Edinburgh

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Game Review: Lego Harry Potter – Years 5 – 7

Lego Hary Potter: Years 5-7 is one of the better Lego games, up there with HP Years 1-4 and Marvel Superheroes, but I feel it doesn’t quite reach these two. In a pack with Years 1-4 this is a perfect Lego game adaptation for the Harry Potter series and in many ways the developers actually improved on the first game. And even though it builds on Years 1-4 and makes many things easier, this seems to be the flaw – it can be too linear and easy.

In general playing Years 5-7 is a perfect follow up to Years 1-4. The Hogwarts layout is almost the same, with a few areas with less accessibility (the common rooms for example) and some extended areas (London, Hogsmeade and the stations). In general I find this part much easier to navigate and less confusing. I also love it that you have an indicator in each area how many characters you are supposed to find, whether the student in peril has been saved yet, and whether you have found the gold and red bricks. This is a huge help and saves you from running around all areas trying to find the missing pieces to complete the game to 100%. That also meant that I for once didn’t need online help at all. This was of course due to the fact that I had played it previously, but also because the game itself is much easier.

And as much as I enjoy a more or less hassle free game with only few frustrating situations, this one feels too smooth in some parts. It is difficult to describe, but in Years 1-4 I really felt like I was solving small riddles and puzzles to progress through the level. In Years 5-7 I often felt like I was being guided through a level in a very linear way and it was obviously a level. Maybe part 1 made me feel more part of the story and to continue with it I had to get around little obstacles. Part 2 felt like it’s more focussed on being a “game to be played”, not a story to be experienced.

In Years 5-7 there are more boss fights involved as well. In general that is not a bad thing, but I felt the dueling to be quite repetetive and not very challenging. Sometimes it felt more like playing for time to make a level longer (and unecessarily so). I found I was also a little disappointed with the level choices as such in some ways. Many very iconic scenes were either just glossed over in the “cinematics” or you only played them once during the story. I think the short scene from the Marauder’s time would have made an excellent full-scale level, rather than a small “filler” sequence. Also some levels seemed like a bunch of ideas simply thrown together. The very first level spans Privet Drive, the flight through London, a sequence in front of 12 Grimmauld Place, the Ministry  Plaza and the Ministry lift area. I  know it’s hard to choose when you only get to do 6 proper levels per HP part (so 24 levels in total for 4 films), but in Years 1-4 it always felt really appropriate and I liked revisiting really iconic scenes, rather than playing a bit of this and that.

Overall Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 is a strong Lego game, that is a worthy follow-up to Years 1-4. It is not perfect and it probably won’t be appealing to gamers who are looking for a challenge. But if you are after a fun Harry Potter themed game that won’t take ages of your time and nerves, this is something for you – especially in a pack with Years 1-4. It should be possible to get to 100% with a week of more or less casual gaming, or a few days proper gaming. It’s definitely worth giving it a go and also playing again after a while.

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Film Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

When Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets came out in 2002 the young me was super excited and I was not disappointed. Again I felt like the filmmakers had created a wonderful version of the story of their own, which I enjoyed re-watching again and again. Storywise I think it works perfectly, like part 1, however I feel there are some small staging choices I would now in hindsight have liked to seen differently.

I can’t really say there is a lot to complain about. At all. In general all the Harry Potter films have been made to such a high standards, that fans of the books (like me) could not have asked for anything more from an adaptation. But I do enjoy looking back on the films now with a scriptwriting/filmmaking mind and adding some observations I didn’t notice when watching for the first 20 times – or mention something that has been bugging me from the beginning 🙂 I think the criticism will get “stricter” with every film, because every film becomes more serious and darker and we go from a family film to a full-on blockbuster. So naturally the standards somehow increase with each film.

Overall The Chamber of Secrets keeps up that momentum from part 1 of Harry discovering more and more about the wizarding world. But he has already found his place in Hogwarts and knows the basics, so it’s not quite as overwhelming. But we meet new people (Gilderoy Lockhart, Tom Riddle…) and we get to see new things (mandrakes, pixies, polyjuice potion….). So the magic discovery doesn’t stop at the end of part 1 – it just doesn’t take centre stage anymore. This time it’s about getting behind the dark mystery that’s unfolding at school, as it will otherwise have to close. And for Harry, who has for the first time in his life found a place to call home in Hogwarts, has more reasons than most to go to exreme lengths to save it.

The Chamber of Secrets introduces darker powers. We knew about Voldemort in part 1, but he was a dark shadow from the past and the darkness was much more personal to Harry in that he has lost his parents to Voldemort. In part 2 however the dark forces start penetrating Hogwarts and students are being petrified. It all turns out to be more personal as well, but this time other people are hurt as well.

The casting for part 2 is absolutely superb. Part 1 already started perfectly – they got the trio, Dumbledore, McGonnagal, the Dursleys, Professor Snape, Draco and everyone else just spot on. With Lockhart, Tom Riddle and Lucius Malfoy the team added more brilliant actors that fitted in seamlessly. I cannot get over the fact that Kenneth Branagh is somehow playing an exaggeration of himself 😀 Jason Isaacs couldn’t be more suitable – he potrays Malfoy as noble and arrogant and yet you know there is something sinister behind it as well right away.And I think the Tom Riddle actor is exactly right for the role – he gets the sneering, nobility, anger, darkness and allure spot on. So from a casting point of view part 2 is a massive success.

Now for the small parts I am not too happy with. As I mentioned, it is mainly staging. For example when Harry finds Mrs Norris, suddenly half the school turns up. Fair enough – they just finished eating and are going to their common rooms. But a) they are all from different houses, b) they are walking in a bulk and c) they are coming from two different directions… It is important that it’s looking like a compromising situation, but it always distracts me, as I find this bulk of students from different houses from two corridors at the same time highly unlikely… I feel this could have been done more elegantly. Or when Harry finds Justin and Nick, he touches Justin. I don’t know if he’s feeling for a pulse or something, but it surely looks very staged, so as to look more compromising. Those little things come up in the film now and again. But that of course doesn’t spoil it at all!

One last thing I found a little jarring was the ending. Hagrid isn’t the most popular person at school, so when he comes back, of course Harry, Ron and Hermione would show how happy they are, but why are all the other students going crazy about it? I know the writer wanted to end it on a high note, but it feels like it’s not fitting the overall story arch. Part 1 did that perfectly – we end with Harry realising Hogwarts is his home. A perfect ending and final beat in his character journey for part 1. In The Chamber of Secrets the focus is taken away from Harry and we don’t get that final beat, but a celebration of Hagrid instead.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a very successful adaptation, but also just a wonderful film and second instalment of the Harry Potter film series. Darker tones have been introduced and we find that magic isn’t all sparkles and unicorns, but also Basilisks and frauds. But Harry finds his place in this world, too, and he is actively fighting for his school, his home. What will await him in his next term?                                                                                       

 

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Lake District

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Game Review: Lego Harry Potter – Years 1-4

Lego Games should be primarily fun – and Lego Harry Potter – Years 1-4 definitely delivers on that. It is my favourite Lego game (together with Lego Marvel Superheroes) and playing it again made me see again why. The levels are short and punchy, you always make good progress and all in all it feels well balanced. I usually have some kind of rage moment or pet peeve in each Lego game. Harry Potter 1-4 however kept me happy almost all the time.

First of all, this Lego game can be played in around a week more or less casual gaming. I think that’s a nice time frame for a Lego title. Marvel Superheroes, Lord of the Rings and Hobbit are proper beasts compared to that. Harry Potter 1-4 has a nice and easy flow and your progress (measured by percentage) feels natural and always rewarding. After you have finished the story your are at 40%. That really is one of the shorter Lego titles 🙂

Progress gets slower the closer you get to 100% (which always happens). In this game it’s because you have to run around and find the final gold bricks and students in peril on the overworld. And here is probably my one point of complaint – the Hogwarts layout is very messy, so it’s difficult to keep track and you  have no indication as to where the last students could be, as there is no Red Brick to unlock, that will show you all the locations. So you end up running around hours and hours and it’s basically not possible to do this without online help (or a few rage quits). However, I remembered this from my first playthrough, so I could keep calm and just finish the game to 100% again (with a little help, of course).

The Bonus levels in this game are exceptional. First of all I need to mention the final bonus level – after you have collected all golden bricks you can unlock Voldemort by destroying Lego-London. When I first started playing it I wasn’t too sure, but you get really into it and it’s just too much fun to hear the studs clicking away 🙂 As in every Lego game (as far as I’m aware?), this is the bonus level, where you have to collect 1,000,000 studs. I really like the look of Lego-London, by the way!

There are also 10 bonus levels in Gringotts you can unlock. They feel very much like concept levels, but that’s why I like them. They really have riddles (How do I use my characters? What do I need to do to get there?) at the heart of them. I am quite fascinated by them, as you can see that the developers have put those riddles into the levels throughout the game, but they are completely “disguised” by the Hogwarts scenery. Of course you know you solve little riddles to complete the levels, but it always comes with a story, so that is what you focus on. The bonus levels show the bare bones of the levels and that is very interesting to see. Some bonus levels also offer “Builder” levels, where you can design your own levels. I’m not good at that kind of thing, but I love taking a peek behind the scenes.

All in all, Lego Harry Potter – Years 1-4 is one of the strongest Lego games out there and certainly one of the easier ones to finish to 100%. It’s a perfect entry game for anyone who hasn’t played a Lego game before and it’s a nice treat for Harry Potter fans in general. The levels and the Hogwarts locations are lovingly created, always with a little twist of witty humour. The original film music adds to the atmosphere wonderfully and makes this game a perfect little escape to the wizarding world. Highly recommended!

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Film Review – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

I was a proper bookworm as a child, but few stories managed to capture my imagination like the Harry Potter series did. And so I was suitably excited when the film posters started appearing and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came to the big screen. I was 11 at the time, so watching it now is like a trip down memory lane every time.

We all know the story – growing up with his mean aunt and uncle Harry doesn’t know that he is actually a wizard. When he finds out on his 11th birthday a whole new world awaits him and he soon finds his home in his new school, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The first film is basically taking the book and bringing it to life on the screen – as adaptations go it’s very faithful. I’m not subscribing to the notion that “books are better”, though. They are simply a different medium. There is much more detail in the book series and many things that didn’t make it into the films, bet it characters, scenes or story lines. But that is okay, because we can revisit those by reading the books again. The films present us a different version to enjoy, as they are a different medium of storytelling. And I like that way in its own right – telling a story in pictures in a meaningful and memorable way in 2 ½ hours. That is art as well. And that’s why I love the Harry Potter books and films equally for very different qualities.

Part I has excellent screenwriting, direction, sets and general filmic language. It’s made to be enjoyable for both children and adults. There is great attention to detail and you get to appreciate that fully when you look at the film closely and again and again – there is so much more in the background than actual background and we probably miss more than half of the small things going on. The whole film works well together. The writing is really skilful, as it presents a taut narrative, but still leaves room for wonder and imagination. And the sets and scenery of course make the film visually pleasing and inviting – we all want to go to Hogwarts!

What I love about part I in particular is that sense of magical wonder. As Harry is introduced to the wizarding world, he discovers so many new things. And we go on that journey with him. The visual language is stunning and inviting, hinting at the whole new world, while only letting us in step by step. Quidditch for example – we get a first glimpse at a racing broom in Diagon Alley, then Harry has his first flying lesson at Hogwarts, later he gets a Quidditch rule briefing from Oliver Wood and finally he plays his first actual match. It’s a gradual build up and discovery. In The Chamber of Secrets Harry plays Quidditch – big deal. But in part I this is still new and special.

Now actually comparing book to screen, they actually got all the characters spot on in my opinion. Of course, they are not 100% like in the books and I still see them differently when I read the series, but the essence is there in the films. But apart from lifting Harry, Hermione and Ron from the page, the characters work perfectly together in the film on their own. So even if we have no prior picture of them, they become dear to us throughout the film, because the writing, storytelling and characterisation works in its own right, not simply as adaptation. Looking at the series, part I is the most “faithful” to the book in general, if you would like to call it like that. The later books need more “edits”, mainly due to length.

I have watched the film over 20 times, if not 30 by now… But it still captures my imagination. One of the big themes is that journey of discovery. But I think it’s also the character journey for Harry that I find compelling. He goes from a boy, who feels isolated and doesn’t fit in, to someone with a special destiny and a place to call home. Knowing where he belongs and finding friends for life is a beautiful story arch – one that we can all relate to. Finding the place where you belong is a very strong and relevant theme. The last dialogue in the film also tells us he’s arrived – he has completed his character journey for part I.

Hermione: Feels strange to be going home, doesn’t it?

Harry: I’m not going home. Not really.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a beautiful beginning to Harry’s life in the wizarding world. We see it through his eyes with a sense of wonder – but also a growing fondness and finally a sense of belonging. And it leaves us wondering – how will the next year be, now that Harry has found his home? It’s promising to be much quieter – but is it?

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Game Review: Star Wars – The Force Unleashed

After a Lego game I like playing a game with “realistic graphics” – and vice versa 🙂 This time I kept the Star Wars theme and played The Force Unleashed for Xbox360. I have to admit – I didn’t have high expectations, BUT this game surprised me in so many (good) ways and I thoroughly enjoyed playing it (on easy-chicken-“Apprentice”-mode, of course…).

The story fits in nicely within the Star Wars Universe. It used to be canon, before Star Wars Episode VII came along. You play Starkiller, a Sith who has secretly been trained by Darth Vader. Your mission is to eliminate the last Jedi Masters – but the light side of the Force is calling to you and there comes a time for decisions that could influence the balance of the galaxy…

The narrative holds some surprises and great twists and turns in store. The animations in the cut sequences are usually of good quality, but sometimes small details like weird moth movements can take you out of the flow of the scene. But overall I found the story quite strong for a video game (not flawless) and I really got into it, especially as the game progressed. The first level offers a pretty epic start – you play Darth Vader on Kasshyk. An another videogame highlight (for me) is a sequence shortly before the finale, when Starkiller pulls a Star Destroyer out of the sky – with the Force! The controller is going mad and it feels suitably grand and epic.

The controls were quite intuitive for me. Well, I’m definitely no combo master… You collect EP and get points of special skill trees that you can unlock to your liking. And there are loads of combo attacks. I’m more of a buttonmasher or I like to stick to a few trusty attacks. The control of and feel for the character is excellent. It definitely draws you in when you character is jumping to new Olympic heights, Force-dashes, unleashes lightsabre attacks and Force lightning. The controls were a pleasant surprise for me – I thought I’d be struggling, but I found my way around quite quickly and really enjoyed the responsiveness of the character. It makes for a very immersive gaming experience.

The actual gameplay only took around 7 odd hours – however I chose the easiest mode and didn’t collect everything (like lightsabre crystals). I think the game is supposed is supposed to be played multiple times with increasing difficulty. I definitely want to play it again, but I would choose the easy mode again. I like playing video games for fun and I don’t like to get frustrated. So before it turns negative, I prefer going the easy way. I’m not that skilled anyway… 😀

One small anecdote on graphics – I think the detailed (and destructible) environments are a massive plus and the overall graphics are very impressive by my standards. Another reason for the game having the potential of being quite immersive. In one level you are on a space station and then you step into a lift. I thought it’s just going to be a boring ol’ ride, but suddenly the lift is going up through a glass tube and you can look around and see the stars above and the station beneath. At seeing that absolutely amazing starscape I actually gasped. That was another unexpected, but  utterly fascinating moment in the game.

I highly recommend Star Wars – The Force Unleashed to Star Wars fans and linear, but rich level-based video game fans alike. The detailed environments, Star Wars-worthy story and intuitive (and pretty epic) fight controls make it worth trying – and for me playing again! I’m looking forward to Part II. Again, I try not to expect to much and hope to be pleasantly surprised, like in this game.

 

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Kobe Ropeway

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Game Review: Lego Star Wars – The Complete Saga

My latest foray into the Lego world is the Xbox 360 version of Lego Star Wars – The Complete Saga. While I think Jedis and droids are perfect for being adapted as a Lego game, I couldn’t help but feel, that this game doesn’t quite live up to the usual Lego game standards. But that might simply be my personal gaming experience.

Of course the game is good fun and the abilities picked out for individual characters make sense and are mostly intuitive. It was also nice to see some variety in level design with normal character levels and spaceship levels. Unfortunately the cut-sequences felt very pointless. They are never brilliant, but in this case I really didn’t mind skipping them. In general the graphics were nice and you could see quite a few details in the level design that were taken straight from the films.

However I felt this Lego game was more frustrating than other in the series. Often I found myself overwhelmed (yes, in a Lego game…) by too many raging enemies and they also spawned again way too fast. Of course everything works better when all the extras are unlocked, like Fast Build or my favourite Perfect Deflet. The fact is not new, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so delighted to unlock Invincibility.

I am at just over 80% at the moment and usually I would take the opportunity and finish the game over weekend. I wanted to, but then I discovered I would need to play every level again at least twice to get blue minikits in challenge mode and the superstory playthrough. Just no. That is some lazy game design compared to the other Lego titles. I know it’s one of the first ones and I can see the developers’ point, as they try to make the most of the levels they have designed, but it simply feels unecessarily drawn out. Especially because Red Brick power extras aren’t allowed, at least the challenge mode. And that just draws things out again… I think it’s down to the game design in general – Lego Star Wars doesn’t have a real overworld, only a hub, so there is only limited possibility.

I’m glad I played it so far, but 100% are painful. I got 100% on the other games I played (still working on Lego Marvel, but I only get to play that once in a while). 100% are always a challenge and collectibles in individual levels or overworld challenges can get very frustrating, but usually the game is varied enough to make you try again after going for a different challenge. I will put Lego Star Wars aside now and come back to it now and again and hope to get to 100% in time. It’s a shame the last bit is so lazy – it does spoil the fun a little.

All in all, this is good fun for any Star Wars fan. The host of characters and lovingly recreated environments really take you into a galaxy far, far away, but the Star Wars-theme has very strong video game competiton in general. I for my part would still stick to Knights of the Old Republic and will try out Force Unleashed soon. On my Lego list I also have Lego Star Wars – The Force Awakens down – let’s hope it lives up to the usually high Lego standards a bit more.

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Game Review: Fable Anniversary

I finally managed to play the first game in the Fable series in its updated version Fable Anniversary. It’s exactly what I hoped it would be – a fun fantasy game with a witty sense of humour and an overall prettily designed Albion. It still feels like it hasn’t quite reached its full  potential, but in a way that is what the sequels do, so there is no need to complain at all 🙂

You start as a young boy and it’s your sister’s birthday. Your father sends you to get a present for her. But when you go to her to give it to her everything goes wrong – your peaceful village Oakvale is ambushed by bandits. Your father is killed and your mother and sister abducted. You however are saved by a mysterious man with magical powers who takes you to the Heroes’ Guild and gives you the opportunity to train to become strong and in time take revenge.

All in all Fable Anniversary has a very strong storyline, beautifully illustrated by cut scenes. It’s there in Fable II and III as well, but the story in this part makes it very personal as well and I really liked the main antagonist they came up with, Jack of Blades. As usual the voice overs were great and added a great deal to the immersion in the game. However I have to say that some main characters didn’t quite work for me (Whisper, Thunder, Briar Rose), as I somehow never really connected. But that’s okay.

I have one small point of complaint – the controls. I know that every game has a different way of approaching this, but comparing Fable Anniversary to its successors I felt like it had some developing to do. The spell-changing felt quite clunky and I never really got behind how to nicely use the raged weapon. To be honest, that is never my strong point, but I found it even harder in this game. The range of weapons, tools and items was quite limited compared to the other titles as well, but that is not a negative point as such. Despite there being fewer things (I believe), I found the menu harder to navigate as well. Nothing major to spoil the fun, though!

Fable Anniversary sets the tone for the whole series. High Fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously – and that sets the Fable collection apart. They give you a great and touching storyline in that wondrous setting of Albion with lots of magic and swords, but they never lose sight of their very own sense of humour. I loved the fact that I could call my Hero “Arseface” – it’s delightful when people in the game shout it back at you. Also this part seemed particularly fond of epitaphs, as the others as well, actually – basically all gravestones have a cheeky inscription. “Here lies a man once called Ned. Now more properly called dead.” is just one example. The runes for the ancient oracle are of course “Y.M.C.A.” and you won’t be able to stop playing chicken kicking once you’ve started.

I was glad they added The Lost Chapters in this version right away. This final part of the game feels like a proper ending and made the whole narrative come together in my opinion, especially with the choice you are left with at the end… I really enjoyed the final boss fight. While the “original” first one took me 4ish attempts, I first tried this one. It was an awesome and intense battle, but when you stick to your strategy you can win easily. I think that made it work for me – I felt challenged, but I could finally manage to win without panicking – I could finally fight like a Hero 😉

So all in all I would still say Fable II is my favourite, probably closely followed by Fable III and Anniversary. All of them are great Xbox 360 titles and I can completely understand anyone preferring one or the other (especially if Fable I was your very first game). Fable II is vaster and more elaborate than the other two titles I think. But they are all linked by that beautifully witty sense of humour. The series is a very special collection of games and I will definitely be playing all of them again to go back to Albion and relive the wonderful epic stories of the different Heroes.

 

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