Forget complex storylines, plot intricacies, and profound character exposition: The Lego version of Harry Potter has slapstick. That's really the only option left for a game where none of the characters can speak, but luckily, it works just as well here as it has in past Lego games. Indeed, fans of the blocky adventure titles will take to Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 like Hermione to homework, reveling in the game's humour, familiar gameplay, and variety of challenges. What separates this game from its Lego cousins is the renewed focus on exploring and collecting: The game invites you to explore its detail-rich environments with promises of more rewards and secrets than you can poke a wand at. The gameplay also drives the narrative with more purpose than in past Lego games, which means you get a real sense of progression as you learn different charms and earn new abilities. There are some minor flaws, like scattered bugs and a disproportionate difficulty in combat, but these aren't enough to mar the magic.
As its title suggests, Lego Harry Potter is four adventures in one. You will begin with Harry's induction into Hogwarts in Year 1, move on to the secret-Riddle-d Year 2, jump to the Sirius-ly lupine Year 3, before arriving to face the magical challenges of Year 4. The game is modeled on the Harry Potter films rather than the original text, but you'll hardly notice the difference: The narrative has been considerably shortened and numerous liberties have been taken for the sake of comedy. The results are often hilarious. There's also subtle brilliance in the game's environments, which are colourful, well detailed, and full of contextual accuracy, from the Dursley's home in Little Whinging to the draughty corridors of Hogwarts and everything in between.
The action takes place on the bottom DS screen, where you can move your character around with the stylus and tap on objects or people to interact with them. A 2D map of your current environment sits on the top DS screen, with your current objective marked by a blue star. The Room of Requirement is your hub in the game, where you will be able to collect studs, practice spells, spruce up your unlocked characters with some basic customization options, and replay through unlocked chapters. You have the option of playing in two modes: Story mode and Free Play mode. While the content of the two modes is the same, Free Play allows you to select any of the unlocked characters and make your way through these levels with an entirely different collection of spells. Apart from just being fun, there's certainly more worth in doing things this way because you are able to explore more areas and collect more goodies.
One of the first things you notice in Story mode is that there are some objects you can't interact with right away (objects with a green outline are a go; objects with a red outline mean you have to wait). This is because you have to learn spells as you go along--it doesn't all come at once. This structure creates a neat and coherent relationship between story and gameplay, which gives you a sense of progression and achievement. Can't light that torch or bring that platform down from the ceiling? Not to worry, you'll be learning those spells next! This gives you something new to consistently look forward to and adds anticipation. Gameplay is guided by a series of short, snappy missions that propel the story forward: You're either asked to fight baddies, solve puzzles, find lost objects, or learn a new spell, but never in the same order and never just one at a time, which means things always stay interesting. Spells start out easy and get more complex on a need-to-know basis (for example, Harry doesn't learn to cast the patronus charm until Year 3 when he needs to fight Dementors). Reducto is used as the main attack, while other spells, such as wingardium leviosa, lumos, accio, revelio, reparo, and stupefy, also make an appearance.
Casting spells is a lot of fun on the DS: Each spell has its own characteristic outline, which you must trace with your stylus on the bottom screen while mimicking the onscreen prompt. For example, to cast reducto, all you need to do is quickly flick the stylus toward the person or object you wish to target, while casting lumos will require you to trace the shape of a flame with your stylus. This is a creative way to play the game, and given each spell has its own unique outline, it doesn't get old. The gameplay won't actually freeze while you cast spells, which means that you still come under attack during combat. This is actually more enjoyable because of the challenge it sets: It means you have to prep yourself to get the outline right the first time around.
While combat still plays an important part in Lego Harry Potter, the emphasis on exploration and collection means you are encouraged to smash as much of your Lego surrounds as you can in that extremely rewarding gleeful-sense-of-destruction kind of way. Doing this will reveal an overwhelming amount treasure, from studs and secret chests to wizard hats and red bricks (which unlocks special spells in Free Play mode). Of course, this wouldn't be a Lego game without some light platforming and puzzle-solving. Outside the environmental puzzles you're required to solve to progress through the game, you only encounter two other types of puzzles: a quick-and-easy Lego jigsaw puzzle and one where you are required to match up three pairs of objects in the order you see them. As for the platforming, the game prompts you whenever you need to jump by revealing four small blue arrows on each platform that you need to reach. While neither element is particularly challenging, they're fun all the same, and given that there's so much to do all the time, this aspect is not bothersome.
What is bothersome is the game's uneven combat difficulty. By far, the toughest battle in the game takes place between Harry and Draco Malfoy during the middle of Year 2, where Harry must defeat Draco in a series of short fights that test the repertoire of spells you've learned up to that point. By contrast, one of the easiest battles in the game is the final one, where Harry must defeat Lord Voldemort (or Voldy, if you will) at the end of Year 4. The fact that this battle is so unchallenging and over so quickly is disappointing and deeply unrewarding. This is not the only instance of this: More often than not, Harry faces his toughest fights at the most random moments, with no real explanation as to why, which makes things feel slightly disjointed from time to time. The game can also be a little behind the action: Sometimes it can take up to five or six seconds for the game to catch up and update the map with your next task after an objective has been completed. However, this doesn't happen often and it isn't enough to take you out of the experience when it does occur.
Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 for the DS is an exciting adventure with loads of variety and replay value. There are rich environments to be explored, countless studs to be collected, and a wide array of spells to learn and practice. If you're willing to forgive the minor glitches and focus on the carefully constructed narrative and diverse gameplay with all its characteristic Lego idiosyncrasies, you'll have a wizard of a time.