It's another year at the Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and you know what that means: Harry, Ron and Hermione are up to no good. The group, which always seems to find trouble, has stumbled directly into it again -- and on a grander scale. In his third year at the peculiar school, Harry finds himself the muse of threatening menace. No, we don't mean Professor Snape, although the head of potions does once more prove to be a thorn in the trio's collective side. Potter's real problem, though, is the Prisoner of Azkaban -- commonly known as Sirius Black -- an allegedly dark and twisted wizard who has escaped from the infamous prison with one goal: to kill Harry. Or so we think.
And so is the setup for the third chapter in J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful Harry Potter franchise. Prisoner of Azkaban for GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Xbox is based on the book and movie of the same name and it follows the plot points closely, Dementors and all. The game also adheres to the 3D adventure formula that helped make first the Eurocom co-developed Chamber of Secrets and then the Electronic Arts-created Sorcerer's Stone "Boy Wizard" games hits. If the design were a potion in Snape's class, the always-moody teacher might ask his students to mix a splash of Zelda-like play mechanics into a boiling pot of Harry Potter for the end result.
Prisoner of Azkaban seems to have all the right ingredients for a fun and entertaining adventure romp through Potter's universe. The Potter license has been utilized in full. There is a wide range of spells to use against in enemies and to complete challenges. Potter, Ron and Hermione must make their way through a hefty plate of environmental puzzles, some of which are real brainteasers. Hedwig and Buckbeak are flyable characters in the game. And you can control Harry, Ron and Hermione together or separately depending on the situation or puzzle.
And yet, this game lacks polish. It feels sluggish and clumsy at points. And there are some notable artificial intelligence and collision detection glitches that will yank you out of the interactive universe altogether.
- 3D adventure based on the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban book and movie
- Take part in a new quest to discover why the allegedly dark wizard Sirius Black is after Harry
- For the first time ever, play as Harry, Ron, or Hermione to defeat enemies and puzzles; switch between the characters at almost an time
- Fly Hedwig and Buckbeak to collect items and complete challenges
- Fight off the guards of Azkaban Prison, the Dementors
- Use a wide range of spells to defeat foes and advance through environments
- Explore the ins and outs of a fully-modeled 3D Hogwarts
- Features in-game cut-scenes complete with voice-acted dialogue to advance the storyline
- Harry, Ron and Hermione are one year older and it shows; the graphics in the game have been enhanced to reflect the aged kids and darker storyline
The Prisoner of Azkaban represents a dramatic turning point in the Potter franchise. It's with this book, movie and (now) videogame, that the kids really start to mature. It's also here that the storyline turns darker. The enemy becomes a real threat and there are evil things that go bump in the night. The game successfully capitalizes on this change by updating the look of the characters so that they appear to have grown and by focusing on a nasty key nemesis in the story: the Dementors. These dark, Wraith-inspired creatures are a persistent challenge in Prisoner of Azkaban, as we learn in the very beginning of the adventure. In an atmospheric cut-scene, the Dementors attack Harry as he rides aboard the Hogwart's Express and as his best friend Ron you must drag Potter's body safely away from the Dementors before they can suck his soul from him. It's an intriguing idea and simultaneously a clever way to introduce the multi-character system.
Once Harry and the gang arrive at Hogwarts, though, it's back to the familiar routine, which wouldn't be a negative except that the routine is worsened over the predecessor games by sluggish controls and a flawed lock-on system. In traditional third-person form, Harry, Ron and Hermione go to classes, explore Hogwarts, collect items such as spells and notes, and complete objectives. The game moves along at a very linear pace despite the wide-openness of the world in which you can explore. In Chamber of Secrets, Harry controlled smoothly and precisely. In Prisoner of Azkaban he moves clumsily and with too much momentum, which makes the simple task of running him to an object so that he can climb it more difficult than it needs to be, especially if we are to go on thinking of this title as compatible with (if not geared toward) younger players. Meanwhile, the lock-on system, which is integral to the game because it enables the trio to target necessary objects and enemies, is malfunctioned. You tap and then hold the shoulder button to toggle between objects and enemies, but it's not always that simple. You may attempt to lock-on to an enemy directly in front of you and instead the system will target a nearby object. Try to target the enemy again and once more the system locks onto a nearby object. This oversight makes it impossible to adequately dispose of some enemies without first drawing them away from the interfering object. Call it sloppy execution or poor design, it's frustrating and discouraging. Unfortunately, this oversight is only a glimpse of some deeper mechanical problems. In one area, Ron must reveal ghosts using his Lumos Duo spell, which creates a concentrated beam of light. The lock-on system makes it difficult to target these ghosts, but even worse is that the character must use Flipendo to kill the spirits once they are illuminated. The process is cumbersome and tedious because the ghosts usually fade back again before you can lock-on to them for the final blow. We spent 20 minutes trying to dispose of a three ghosts. Our Guides writer said it took him an hour.
Of course, these control drawbacks can be overcome with a little effort -- manipulating the characters is still very workable -- and if you can live with the occasional issue, there is a lot to Prisoner of Azkaban that is enjoyable and entertaining.
The puzzles are smarter and therefore the challenge greater. Harry, Ron and Hermione have individual strengths and weaknesses that can be exploited. Harry can leap over chasms and climb ropes, for instance which neither Ron nor Hermione are capable of accomplishing. Meanwhile, Ron can spot secret doors in walls. And Hermione can crawl underneath tight spaces. There will be times when the characters will need to overcome a challenge together and using all three characters in a puzzle is satisfying. Some puzzles simply require the characters to work together as a team to carry an object. You can call over your friends with the tap of the shoulder button and they'll come to your aid. Other times you'll have to individually maneuver Harry, Ron and Hermione to specific points in an arena so that they can all simultaneously flip a switch that will trigger the opening of a door. While these challenges still rank on the easier side, the game does feature its share of thinking man's objectives, too. These are fun while they last and ultimately deliver a great sense of accomplishment.
The spells are more engaging. Let's face it: Flipendo can only entertain Potter fans for so long. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry, Ron and Hermione gain some new spells that go a long way. For instance, Harry learns Carpe Retractum, which enables the character to seize and pull objects using a beam that extends from his wand. He can use the spell to pull himself over gaps or to pull objects closer to him, and it's very entertaining. He also picks up the Patronus Spell, which enables him to summon a force that can vanquish the Dementors. (Sadly, the Patronus does not show off a full-blown stag, as in the book and movie.) Meanwhile, Hermione can use Glacius to freeze objects and enemies and Reparo to repair broken items and barriers, both dazzling and impressive for different reasons.
And the animals are fun to exploit. Be it Hedwig the owl or the Hippogriff Buckbeak, you can control them in Prisoner of Azkaban and they are useful to accomplish tasks. Flying Buckbeak in particular is impressive because the animal is able to soar over a fully modeled Hogwarts, which sports more detail than ever before. (Of course, this detail does come at the sacrifice of the fluidity, which on occasion comes to a near-slide-show halt, especially on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.)
The game gets better as you progress. In fact, by the time you get Harry's Patronus Spell and are able to fend off Dementors, there are some compelling puzzles to obliterate and more of the storyline, which is equally intriguing, has been unearthed. But at the same time it never feels anywhere near as polished or remarkable as Chamber of Secrets, which remains our highest-rated Potter game. And the title runs an average length -- some will be able to complete it in 10 hours or so, we'd estimate, and others less still.
The PlayStation 2 surprised us with full-fledged EyeToy support. If you own the peripheral, you can transform the PS2 version of Azkaban into a successfully entertaining multiplayer game (up to four-player support). The developers utilized the license to craft a perfect EyeToy mode, where players' photos are snapped before the rounds, and they are subsequently placed in the correct houses of Hogwart's by the sorting hat. Each house then competes for the top spot over a series of about six different EyeToy challenges, including splattering Gobstones, catching the Golden Snitch, avoiding Bludgers, screaming (picked up by the EyeToy mic) at ghosts, clapping away frogs, and even polishing your won trophies.
From a technical standpoint Prisoner of Azkaban has definite ups and downs. The graphics are impressive at points, particularly on the Xbox version, whose framerate is steadier and whose lighting and shadow effects are more prominent than the others. The worlds are larger and constructed using more geometry than in previous Potter games. As a result, paintings have depth, stairways have curves, and character models look more like their real-life counterparts. Real-time lighting effects illuminate the worlds themselves, characters feature projected shadows, there are some interesting cloth physics, and spells come to life thanks to an advanced particle effects system. No doubt, the game can be pretty. Meanwhile, the voice acting -- which is provided by sound-alikes -- is crispy clean and well done, as are the music and sound effects. But we have to come back to the lack of polish. Prisoner of Azkaban's framerate is unpredictable at best, especially on PlayStation 2 and GameCube. Hogwarts is connected by a series of load screens, a drawback that EA promised would not be a concern in this new game. These unfortunate loading sequences break any sense that Hogwarts is one connected world and not just a series of levels strung together. There are notable collision detection and artificial intelligence glitches. In some cases, our characters actually walked into structures and became stuck, and we were unable to advance. In one off-the-wall case, an AI monster refused to attack us and though we could target the foe we could not inflict damage upon him. This too created a nasty problem because we could not advance to the next room until all enemies had been destroyed. We have included two videos snapped from the GameCube version of Azkaban as proof. Note that the movies were snapped from the final, retail build of the game:
- Click here to watch the movies
It's very uncommon for EA to release a product with so many noticeable glitches. We can only speculate that the company was forced to ship Azkaban to coincide with the release of the movie and as a result gamers suffer the consequences, which is extremely disappointing.
©2004, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved