Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
While current literary hysteria is centred on the final chapter of Harry Potter's seven-year stint at the Hogwarts School of Magic, the videogame world remains two episodes behind with the appearance of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Specifically, Electronic Arts' Nintendo DS videogame adaptation of Rowling's fifth book focuses on Harry's long-awaited evolution from a rather unimpressive wizard-in-training to a substantially more kick-ass wand-waving adversary intent on forming "Dumbledore's Army" against the return of evil Lord Voldemort.
A substantial portion of the game takes place in a truly sprawling re-creation of Hogwarts, with Harry, Hermione and Ron traipsing endlessly to mandatory lessons and embarking on character quests that see the Gryffindor trio interacting with various students in need and also getting into magical scrapes with Draco Malfoy and his knuckle-dragging chums. Later in the game, once Harry and friends have levelled-up their magical Defence Against the Dark Arts prowess via secret training sessions in the "Room of Requirement", proceedings then expand into full-on climactic battles as Lord Voldemort and his fearsome Death Eaters are eventually faced in the Ministry of Magic.
Sadly, however, actually getting to the real meat of the game - namely its character battles - is somewhat of a patience-testing chore. For the most part, players will find themselves being sent from one side of Hogwarts to the other on utterly banal tasks that contribute nothing to the overall evolution of the characters. Indeed, they're mainly superficial filler existing between lessons and sporadic trips to the Room of Requirement, where magic points can be doled out and Harry, Hermione and Ron can increase the potency of their various battle skills.
On the plus side, the touch-screen aspects of the DS do succeed in bringing an element of against-the-clock fun to the magical interaction. That interaction sees players performing tangible tasks such as frantically dragging and dropping ingredients into a bubbling cauldron before stirring it maniacally - and even blowing on the flames to increase the heat - when in Potions class. Other classes, such as Transfiguration, see the player feverishly colouring in shapes with the stylus to reveal their true form, while Herbology has the player casting on plants in order to make them grow, and Astrology tasks the player with drawing tricky constellations into a night sky.
The DS stylus can also be used to cast (physically draw) various spells during tasks in order to repair broken furniture (Reparo) or retrieve missing articles (Wingardium Leviosa), etc. Again, all are against the clock. The real fun arrives when Harry finally gets to pull out his wand in anger and execute some 'real' magic. Granted, the aesthetic effects are not especially mind blowing, but watching adversaries crumple in groaning defeat is always enjoyable. Plus, when battling, the DS switches to a horizontal viewpoint that relays a more traditional wide-screen fight mechanic because the characters remain statically placed.
Once again, however, the DS-specific fun of magic casting is far too intermittent and all-too brief when measured against the huge amount of time spent running through Hogwarts' wealth of corridors, courtyards, exterior grounds, mighty halls, and classrooms in order to deliver a line of shoehorned dialogue to a secondary non-playable character so the storyline can inch forward a little more. That time is further fractured by the DS struggling to transition its camera smoothly between static environments, which occasionally leaves the characters (and the player) somewhat disoriented as to their positioning on screen and the direction of their movement.
In-game character animation is a little poor throughout Order of the Phoenix, with the on-screen sprites lacking detail and exuding an obvious staccato motion while running from place to place. Also, story and dialogue explanation, which plays out in text between ventriloquist dummy characterisations on the upper DS screen, is often painfully weak, as are NPC characters that appear all too often as generic representations even through they're supposed to be different students. Sound is also generally lacking throughout, apart from the musical score, which manages to instil the general sense of the Harry Potter universe as the students tear tirelessly around Hogwarts with seemingly no clear motivation.
Outside of the single-player component, the Nintendo DS also offers up multiplayer fun via various student and lesson-inspired games, including marble-based Gobstones, hopping madness in Chocolate Frogs, cauldron prowess in Potions, and the rather self-explanatory card game Exploding Snap. All these games can also be experienced during the single-player campaign (along with a somewhat shallow Quidditch, which is not available in multiplayer) but players can host or join Wi-Fi games against international opposition or simply take on someone on the other side of the room via single-card multiplayer matches if they so wish.
It is fair to say, however, that the game's narrative flow is perfectly matched with its printed subject matter... though that is in no way a compliment. For those who've never read Rowling's disjointed and abruptly teenage angst-riddled fifth Potter novel, the videogame version will come over as somewhat of a confusing mess, which is exactly how this reviewer felt about the book.
Ultimately, and as with most licensed movie tie-ins, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a resoundingly flat adventure that fails to inspire more than fleeting moments of touch-screen enjoyment that are never expanded upon. Running backwards and forwards across Hogwarts may admirably show the level of detail EA has invested in the game's environments, but it also clearly exposes the overall lack of content unfolding within it. Being led by the gameplay-hand from one story turn to the next arrives as wholly unfulfilling and the occasional battles never truly test player mettle or magical skill.