Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Review

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Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Electronic Arts

Platforms: PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube and PlayStation
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

It's never just another year for Harry Potter at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As he enters his second year at the prestigious magical academy, he must attempt to keep the school and its students from catastrophe – all while keeping up in his classes and leading his House's Quidditch team to victory. He must identify the true heir of House Slytherin, who controls the ancient evil lying in the Chamber of Secrets. But even then, will he have the courage to face the immense power of He-who-shall-not-be-named?

Hard Headed Mac

If you are a fan of the Harry Potter series or someone who has not yet encountered the bespectacled boy wonder, (although how you managed to escape the mass marketing machinery is beyond me), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a wonderful bit of fun for children and adults alike.

You wander around the magical world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as Harry Potter, a mild-mannered but powerful young wizard in his second year at the prestigious academy. You sneak around strict prefects and professors, subdue fire-breathing demons and snooty classmates, navigate courses of ledges and ladders, find secret passages and expose doors to forbidden rooms, and dodge flying books, ghosts and fireballs. You wander through wonderful locations helping Harry search for spells and information about the Chamber of Secrets, dispatching ghosties and ghoulies along the way while keeping up with classes and leading one of the academy's sports teams. Each adventure leads you closer to unraveling the nature of the Chamber of Secrets and the ancient evil that inhabits it. But along you way you must face a myriad of challenges to gain the knowledge, skills, and strength to face the creature that is threatening the school's very existence.

Each of the levels, often presented as one of Harry's second year classes, follows a consistent pattern – you will have to navigate five to seven rooms, each of which have a single challenge within. For the game novice or younger children, this structure is beneficial – only a single problem confronts a player at a time, making it fairly simple to determine the solution. The more experienced gamer shouldn't be discouraged, especially if you have a soft spot for the young wizard, as the solutions to these puzzles still present enough difficulty in their execution to be entertaining. In each of your missions, you will undoubtedly have to sneak past someone or something, jump across a series of obstacles, avoid some sort of projectile, find a secret passage or solve a mechanical puzzle, and vanquish an enemy. While each task alone is quite manageable, the difficulty lies in that every quest has every one of these things, which you must complete before you can save your game. For children (or adults) playing through a Saturday afternoon (and long into Saturday night), this might not pose a problem, but if you are running on any kind of schedule, you will more than likely have to lose substantial parts of your game each time you sit down to play. Unfortunately, the puzzles are simple enough the first time around that having to repeat them because you haven't have time to finish doesn't advance the enjoyment of the game at all. In addition, there is no way to accelerate or skip the spoken preludes to each level – so each time you begin, you can sometimes sit through minutes of exposition (slow, needless ramblings – I timed one painfully redundant speech at five and a half minutes long) before being able to restart.

During your exploration, Harry's health is diminished by injuries sustained along the way. His health can be replenished by pumpkin pastries found in chests or cabinets or by potions you can bring along. When his health is depleted, Harry doesn't die – he merely passes out, then wakes up again to continue on with the puzzle. When you run out of potions or pies, each time Harry passes out you are transported farther back in the puzzle until you are starting over from the beginning. Harry Potter boasts a kinder, gentler kind of action, well suited to the target age of its marketing.

The game also boasts a number of helpful features designed to help the less experienced player navigate some of the more complex levels. An inventory screen not only tells you your possessions, health, and current spells, but also provides detailed maps of your surroundings which mark locations of interest should you have trouble figuring out where to go. You are provided with a task checklist that records your progress as you complete the desired actions and details what remains to be done. You also accumulate books that explain aspects of Harry's world of magic, including how certain creatures can be fought, when certain spells should be used, and background information on Hogwarts and its academic roster.

You accumulate a multitude of spells as you explore, but you can only use any three of them at a time. This precludes quick responses to attack, but such responses are rarely ever necessary, as the game allows you time and a safe place to adjust the spells you want at the ready whenever you might need to change them. The game's automatic targeting system also makes it pretty difficult to miss when it counts. Yet while I had a great time trading spells with the various opponents (the marauding bookcase was a special favorite), I found that I really grew to hate the various sneaking puzzles that dominate the game. You spend an inordinate amount of time hiding behind bookcases and setting off distracting stink bombs in the attempt to avoid getting caught. Perhaps it results from a short attention span or maybe a fear of disobeying authority, but after the seventh or so of these mazes, you find yourself harboring a desire to use the assault spells you have painstakingly acquired on the snobby prefects. The game had me desperately wishing that they had allowed Harry to keep the invisibility cloak he theoretically got in the first volume of the series.

One aspect of why these puzzles are so annoying is the camera and movement controls. The game perspective automatically adjusts to place a majority of the scene in your field of view, but this adjustment often can occur unexpectedly in the middle of a run or jump. As the game perspective determines the direction of movement, these adjustments in camera position can lead to disastrous consequences (jumping off cliffs, running directly into a prefect, getting hit by fireballs). While you can adjust the camera to either adjust to look out over Harry's head or at it (forward and reverse, respectively), both settings have the same basic problem: it is extremely difficult to just go straight forward.

Quidditch, the flying soccer-like game featuring Harry as Seeker, serves as an aside to your classes and the exploration of the Chamber of Secrets. The sport requires that you learn the intricacies of flying and then apply these skills to catching the Golden Snitch. The makers have tried to retain the complexity of the real game: goals are scored as you chase the Snitch, bludgers fly at you while you race the other team's Seeker, who tries to push you out of the way. But in a world where sports are rendered so realistically, it is disappointing to discover that you can't actually see the game, because you can only fly in the prescribed path directly behind the Snitch. So, there are no shortcuts around the course, no turning around if you overshoot your goal, and no surveying the game from above as Harry does in the movie. There are even times when, due to these limitations, you are abruptly diverted from the direction in which you are heading, which can sometimes lead to distressing consequences if you were trying to avoid one of the large and rather solid towers. And yes, Harry can indeed pass out completely during a game if he hits something hard enough (should I be embarrassed because I know that?). Although the limitations on Quidditch play make the matches one of the more tedious points of the game, they are usually short enough to provide some satisfaction to the winner.

Should you enjoy flying, but hate being tested in real games against the hated Slytherin, you have many chances to practice up on both your flying skills and your Quidditch game during your free time throughout the days at Hogwarts. And if you only have a few minutes to spend with the Gamecube, you can run out to the Quidditch stadium or the flying pitch to get a quick run in. You can even take some time to try racing your classmates on your Nimbus 2000. And at any time, you can head outside and fly around the Hogwarts battlements to get some extra points (in the form of Bertie Bott's Every-Flavor Beans). There are additional extraneous puzzles that provide you with an opportunity to earn extra points for your House, which can take the form of finding your classmates' lost articles posted in the House Common Room or tossing gnomes from the castle battlements. These extra features make a nice addition, especially for children who may want to enjoy the rich environment without some of the more stressful moments. I greatly enjoyed being able to fly around the Hogwarts grounds without any time limits, bringing me to the best part of the game: the graphics.

A special bonus for the Harry Potter superfan, the remarkable fidelity of the game animations to the world of Harry Potter portrayed in the movie series is stunning. The fine detail of the settings, including Diagon Alley, Hagrid's hut, the Gryffindor common room, the Grand Staircase (which moves around), and even aerial views of Hogwart's castle, all retain the character and charm of the movie's images. The scenery, creatures, and spells created for the game also are both creative and beautiful, from the grandeur of the labyrinthine Library to the misty gloom of the Enchanted Forest. The challenges you face also usually leave you plenty of time to rest and regroup, providing convenient pauses in the action to admire the scenery. These qualities make the game most enjoyable to the mild-manner gamer who delights in slow exploration and appreciation of majestic vistas instead of heart-racing action. After all, the magic, both literal and figurative, of these stories is what has captured the hearts of readers across the globe.

The characters not only emulate both the physical appearance of the movie's actors, but also incorporate some of their more adorable quirks (Hermione's big hair, Ron's guilty smirk). But unlike The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers, game (in which the game created incredibly life-like characters with the movie's actors actually performing the game's script), these characters are a bit cartoonish. Harry has a constant happy-dopey look on his face – appropriate, but unchanging. The voices are not those of Kenneth Branaugh, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Richard Harris (they have an excuse for that one), but of a poor man's sound-a-likes. But it works well in this context, as the game is, in many ways, designed to be more cute and benign than the movie.

Integral to the plot, however, is the disturbing and gory nature of the overall mystery facing the characters – an heir to the evil Salazar Slytherin has revived a powerful, ancient creature that is terrorizing Hogwarts. Harry hears voices, saying "Let me rip you… tear you," and characters are attacked and petrified (but never killed). Although the game is marketed to a young audience, it is a good idea for parents to evaluate for themselves whether this kind of violence is something their children can handle. But if they could handle the movie, they'll probably love the game.

The game's creators have done a wonderful job recreating the charm and magic of the books and movies. Yet in a time when video games are successfully creating entire worlds to explore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets continually limits game play to a limited set of predetermined options (your flying course, the spells you can use, etc.). But this drawback is also the feature that makes it perfect for younger audiences; it is difficult to be lost or stuck in such a linear adventure. While most rewarding to the gamer seeking the leisurely exploration of a simple, yet captivating land, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets remains a wonderfully varied diversion, featuring a broad range of challenges and a vivid, magical environment.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 12, 2003 3:20 PM.

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