Harry Potter and The Philosopher's / Sorcerer's Stone

Developer:  Know Wonder
Publisher:  Electronic Arts
Year Released:  2001

Review by Steve Ramsey (January, 2002)
I doubt that there is anyone who has not at least heard of young Master Potter, and if you have small people living in your home (no not house elves), then you will probably have done a whole lot more than just heard of him. If your house is anything like mine, you will have read the books, played the trivia board game, kept up to date on line, and seen the movie. You might even have had to taste a red semi-solid, gummi-tasting potion cooked up by 8 year-old would-be Hermiones.

If for some reason you have done none of these things, then perhaps you should (with the possible exception of the last one). And if you haven't played this new PC game - well neither have I!

I have, however, watched it between two blond heads, yelled encouragement to novice Quidditch players, provided advice on spell casting and snitch grabbing, and occasionally been allowed to swish Harry's wand or lunge for the snitch myself. I confess I did try once to whisk it away in the dead of night to grab some furtive playing beneath the covers by torchlight, but was rumbled in the attempt.

So I have experienced the game in many different ways, and based on the reaction and feedback of the two small(ish) and enthusiastic barriers that have prevented me from doing more, this is one fun game.

Off to school
The game starts, as it should for any young witch or wizard, at Hogwarts School. Professor Dumbledore is there to greet you, and then it's off to explore. You will spend a fair bit of time poking about looking for things - Bertie Botts Beans, secret passages, Witches and Wizards cards, and chocolate frogs. You will also meet friends, vanquish foes, cast spells, ride broomsticks, jump pits, climb walls, run errands and do all manner of other activities and tasks.

Tutorials or lessons will help you acquire the necessary skills, and various characters will provide advice about what to do or where to go next, or how to use your newly acquired skills. Find the challenge stars or successfully learn a new spell, and you can earn points for Gryffindor in the House Competition.

You will also most likely "faint" more than once, as Harry's stamina runs out. Those frogs are more than just a chocolatey treat.    

If you don't fancy leaping and jumping by yourself, you can let the game do the jumping for you, although you still have to jump in the right direction. And there are two special practice screens you can visit whenever you want (once you have accessed the necessary part of the game) where you can hone your broomstick flying and Quidditch playing.

Muggles beware
You don't use inventory items (though you can trade Berties Beans) but you will cast spells. First though you have to learn them, which involves going to class. Trace a shape on the screen in a certain amount of time, and voila, you are the proud owner of a new spell. Do it successfully a few more times (in less time on each attempt) and you can earn even more House points.

There are different spells to learn and each will help you in a different way - Alohomora for example will open locked items and passages, and Flipendo will move or smash things. Smashing is to be encouraged - those beans are hidden all over the place. Casting a spell is easy, as the game will tell you what objects can be affected by what spell. Then it's simply a matter of winding up your wand arm and letting fly.

Nimbus ahoy
Flying on your broomstick is probably the best bit. Quidditch games and broomstick chases are scattered throughout the game, but the practice screens give you plenty of opportunity to indulge yourself whenever you want. The Quidditch screen is in fact a game within a game, as you participate in a League in which your opponents get harder and harder as you progress.

Catching the snitch the first time took a little bit of practice, but our first win (I am claiming some vicarious glory) set off some raucous celebrations.

Running, leaping and flying
It will be clear that there are action and arcade sequences, but the controls are fairly simple - arrow keys for moving and flying, right click or control key for jump, left click or alt key to cast a spell, and that's about it. You can reconfigure the keys if you want to but no-one here saw any need.

However simple the controls, these sequences will mean this game is not for everyone, but it is not just a game about these things. Cut scenes are numerous and advance the story, and the familiarity of the surroundings, characters and events provides a setting that is enjoyable in itself. Encountering Hermione for the first time, the first delivery from Hedwig, finding our first ghost (I think it was Nearly Headless Nick) were all cause for great excitement.

The game might also prove stimulating. We (there's that vicarious glory again) recently finished whacking the troll in the girls washroom, which started a deep and hotly contested debate on the details of the troll-vanquishing in the book, and sent both girls scurrying for their books to see who was more correct (a perfect time to grab the game controls for oneself). The game was forgotten for a time, whilst chapters were re-read and argued about.

Even if you have no knowledge of things Potterish, detail abounds in the 3D animations, and poking about a school for witches and wizards full of ghosts and secret passages can be enthralling.

Bits and pieces
The musical score is excellent, as is the voice acting, but I would have liked some movement of the lips when the characters were speaking. Saving games requires you to find a save game book, of which there are thankfully plenty, and simply walk up to it. A lightning bolt keeps track of your stamina, and a report card can be accessed which contains details of your bean and card collections, the House point scores, and the options menu. It is played in the third person and camera angles are generally fine. Subtitles are present.

End game
It is probably clear from the above that this is not really an adventure game. Though it has plenty of exciting places to explore, it has the feel of an action arcade or platform game. Those sequences though are clearly designed not to bog you down in complex manoeuvres, but rather bring a bit of 12 year old rambuctiousness to proceedings. As such, like all things Potter it is first and foremost for children, and is best shared and enjoyed with them. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements (minimum):
Win 95/98/2000/ME/XP, Pentium II 266MHz, 32 MB RAM, 500 MB hard drive space, 4x CD/DVD, 4MB Graphic Card, Direct 3D, DirectX Version 8 (supplied), Keyboard, Mouse.