Like its console-based counterparts, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for the PC is a kid-oriented action adventure game based on the recently released movie of the same name. Apart from that, this PC version is generally unlike the game you'll find on the PS2 or Xbox, because Prisoner of Azkaban on the PC is an entirely separate game created by a different development team, rather than a simple port of the console version. The game is exceptionally easy and surprisingly brief, but while it lasts, it's a fun romp for its target audience through Prisoner of Azkaban's twisty storyline.
Harry's third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is beset by Sirius Black, the murderous wizard who is said to have betrayed Harry's parents to their deaths at the hands of the evil Lord Voldemort. Having recently escaped from the wizard prison Azkaban, Black is hot on young Harry's trail and presumably looking to finish the job he started more than a decade earlier. Of course, there's a lot more to the story than that, as anyone who has read the book or seen the movie can attest, although the game glosses over most of the major plot details in favor of playable sequences that aren't in the original storyline. The game feels like a companion piece to the book or film, as if you're expected to have gone through one or the other prior to playing the game--and presumably, just about anybody who's going to play this game already has.
The gameplay here is a straightforward point-and-click affair. You'll control Harry, Ron, or Hermione (as the game dictates) through a series of dungeonlike action levels with equally light combat and puzzle-solving elements. The controls really couldn't be simpler: You move around with the standard WASD configuration, jump with the right mouse button, and cast spells with the left mouse button. Spellcasting is context-sensitive, so you merely point your wand at an object, and the game will figure out which spell you need to cast. This design is charming in its simplicity, as you can run around zapping enemies, pushing blocks, and magically flinging yourself across chasms without ever so much as fiddling with a menu. It takes most of the guesswork out of figuring out the proper course of action in a given situation, which is largely what makes the game so easy.
In the action levels, which are few, you'll usually control only one of the three friends as they try to complete a linear dungeon filled with easy puzzles and the occasional monster. Harry gets to use the glacius spell to freeze water and slide down it in a sort of pseudo-race sequence; Ron can use his carpe retractum spell to pull blocks around and also grapple across large gaps; and Hermione can use lapifors and draconifors to take temporary control of a rabbit and a dragon, respectively, for the purpose of puzzle-solving. Sometimes you'll engage in combat or encounter a puzzle outside these dungeons when your friends are close by, and they'll help you fight it out or cast combo spells automatically in these instances.
Prisoner of Azkaban's action levels are tied together by a hub level that literally lets you run around the halls of Hogwarts. There are a few extra activities you can engage in between levels, such as collecting around 80 cards that show you famous wizards and monsters and playing three short minigames in which you ride the hippogriff Buckbeak, fight off a swarm of pixies, or do battle with The Monster Book of Monsters. You can also purchase passwords that let you access minor new areas in the castle from the joke shop run by Ron's brothers, Fred and George. The game is always hurrying you off from one action event to the next, though, so you never really feel like you've got a chance to stop and just explore. After you've completed all the story elements, however, you'll have the chance to roam about and finish up all the side tasks you missed the first time through.
The graphics in Prisoner of Azkaban are actually pretty impressive, as the game uses the Unreal engine to cohesively re-create Hogwarts and its surrounding grounds. The character models are a little cartoonlike and don't have the most lifelike animation, but the backgrounds are solidly constructed and varied throughout the game. As befits a game using the Unreal technology, the spell effects and indicators are all quite nice, with lots of particle and colored lighting effects (we go in for that stuff). The game's soundtrack is similar to that of the film and sets the traditional Harry Potter mood nicely, while the voice actors do their best to sound like the movie's actors and generally succeed to an acceptable degree. As per the Potter milieu, a spell incantation must be spoken (or shouted) each time the spell is cast--so it's notable that each of the three principle actors recorded each spell name multiple times to keep aural repetition to a minimum. There are lots of nice whiz-bang spell effects at work, too, which makes the magic-casting even more fun.
There are only a couple of caveats that bear repeating if you're interested in this game: One, any player of even marginal skill will finish the game in five to six hours, and two, its puzzles and combat are both remarkably easy. Those facts make Prisoner of Azkaban a great game for younger kids, and it's a lot of fun for less-discriminating older fans of Harry Potter too. The game may be short and easy, but it's also thoughtfully designed and genuinely entertaining, and KnowWonder deserves credit for that.