Based on the upcoming movie of the same name that will be in theaters on June 4, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is an action adventure in the style of The Legend of Zelda that's targeted primarily at kids, but it is also reasonably entertaining for adult fans of the Potter series. The gameplay and storytelling are solid, if a bit simplistic, but a great number of rough edges mar what could have otherwise been a much more polished game.
It's a safe bet that much of this game's potential audience is already familiar with the storyline from the original novel, or they soon will be when the movie version is released. If you're not, Prisoner of Azkaban recounts Harry Potter's third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a year that is dogged by the feared criminal Sirius Black. Black, the eponymous escaped prisoner, was somehow involved in the death of Harry's parents and he is making great efforts to reach--and presumably kill--young Potter as well. As with all the stories in the Harry Potter series, this one has more twists and surprises than you can shake a stick at, so if you don't already know what's going to happen, you'll be in for some surprises. The game mostly does a decent job of following the original storyline, though some liberties are taken to create new playable sequences. Meanwhile, some events from the book are only touched upon in passing, giving the story presentation a sometimes disjointed and hurried feeling. The game's story works pretty well, but it's better experienced as a companion to the book or movie, rather than as a standalone narrative.
The gameplay in Prisoner of Azkaban has been expanded upon from previous Harry Potter games, primarily because you can now play as not only Harry but also his best friends, Ron and Hermione. You'll progress through the storyline by pursuing basic quest goals that will have you attending particular classes, searching for key items, and helping out those in need. Once all your goals are completed for a given section, you'll have the option of ending the day and moving on to the next chapter or simply roaming around Hogwarts and exploring. The game's basic control scheme lets you map two spells to your action buttons, and a lock-on ability lets you dodge and keep your aim focused on a particular enemy or item of interest. You can switch between the three characters at the touch of a button, although sometimes you'll be limited to just one or two of them as situations dictate.
Although the basic controls are the same for all three characters, the game does a pretty good job of differentiating between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Harry is the only one that can do athletic things like leap across chasms or climb up ropes; Ron has the ability to spot secret doorways and other hidden things; and Hermione can squeeze through small spaces that the boys can't. The puzzles in the game are pretty easy, but they make good use of the three friends' unique abilities, and you'll have to switch between characters to accomplish different parts of the same task. The characters all have access to some basic spells, such as the attack spell Flipendo, while other spells are character-specific: Ron can use the Lumos spell, that fans will know from the books, to shine a light on some enemies and items while Hermione's Glacius spell can freeze hotheaded enemies and cool down some puzzle elements. Overall, the spellcasting is functional but not very flashy, and it provides another reason to switch between the three characters to defeat foes and solve puzzles.
There's nothing wrong with Prisoner of Azkaban from a design standpoint--it's a good, if easy, action adventure. The execution leaves a bit to be desired, though, since there are a host of small issues that combine to make the game a little less enjoyable than it could have been. The load times are on the long side, which is unfortunate because you'll run into them a tad too frequently while you're roaming around the school. The visual presentation is a bit rough at times--some enemies perish by simply blinking out of existence, for instance. The artificial intelligence that controls your friends can be a little dumb; sometimes the other characters will fail to follow you around or will shoot you with their spells if you're in the way. Finally, we ran into some fairly minor issues with collision and cutscenes that weren't game-breaking, but they were still disappointing to see in what's otherwise a pretty good game. It seems like the game would have benefited from some more time in development to polish up these slight issues.
Prisoner of Azkaban does a good job of re-creating the school of Hogwarts and its occupants in 3D. You'll travel to various classrooms, the dungeon, and even outside the castle itself, and all of the environments are serviceably crafted with lots of magical set pieces and other characters who are roaming around. A few more small touches would have further brought the backgrounds to life, though; fans of the series may wish that all of the paintings in the castle actually moved, instead of just a few of them. The characters in the game look like cartoon versions of their movie counterparts, so they're not totally identical but still similar enough that everyone will recognize Snape's sneer or the kind, wizened brow of Dumbledore. There's even a nice cloth physics system used to make the three playable characters' robes billow out as they run around. As usual, the Xbox version of the game looks noticeably better than the PS2 game--with better lighting and textures overall--though both games look similar in terms of basic polygonal detail. As a whole, the audio in the game is adequate but not particularly rousing, with appropriate whiz- and zing-style sound effects accompanying your spellcasting, and a nice orchestral score backing up the action. The voice acting is also appropriate to the setting--everybody sounds British--and the voices generally match the personality of their film counterparts (though a few are slightly different).
There isn't a whole lot of material outside of the main story mode in Prisoner of Azkaban. Three minigames that appear throughout the game are also available for play from the main menu--these let you have wizarding duels with other students, race owls, and fly around on a hippogriff. Furthermore, the PlayStation 2 version features a full suite of EyeToy minigames that are surprisingly entertaining. Some of these are similar to the games that appeared on last year's EyeToy: Groove in that your primary occupation is waving your arms around like a lunatic as you try to swat at (and sometimes clap at) moving objects. Other games here are more interesting, though. One game has you match up exploding snap cards while another makes you chase down the golden snitch in the fictional wizards' sport of quidditch as you try to avoid a marauding bludger. If you're into the EyeToy thing, these bonus games actually add some nice extra value to the PS2 version; they are certainly worth checking out. Something similar would have been nice on the Xbox to flesh out the package, since there's no real incentive to play through the story again, but alas, you only get the three minigames there.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a by-the-numbers movie-licensed game that makes pretty good use of its source material without really doing anything too surprising. It's perfect for kids, since the puzzles and combat are both easy enough that youngsters won't have a hard time getting through them. Older gamers won't find it very challenging at all, but that doesn't mean it won't be entertaining while it lasts. If you love the Harry Potter series and think it would be fun in video game form (and you can get past a few rough edges), Prisoner of Azkaban should serve as a nice, interactive way to experience the story once again.