Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Xbox Review

With yet another Harry Potter game making its presence felt with EA’s trademark marketing campaign behind it, those that haven’t been swept away by the phenomenon are probably getting a little sick of seeing the bespectacled wizard on their home consoles. These people should put aside their prejudice just for a few minutes and give this game a look in – it might just be the one to convert you…

Graphics

Far nicer than the previous two games, the models in Azkaban actually bear some resemblance to their movie counterparts. The models in the cut scenes are clean and well animated, with some nice lip-synching and facial expressions. Creatures like the Dementors and the various animals that take part in the story also offer quite spectacular visual treats.

In-game, things retain their effectiveness; robes flap convincingly, hair shifts with movement, and immense detail has been paid to – literally – everything. Even more so than the other games this title remains true to the movie; those that have watched the film will recognise new landmarks such as the great pendulum in the entranceway and the structures in the courtyard. While none of it is technically groundbreaking, the fact that it all looks so much better than the previous games is really worth a mention – and, by general standards, things really do look quite impressive. Fans of the books will appreciate the detail that has gone into the construction of the school; it is as accurate a depiction of the building as can perhaps be envisioned, and is a delight to explore.

Perhaps the nicest animation in the game comes in the form of the flying creatures that you will encounter; Buckbeak the hippogriff and – in particular – Hedwig the owl are wonderfully modelled and animated, capturing a sense of freedom as you explore the sky above Hogwarts. Similarly, the environments really are outstanding; being able to see for miles into the distance while standing on the entrance-bridge is breathtaking, and it stands in perfectly for the relatively poor draw distances of 3d objects (things like bushes will sometime just appear out of nowhere as you get closer). The weather effects are also noteworthy, particularly if you choose to fly the hippogriff out into a snowstorm.

Also quite striking are the spell-effects resulting from the various incantations that you pick up throughout the game. While for the most part these are a little disappointing and lack visual flair, effects such as the Reparo spell making broken objects repair themselves and the Carpe Retractum blurring the screen to give the impression of momentum look especially nice, and allow the cinematic origin of the game to shine through.

Gameplay

Continuing the story of Harrys’ life at Hogwarts and the ever-threatening presence of “You-Know-Who”, the game starts the player off on a train bound for the school of magic. A short way into the journey, the haunting, ghostly figures of the Dementors appear on-board the carriage, and you know the nightmare is only just beginning. Like the earlier games, the story is stripped pretty much of all of its pizzazz – pretty much gone is the whole aspect of time-travel, which is relegated to a short and rather unhelpful cut scene at the end of the game. However, what remains of the story is a relatively enjoyable – if rather bland – romp in an interesting and detailed environment.

Control follows suit with the other games; standard 3rd person action/adventure controls apply, with spells being equipped for use on either the X or Y button. This quickly becomes troublesome as your characters learn more spells; seeing as how each dungeon will frequently require all of your arsenal of spells to be used in succession, having to enter the painfully slow menu to re-select another spell is tiresome and fiddly. Similarly, items such as healing potions cannot be used without first equipping them, meaning that healing usually consists of equipping a vial, returning to game, using it, returning to menu screen and re-equipping your original spell. This could have been handled a little better, perhaps with a system of rotation available outside of the menu screen as in the GBA game…but luckily it does not stifle game play unbearably.

Like the earlier games you are summoned to classes every day, each of which require you to complete a dungeon and retrieve a spell. Once these classes are completed your newly-acquired spell can be used to complete other tasks – and certainly there are plenty of secrets to be discovered outside of the general quests in Hogwarts. New to this game is the ability to switch characters, all of which subscribe to well-used conventions; Hermione is small and can creep through small spaces, Harry is agile and can leap across gaps his friends are too afraid to attempt, and Ron…well, Ron can steal things and find secret passages. Nice. Puzzles usually involve you using all of your characters abilities to complete them. Switching characters takes place at the touch of a button, and is well integrated so as to be as uninvasive to the game play as possible. The fact that each character can only wield certain spells also plays a part in some of the quests; the Potions class requires you to go and find certain items in the school grounds, most of which can only be gathered by the person with the appropriate spell, so getting the right person to the right place as quickly as possible is important. While none of this is really original, it does add depth to the game play of the franchise. Some of the spells have had a great deal of work done to them – one particular incantation that results in the victims’ head turning into a pumpkin is particularly amusing, and far more enjoyable than the usual Flipendo attacks of the earlier games.

Battles take place in real-time, and usually require you to use various spells on enemies before they can be vanquished; some enemies, for example, require a powerful light shone on them before they can be hit, and so on. This adds some variety to the game play, and none of the fights are particularly hard; even the bosses, which are quite impressively rendered, don’t take that much effort to defeat. Unfortunately your friends are rather useless, and the AI that controls them is appalling; they will shoot you, back themselves into a corner and get stuck, and generally be a pain in the ass. If their HP is depleted – something that will happen frequently unless you intervene and heal them yourself – they will fall to the floor unconscious; thankfully (or perhaps not), however, they will recover a small amount of HP after a while and get back up to join the fight again. Usually the only use they are is in the form of cannon fodder; leading an enemy to them and letting them take the brunt of the damage while you attack from behind is a handy technique. Thankfully reduced in this game are the number of “sneaking” sections that plagued the earlier games; the terrible camera control of these sections usually made them a curse rather than entertaining. There are still some sections here that require you to navigate them without being seen; however, they are few and far between, less irritating, and no longer result in you losing all of your house points if you are spotted. Your friends, thankfully, wait at the entrance of any room requiring sneaking, so you don’t have to worry about guiding them as well.

The side-quests are really where this game finds its greatest success; like the previous games, there are wizard cards to collect, with each group completed giving Harry a boost of health. As well as this, there is an owl-racing mini-game, which sees you controlling an owl flying around the school (which looked great but caused my hand to cramp up, what with the length of the course and the repeated pushing of the B button), and a task in which you much fly Buckbeak to collect bats. You can also collect pages about the various enemies in the game to store in your Folio Bruti, and find lost items in the hopes of getting rewards from their owners.

All in all there is plenty to see and do in this game, both inside the main quests and out; however, it is not the most involving and deep gaming experience that you are likely to encounter. Still, the game does boast genuine quality; the almost cinematic sequences on the train where Ron must save Harry whilst being pursued by a Dementor (with the windows freezing up and shattering as the beast gets closer) and the guiding of the Patronus through the horde of Dementors is really outstanding, and prove that this game is less of a blatant cash-in on a popular franchise than the other titles in the series. EA have really out a lot of effort into making this game great, and it does show.

Sound

Like the other games, the voice acting of the main characters is generally rather poor and grates on the ears; having your friends repeatedly moaning about how tired of bored they are quickly becomes a nuisance, and hitting them with spells only alleviates the irritation briefly. Occasionally your friends may shout out handy hints as to how to solve a puzzle; however, these are terribly hackneyed and fall along the lines of “I wonder if I can freeze that waterfall?” “Maybe we should use that new spell!” The animal sounds are better, as is the voice acting for some of the other characters.

The music, however, is another matter; haunting melodies fit in well with the mood of the game, and do a great job creating atmosphere. Perhaps the most effective use of sound comes in the form of the “voice” of the Dementors; when they attack Harry or one of his friends a nerve-shredding medley of tortured voices emit from them, snatches of which can only briefly be heard – “Run! Get him away!” Its quite impressive for a game largely intended for a younger audience, and fits the more adult violence of the movie well.

Lifespan

The main quest is relatively short, and although you are given the option on the final day of term to “take care of any remaining business” (something that was missing from the other games and useful to allow you to complete your card collection), there isn’t really much to keep the player coming back. It’s a pity the main game is so short, as what is there is really very good.

The option for connectivity with the GBA version allows for some slight replay value with the GC game as an owl-caring kit can be bought (permitting you to raise an owl and then race it, tamagotchi style) and cards can be traded; similarly, the Eyetoy options offered by the PS2 version may be enough to keep the entertainment going for longer. It’s a pity that no Quidditch mini games are offered in this title as a neat extra.

Overall

People expecting another poor movie-to-video game conversion look again; this game really does move out of that territory and actually offers a decent gaming experience. While sadly short and sometimes shallow, what there is to this game is quite enjoyable; though whether this enjoyability will only appeal to Potter fans is another questions. For fans of the franchise, this is what you have been waiting for; for anyone contemplating trying the games, this is the one to play.

8 out of 10
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