With so much excitement building up in anticipation of the third feature film release, Electronic Arts presents Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban a day before the story hits the silver screens. Like previous movie tie-ins, Prisoner of Azkaban allows you to interactively help Harry, Ron and Hermione as they uncover Sirius Black and his plot to kill Harry Potter.
The game begins with the gang returning by rail to Hogwarts. Right from the beginning, something is amiss and a crazed Dementor comes on to the train knocking Harry unconscious. This introduces one of the new features: Prisoner of Azkaban lets you assume the role of the three principal characters. As Ron, you will be able to save your pal Harry but Ron's specialty is finding and opening secret doors. As Hermione, you can crawl under tight spaces (although the character models always gave me the feeling Ron is the smallest). And Harry has the most useful ability of all - that of jumping across ledges.
Prisoner of Azkaban is structured in a fairly linear fashion. Although all of Hogwarts appears modeled, complete with students roaming around the campus, your task or order of the day must usually be completed before you advance to the next. These tasks are often puzzles: grab this book, learn this spell, collect this or that. But they are hardly straightforward, requiring Harry to navigate chasms, cast spells to operate machinery, rotate lit mirrors, pushing or pulling chests or other heavy objects to get the right pressure pads pressed. A lot of the gameplay reminded me of my childhood favorite, The Incredible
Machine. Only this time, you are in the 'machine' manipulating the components of the puzzle.
Sprinkled in between these puzzles are in-game rendered sequences that flesh out the story. Some are interactive but most of the better ones are not. The children resemble the actors and actress who play them in the film. They look a little younger in electronic format (one of the niceties of characters in the digital world - they never age). But it's the adult characters like Professor Snape who bear only some likeness to what you will see in the film. I know it can be done better as the character models for the Lord of the Rings games were far closer to the real life actors.
Limited action sequences do exist with Harry encountering some 'boss' type characters. This is Harry Potter, though, so players shouldn't expect a magical wand shootout with the opposition. Instead, many of the 'boss' characters have inherent weaknesses that have to be exploited, sometimes using the combination of Harry, Ron and Hermione's skills. For offensive and defensive weapons, the Hogwarts overachievers are equipped with spells. Beyond the basic attack, most have tactical value in them. Some only work on hot or cold monsters for example.
Luckily, the developers have infused a lot of in-game help to let you know what you're supposed to do at any given situation. There are plenty of messages that instruct you on what buttons to press and your sidekicks will often groan if you are moving too far astray. Ron, for example, will complain to Harry that they're late for class if he doesn't hurry up to the correct location.
Unfortunately, in many cases it is not enough. The Hogwarts campus is a tad convoluted with many floors. It would have been nice if Ron tells Harry to head to this classroom and a flashing arrow pops up overhead to show you exactly where you're supposed to go. Your sidekicks are also a bit suspect; sometimes unavoidably shooting at the character you're controlling or exhibiting some unwanted autonomy. In one instance, I was trying to position Harry up on top of a ledge when he persisted to come down to Ron's position to step on and stare at a pressure pad. The game also features some camera issues, which get in the way during the sneak/stealth sequences or when you press up against a wall or dive into the shadows.
On the whole, though, the game does work. It poses a relaxed mental challenge. Most of the obstacles are not time-sensitive meaning those in the younger crowd can take longer to figure out what they're supposed to do to get to the next area. Since the action is limited and the game is lenient in terms of damage, you won't find the titular characters dying on you often either. I particularly liked the jumping feature since it eliminates my propensity to send characters hurtling towards sixty-foot drops.
However, the inconsistencies can be glaring. Some characters look better than others. Some areas are well designed with ample help while others seem to leave you to the wolves. Your sidekicks will often do some strange inexplicable things. On the Xbox, the cinematic sequences in the beginning are prone to brief stutters and narration from the next line has a tendency to start before the last line is finished. Elements like these defuse the magic of the Harry Potter world.
When you get around to unraveling Sirius Black's agenda, Prisoner of Azkaban offers a few mini-games, a picture gallery of the game's models and a trailer for the movie. The mini-games are nice, particularly the one which allows you to pit two sets of three Hogwarts students against each other (including of course the famous trio), nut it's hardly something you can spend hours with.
A brainteaser with some action thrown in, Prisoner of Azkaban is similar to games like The Lost Vikings. Only this time it's 3D and the level of difficulty is a few notches lower to cater to a general audience. As a companion to the movie, it certainly serves its purpose. But as a game that sparks new magic in the genre? That might need to wait for the next film.