It’s a fair bet that many a Harry Potter fan was disappointed when Warner Bros. announced that it was pushing the release of the completed Half-Blood Prince film back eight months from its original date. EA couldn’t have been too happy about this decision, either. It had, after all, a game based on the movie ready to go before being told that it would have to shelf the game for two-thirds of a year. But hey, maybe EA could use that gap to make a few tweaks to the gameplay — to make the game even better than its predecessor, the surprisingly good Order of the Phoenix.
Or maybe the game just sat on the shelf for two-thirds of a year.
Yes, on the surface, the videogame adaptation of the sixth Harry Potter movie (which is, of course, adapted from J.K. Rowling’s book) looks just as good as the previous game, but much of the charm is missing this time around. One of Phoenix’s best qualities was its fun recreation of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and that only partially carries over into this sequel. The castle and its surrounding grounds look fantastic and remain extremely true to the films, and the number of stray corridors and tucked-away rooms encourages exploration.
Which leads us to one of Half-Blood Prince’s problems. The last game was a relatively nonlinear quest that encouraged the player to make the most of the setting by exploring it at length. The action this time around is far more scripted. The player is shuffled to an area of the castle where a mini-game is played. After that, she or he is sent off to a new area, triggering another mini-game or, occasionally, a cut-scene.
The only motivation to stray from the beaten path is a scavenger hunt for 150 crests that have been hidden around the school. Although some of these are in plain view, many require a sharp eye (and a properly cast spell) to uncover. Unfortunately, the bonuses that you gain for finding these treasures aren’t terribly exciting. New characters or arenas for the two-player dueling mode aren’t nearly as fun as the DVD-style behind-the-scenes footage from the previous game.
One of the more clever additions to Half-Blood Prince is your guide through the sometimes tricky-to-navigate castle. In the previous game, a set of magical footprints led you towards your goal. Now, pressing the – button summons the ghostly Nearly-Headless Nick who not only shows you the way, but also provides some entertaining chatter about your current goals. It’s a fun addition that helps with the immersion into Harry’s world.
Once you reach the proper location that has been dictated by the story’s narrative, you’ll engage in one of three mini-games. Get used to playing them, as you’ll be doing them a lot. Although the games range from “OK” to “kinda fun,” after five hours (the average length of the adventure) of playing them over and over they become mighty tiresome.
The most consistently enjoyable of the games is potions brewing. With inspiration taken from Cooking Mama, this game has you using the Wii Remote to mimic selecting, pouring, and mixing ingredients in a cauldron in order to make a magical brew under the scrutiny of a timer. The longevity of this game is increased thanks to the new moves (such as heating the pot or shaking the ingredients to make them bubble) that you learn as you progress. With new steps constantly being added to your repertoire, the challenge is kept fresh.
Using the Wii Remote as a surrogate mixing spoon is well and good, but when you’re playing a Harry Potter game, you really want to use the controller as a magic wand. That’s where dueling comes in. Whether it’s for an exhibition battle in the Dueling Club or a rogue encounter with Crabbe and Goyle, there’s a good amount of fighting in this game. Pity that it’s not more fun to play. During combat, the Nunchuk moves Harry around while various motions with the Remote (and occasionally the Nunchuk as well) cast spells. As with potions, new spells are learned as you progress through the game, but poor motion-sensing results in the advanced spells only being used when they want to — your input seems to have little influence on them.
The final mini-game is Quidditch, which has unfortunately been turned into the old videogame cliche of “flying through a bunch of rings within a time limit.” When one of your mini-games is cribbing gameplay elements from Superman 64 — one of the worst games ever, mind you — it’s time to go back to the drawing board. It’s fine to play one or two times, but it’s certainly the least enjoyable of the three mini-games.
It’s a shame that the mini-games aren’t more fun to play, as they comprise the bulk of the package. Half-Blood Prince doesn’t even have a strong narrative to fall back on. The book/movie’s plot has been stripped to its barest of bones, insuring that anyone who isn’t already familiar with the story will be completely confused as to what is going on in the game. Characters and situations are brought up only to be forgotten the moment you traipse across campus and, say, whip up a potion. Making things worse are the less-than-flattering character models, complete with dead, dead eyes. A scene early in the game has Harry sharing a glance with Ginny Weasley that’s supposed to show their half-hidden affection for each other. It’s supposed to be charming, but it comes off as creepy. Like, “the robots have begun mimicking human emotions… how much longer until they gain sentience and wipe out the human race” creepy.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince isn’t really a bad game, but it’s an awfully disappointing one. Between the occasionally spotty controls, the linear quest, and the highly repetitive mini-games, only the most dedicated Potter fans need enroll this term. Oh, and it was very disappointing to find out that the final boss battle doesn’t have you playing as Professor Snape. Very disappointing.