was just a nice subquest; here, however, once Harry has collected a specific run of cards they can be used to unleash a more powerful spell. Most quests in the game revolve around some form of battle; and typically, enemies are never killed but simply “go away” when they are defeated. Is there some kind of psychological message in this? Probably not.

Levelling up is made ridiculously easy by the fact that EXP is not divided by the individuals but simply given in bulk to each character that has taken part; this means that it is very easy to become extremely powerful very early on in the game. However, this renders the various health potions that you pick up relatively useless; once you have had your 200SP knocked down to about 15, a standard 20SP potion is hardly going to get you out of the woods. This means that healing must be done out of battle rather than in it, and that healing one character can often consume all of your potions. Thankfully more items – including various “armour” all based around standard Hogwarts attire like robes etc – can be bought from Rons’ older brothers in their small store. Irritatingly there appears to be no way to resurrect an ally that has been knocked unconscious – they regain 1SP once the battle has ended – which can often mean that if your partner dies mid-battle a quick reload is in order. If you are defeated you are taken to the Infirmary where you are patched up and then left to go back and attempt the challenge again. This works quite well, plus the added bonus of now being able to save at any point in the game makes those re-attemps far less stressful.

However, as well as its rather RPG-“lite” approach to the genre, the game does possess some other niggles. For starters, Harry cannot run; instead, it would appear that his party must crawl begrudgingly through the castle to achieve their goals. Sometimes it can be unclear as to what to do next in a particular dungeon, especially in places like the woods where the backgrounds merge into a general blackness and obstacles are hard to see. Luckily the horrendously fiddly gaps that Harry had to navigate without falling to his doom in the earlier games are gone in favour of more puzzle rather than skill based sections. Also missing here are the horrendous sneaking-sections of the previous titles; no more must Harry creep around out of sight of the Prefects for fear of losing House Points. Instead, the House Point system has been removed altogether. This is a bit of a shame – no more can we gloat that we have beaten Slytherin and that Hufflepuff have again succeeded in coming nowhere – but it’s worth it to avoid those ghastly steath sections.

Similarly, the sterile nature of the story is a little irritating; upon completing a puzzle you are greeted with about two boxes of dialogue to explain the next conundrum and then you’re on your way. This quickly becomes aggravating later in the game when you can traverse the whole school to get to your destination, only to have Hermione say “We have to do something! Lets go back to the library!” If you have just come from the library you can see how quickly this will begin to lose its appeal. It’s almost scavenger-hunt like in the way that you find a clue and then have to go someplace else to do the same thing again; people hoping for a more in-depth experience may well be advised to look elsewhere.

Sound

Some nice atmospheric background tunes that set the scene perfectly, even if they are somewhat similar to all that have gone before. The new battle sequences allow for more intense fight music to be included; again, this is hardly original but does the job. Thankfully the small voice samples of cries such as “alohomora!” are gone from this instalment. The remaining animal noise samples are well-executed and applied if rather repetitive.

Lifespan

The game’s story mode is surprisingly short, and condenses the book into a bare skeleton of dialogue. This is a pity, as what is there is pretty good; just there isn’t enough of it. Side-quests like the Wizarding collectable cards and the unlockable mini-games playable from the start menu may offer some reason to return once the main quest is completed (which will really be a matter of days); similarly returning to the main game to see what would have happened if you have picked an alternate path may be enough to encourage a second play. However, for the most part these extras are not really the stuff of great addiction and interest, and the novelty may well wear off too quickly.

Connecting to the GC version of the game allows an owl-raising mini game to be unlocked. This tamagotchi-like activity sees players looking after an owl in the hopes that it can win the owl races in the GC game. This is an interesting side-quest and will kill plenty of time once the main quest has been completed. There is also an option to save your game and then start again with the same card collection, making it possible to try and get all of the available cards.

Overall

There are some nice ideas here that will really appeal to fans of the franchise. However, some credit must be given to the apparent effort that has been made with this particular title; while all of these aspects are well-used conventions pilfered from other sources, they do add a great dimension to this game that makes it seem less shallow and unimpressive than the other games of the series. Perhaps then this is the title that you should try out if you want to experience what the Potter games bring to the hobby; sadly however, problems such as the ridiculous simplicity and an incredibly non-descript attempt at encapsulating all of the events in the book may put some people off.

8 out of 10
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