Flipendo!” That’s the name of the first spell Harry Potter, as a first-year student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to cast. When my kids got this game, it set them into gales of laughter as their mother and I ran around the house waving pretend magic wands, shouting, “Nintendo!” instead. In case you’ve somehow missed the phenomenon, I’m talking about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the phenomenally successful book, motion picture, and now computer game. Aspyr licensed this one for the Mac from EA Games, and it’s a terrific romp through a make-believe world of wizards, ghosts, gnomes, trolls, and other fanciful beings.
This game follows the story presented in the first book of JK Rowling’s series, which tells the story of the young orphan boy Harry Potter. Sent to a boarding school to learn his forebears’ wizardly ways, he soon confronts the same evil that killed his parents when he was just an infant.
Based on the same underlying technology that powers the first-person action game Unreal Tournament, Harry Potter is shown from a third-person perspective similar to Tomb Raider’s, and many of its puzzles are of the same type as the latter’s – you have to find and activate locks that open secret passages and new areas, collect items, and overcome various menaces. This involves climbing, jumping from platform to platform, and other hallmarks of the third-person action genre.
As Harry makes his way through Hogwarts, he learns new spells and accumulates goodies, such as Chocolate Frogs and Wizard Cards, all of which he can put to use as he progresses. Harry interacts with all the major characters from the first book: his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, Albus Dumbledore, Professor Quirrell, and even, eventually, the dreaded Voldemort.
Although Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone uses the same technology as Unreal Tournament, don’t think for a second that this is a hard-core action game. There’s no blood or gore, the puzzles are fairly easy to solve, and the levels are easy to navigate. It is challenging, though, and on more than one occasion – especially when Harry confronts menaces – the challenge can get frustrating enough to create a white-knuckle experience.
Because the game is designed to be accessible to younger players who presumably have less experience, it simplifies navigation and game-saving. Each level features floating books, which, when Harry touches them, save the game where it is. And if you activate the Autojump option, it’s much easier for Harry to hop from platform to platform. Kids will still need to be familiar with the keyboard to activate various functions – they’ll use the arrow keys to move, and the mouse to learn and activate new spells. An introductory-level also helps players understand how to move in, and interact with, their environment.
Every level has a definite starting and ending point. While this may put you off if you were hoping to explore Hogwarts and its grounds unencumbered, it does provide a straightforward and linear experience for younger or less-experienced players.
One fantastic inclusion in this game is Quidditch, the arena sport that witches and warlocks play on broomsticks. It’s a high-speed team game involving different types of magic balls that players must dodge, throw through hoops, and catch. The game’s designers have done a great job of re-creating it, and it’s arguably the most enjoyable part of the game.
The production quality is top-notch, with a rich colour-palette and eye-catching special effects. Some of the graphics appear a bit blocky, but animation is, overall, smooth. Music and sound also add special appeal. Hogwarts is full of creaks, rattles, the moans of ghosts, and other ambient noises (which may put the very young players off). It definitely creates a sense of place.
Some might say that the world created by JK Rowling should have stayed on the page, and in truth nothing can re-create an environment as rich in detail and imagination as that of her books. But there’s still a vicarious thrill in being able to experience the world of Harry Potter through the eyes of Harry himself. In that respect, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone succeeds admirably.