The Harry Potter phenomenon, which originated with J.K. Rowling's incredibly popular series of fantasy novels, has arrived to gaming audiences as a series of cross-platform action-adventure games published by Electronic Arts. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone casts you in the role of the troubled young orphan wizard during his first year of studies at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As Harry, you are challenged to attend classes in the arcane arts, collect as many magical sweets as you can find, and foil the plot of your parents' killer, the evil Voldemort.
For most of the game, Harry will be challenged to learn different spells, including Flipendo, the knockback charm; and Wingardium Leviosa, the levitation spell. Learning these spells is accomplished in a classroom setting, where an arcane symbol is traced through the air and needs to be reproduced by a steady hand within a time limit. The spells that Harry learns are then put to use in challenge areas, where platform jumping and the triggering of levers and buttons through use of these spells is the name of the game. The block puzzles and platform sequences are highly repetitive and, for the most part, incredibly simple, and those who have even the slightest trouble with them can enable an auto-jump feature to completely remove any semblance of a challenge. Along the way, you are expected to collect multicolored Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, which can be traded in for collectable trading cards of various wizards. These trading cards feature mostly a single line of background information on notable historic magicians, and collecting all of the more-hidden cards is a respectable challenge.
In addition, Harry will be challenged to compete in the wizards' sport of Quidditch, a strange combination of soccer and basketball, which takes place in midair astride witches' broomsticks. Harry's role in the game as the seeker is to hunt down the golden snitch, an incredibly agile sphere whose capture heralds the winning of the game. There are several positions on a Quidditch team, including a goalkeeper and defensive and offensive specialists. You are allowed to take part in the event only from Harry's perspective, and each of the games seems almost impossible to lose. The opposing seeker never grabs the snitch, and the other players appear to be there merely for visual effect, having no real bearing on the game. Despite the instruction manual's indication otherwise, you are also forced to use a very awkward keyboard control scheme, instead of the preferable mouse-guided steering. Those particularly enamored with the wizards' sport will be pleased to note that once the game is played in the story mode, you unlock a Quidditch tournament game that can be played at any time, adding a bit of replay value to an otherwise very brief six-to-seven-hour adventure.
Although the game predominantly centers on these somewhat bland gameplay elements, the developers did find room to mix things up with some key enjoyable sequences. In one mission area, Harry dons an inherited invisibility cloak before embarking on a stealth mission, similar to those in Metal Gear Solid, where the goal is to bypass security by predicting the movements of caretaker Mr. Peeves and his cat Mrs. Norris. Harry will also duel with enemies in brief circle-strafing sessions, which, although rather simple, are fun to complete, if only as a break from the rest of the game. It's a shame that there is no obvious feature for storing multiple game saves, because some of the more exciting sequences, particularly the encounters with some of the boss characters, are worth replaying.
Graphically, the developers have done a good job of using the Unreal engine to re-create the visual style of the recent blockbuster movie release. The explorable areas of the castle are a pleasure to experience, with many suitably magical details, such as the wandering ghosts, the animated suits of armor, and of course, the other students. The game makes full use of a relatively small number of textures; after the first challenge area, the visual look of the game starts to repeat itself quite a bit. Magical sequences are re-created with attractive particle effects, while lighting and shadows are effectively handled--the spookier parts of the game are quite well done.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone also performs a balancing act of sorts by borrowing some of the actor likenesses from the film, like those of the various professors you'll encounter, while using almost cartoonlike versions of the protagonist and several other key figures. The introduction, which sums up a sizable chunk of the story, is conveyed in a brief ink-on-parchment still-image sequence, using the same art that can be found in the PlayStation and Game Boy Advance versions of the game. These narrative shorts seem incredibly rushed and don't give proper due to the source material. Overall, the story isn't revealed in any compelling manner and seems more like obligatory filler between platform-jumping sequences.
On the other hand, the bedtime-story-style narration is performed admirably, as is the work of the many voice actors who bring the Hogwart's characters to life. If you haven't seen the movie, then you can enjoy the soundalikes' reprisals of the beloved roles without skipping a beat. There's a good amount of variety to the speech, including the somewhat humorous chatter of the kids in the halls. Sadly, while an effort was made to record the spell chants in several inflections, it gets incredibly annoying to hear Harry shout out "Flipendo" for the thousandth time, ruining the overall positive impression that the audio presentation would otherwise impart.
The music, on the other hand, is enjoyable throughout. Providing the palpably magical soundtrack is acclaimed composer Jeremy Soule, who absolutely shines at certain moments. When pesky gnomes scurry out from behind corners to steal your beans, a recurring lighthearted tune will kick in, signaling the appearance of these nuisances. The music does well to convey the emotion of certain parts of the game, whether it's nervous tension during sneaking sequences or the excitement of a heated Quidditch match. The selections do repeat a bit too often, though, so there isn't enough variety to keep the game sounding fresh throughout its short duration.
Ultimately, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone doesn't have the widespread appeal of its literary namesake and is suitable only for children. When compared with the many stellar gameplay experiences available to PC gamers today, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone underwhelms with an extremely brief story, overly simplistic platform jumping sequences, and repetitive gameplay. Then again, children ready to move on from purely educational PC games to those that are purely entertaining will likely enjoy Harry's first PC adventure, but older players captivated by Rowling's first tale would be better served by reading the novel's three sequels or by seeing the movie again.