A Matter of Muggles
Harry Potter once again comes to the Nintendo DS, and the good news is, EA has delivered a better game than the handheld version of the Order of the Phoenix. But does this latest run around Hogwarts cast an enchanting spell, or do Harry and his pals still have some studying to catch up on?
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for DS is something of a point-and-click adventure. All of the controls are mapped to the touch screen, and you’ll be leading Harry around Phantom Hourglass-style. To actually call this latest portable Potter an adventure is something of a stretch, though, since most of the gameplay is comprised of a long series of fetch quests. Along the way you’ll play a few mini-games and dip into the prose, but the game follows a very predictable formula throughout that can easily grow tiresome.
Your journey begins with a train ride back to Hogwarts, and it is here you’ll get your first glimpse of how the progression of the game works. There’s a bit of dialogue exchanged between you, Ron, and Hermione, but before long you’ll be tasked with acquiring your first set of items. Someone’s lost their magic spectacles; you need to find them. You’ll then come across someone who has the glasses, but they’ll only relinquish them if you have a particular item to trade. You’ll then have to play through a mini-game in order to win the desired item, trade for the spectacles, return them to the character in need… and that pretty much sums up how gameplay works in The Half-Blood Prince.
Most of the actual game takes place within the hallowed halls of Hogwarts, and it’s an impressively big sandbox to run around in. It can also be quite difficult to find your way at times, since you don’t have constant access to an overworld map. By tapping on Harry, you can open up a menu of options, ranging from an inventory of items, to a list of current objectives. You can also take a gander at your potions and the ingredients required, as well as get hints on how to find those ingredients.
Unfortunately, there’s no option to call up the overworld map, though you will occasionally catch a glimpse of it when clicking on highlighted names and locations in your objectives list. Since Hogwarts twists and turns and is constructed in some non-traditional ways, it can get frustrating running around in circles trying to find your next objective.
After several hours of hunting items, however, you will eventually learn the ins and outs of the school, and the Hall of Portraits makes getting around a little easier. Each portrait in the Hall of Portraits acts as a portal to another location of the school, but even with these shortcuts, there’s still plenty of tedious noodling around.
In spite of the game’s obvious simplicity and tedium, Half-Blood Prince has a formula that’s embarrassingly addictive. There are seven specific items in the game that act as a sort of currency, allowing you to trade for other key items that are integral to completing your objectives. Magic cards are the first of the inventory items you’ll come across, and you can acquire them by casting Accio on books and bookcases around the school. As you delve deeper into the story, the charms teacher, Flitwick, will teach you additional spells, which will allow you to get at other items hidden throughout Hogwarts.
The spells are easy to cast, and for the most part, the touch-screen inputs are read accurately. The developers did a smart job of placing objects throughout almost every area of Hogwarts, and it becomes a fun pastime stopping to cast spells on a suit of armor or cobweb just to gather more items, even if you don’t really need them.
Unfortunately, not all of the touch-screen elements work as they should, and you’ll often find yourself struggling to get Harry to either interact with something or someone. Additionally, the mini-games are a bit lackluster. Quidditch is perhaps the most disappointing, especially since it plays such a large role in the Harry Potter mythos. On DS, quidditch is a bit like a simplified version of Mario Strikers, giving you limited control of three team members. You chase after the ball or opponents by directing the highlighted character with your stylus, and then toss the ball by tapping in the direction you want it to go. Once you get the hang of it, the mechanics work fine, but it’s an extremely abbreviated and somewhat dull imagining of this Potter favorite.
Other mini-games include Gobstones and a Potter take on the traditional game of Concentration, both games being simple yet mildly entertaining diversions. Mini-games are also a great way to earn items, and there are challenge versions of each mini. By winning in challenges, you can acquire rare items that can then be traded for additional goodies later on.
Perhaps the most common mini-game you’ll be prompted to play is Magic Dueling. Often Harry’s path will be blocked by one of the Slytherin students, and you can either toss a stink pellet their way or challenge them to a duel. Opponents drop potions when they lose, and since there’s little challenge to dueling, it pays to give them the what-for each time they throw down the gauntlet. Dueling consists of little more than tapping high or low on the right side of the touch screen to shoot, or scratching on the left side of the screen to cast a blocking spell.
Though Half-Blood Prince has a plodding pace that runs along an extremely predictable track, there is, in fact, a sizeable payoff here. After each main objective is completed, you’ll be treated to a nice slice of dialogue and story. The game does a surprisingly good job of adapting the Potter vibe to the dual screen, and there were some true laugh-out-loud moments along the way. Ron’s sad whit cuts through nicely, and all of the lines are well-written. The story itself is also quite compelling, and I found myself eagerly trudging through the item quests just to see what would happen next.
The visuals in this latest DS Potter are also somewhat impressive, using a mix of 2D backgrounds and 3D character models. The characters exhibit a surprising level of detail, though it’s not necessarily the most attractive approach considering the limitations of the system. Collision detection was also an issue throughout the game, and often our inputs didn’t line up with elements of the background as they should have. However, it’s still a decent representation of Hogwarts, and Half-Blood Prince is probably the best-looking of the Potter bunch on DS so far. The music is playful and themes change up often, but the sound effects are bland and generic.
The verdict? It’s hard to say, really. There’s nothing truly wrong with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for DS; as a matter of fact, it does a lot of things right. You get to take control of Harry in real-time, cast a few spells with the stylus, run around almost the whole of Hogwarts, and the story rewards you handsomely. On the other hand, it’s a very simplistic formula, one that can be grueling at times. Some mini-games can be mildly amusing, and constantly stopping to acquire more “stuff” is a guilty pleasure. If you just want a Potter sim you can carry around with you, this game might be worth a look. Otherwise, grab yourself a copy of the book, or hold out a couple of more weeks until the movie hits the big screen.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.8 Graphics
Impressive mix of 2D backgrounds and 3D character models, each element exhibiting lots of detail. 3.5 Control
All-stylus control is a nice approach for the gameplay here, but detection is often an issue. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is playful and fitting for the meandering you’ll be doing throughout the whole of the game. Sound effects, however, are lackluster. 2.9
There’s novelty to be found in guiding Harry around Hogwarts, collecting items along the way, but the game smacks of lazy design. You are, however, rewarded for your efforts with a story that represents the franchise well on DS.
3.0 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.