Release Date: June 21, 2019Platforms: iOS (reviewed), AndroidDeveloper: Niantic, WB Games San FranciscoPublisher: NianticGenre: Augmented reality
Building on the success of Pokémon Go, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite expands on the offerings of an augmented reality game. More cinematic than its predecessor, it nevertheless never becomes as charming.
From the very beginning, it’s a more robust experience than Pokémon Go was at launch. A voiced character named Penelope guides the player through the basics of the AR world. Even for someone whose opinions about Harry Potter solidified around the release of the seventh book, there was a nostalgic thrill from seeing a Hogwarts owl dart down to my apartment and hearing Harry welcome me to the game.
Players will find three different kinds of encounters in the world: Foundables such as people, items, and memories that you log into a registry (think Pokedex) once you’ve freed them from spells called Confoundables; Oddities, magical foes such as dementors, vampires, and werewolves; and Fortresses, the game’s five-person dungeon challenges. Like in Pokemon Go, all of these encounters require you to complete different tasks that involve swiping and tapping your screen.
Foundables require one spell to complete, while the others involve both attack and defense. Throughout the world, you’ll also encounter inns and greenhouses, both of which are renewable pick-up locations for items. Fortunately, clearing Foundables is a bit more involved than swiping the right distance to throw a Pokéball. Each spell has a different shape to trace on the screen. Missed traces, moving too slow, or not tracing the lines close enough lowers the power of the spell and the amount of experience points gained from successfully casting it. Potions, brewed from items found around the world and in inns or greenhouses, boost health or add effects to spells. The tracing mechanic delivers oddly random results: traces that seem wildly off to me will rate a “good,” while my most earnest efforts result in a “fair” rating.
There isn’t much rhyme or reason to the Foundables you encounter and the confoundables that have trapped them. Plants capture fairies, or creatures capture people, and so on through a rotating wheel of recognizable characters and objects. It doesn’t have the underlying logic that the books did, and it doesn’t help that some of the visuals are lackluster, especially the skeletal pixies and screaming Azkaban wanted posters. The designs seem to be based on the Harry Potter movies, not the book illustrations, giving them an aged 2010s feel instead of the timelessness of a fairy tale. At their best, items are enjoyably chaotic; at worst, grotesque and boring. I often found myself turning AR off, as objects would float on tables or walls unless I was in a mostly flat landscape. This was a problem with Pokémon Go as well but usually looked less obtrusive due to the scale of the creatures.
It’s also particularly jarring that some of the Foundables, including Hagrid in the tutorial section, are people. For example, it’s odd to encounter Ginny Weasley in a library just to cast a spell to make her disappear. Others are weirdly mundane. No matter how important the game tells me it is to protect wizarding secrecy, there isn’t much thrill in finding “interdepartmental memos” in peril.
Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to reconcile a game about secrecy with the public world of AR games. The Harry Potter series appealed in large part to the childhood desire to be special, to be a wizard hidden in plain sight, and most of that charm is either missing or too simplistic to appeal to this adult player.
At least there’s a basic plot tying these mechanics together. At one point, Penelope explains that each stolen person or item was loved by someone. When you free a Foundable, it returns to the place from whence it came, namely a selection of recognizable series locations like Hagrid’s cabin, the Malfoy manner, or Newt Scamander’s suitcase, ensuring that the Muggles never find out the truth about wizards. Placing items in the registry gives you more experience, plus items or the runes needed to access Fortresses.
Lore can also be found through conversations and newspaper clippings buried in menus. I like that a story is present, but it isn’t imaginative enough to serve as a motivation on its own. The stakes are basic: the “London Five,” a group of dark wizards, are suspected to have unleashed magic items on the Muggle world. More lore is found in the skill tree, with little vignettes like “Harry Power introduces you to the Weakening Hex, a common tool in the Auror’s arsenal.”
The story as a whole could have been a great strength, but unfortunately, it is the most disjointed part of the game. While Pokémon had a collect-em-all mechanic built in, the wizarding world struggles to adapt to a similar structure. Harry searched for clues and Horcruxes in the books, but Niantic can’t quite make that type of adventure interesting here.
At least the RPG elements are much more robust here than in Pokémon Go. At level 6, I unlocked a profession (essentially a class), a skill tree, and more detailed stats—precision, defense, power, and so on. Proficiencies and deficiencies serve as strengths and weaknesses, with each class being proficient against specific types of enemies. These stats also make playing through Fortresses with a team a lot more exciting, as mix and matching a team with the right proficiencies adds a bit of variety to the proceedings. Overall, unlocking professions opens the game up a lot, allowing some degree of customization through the skill tree.
Fortresses also present the most interesting combat in the game, with wizards battling through waves of enemies. Slinging potions and swiping away at a giant spider was fun and fulfilled the cinematic promise suggested by the opening of the game.
The Harry Potter franchise as a whole feels thin right now, struggling along with the stage play, Fantastic Beasts movies, and author J. K. Rowling’s often awkward (or offensive) additions to the beloved series. Between the animation and cosmetic purchases, the game also feels thin. While I’m curious about how much more story eventually might be introduced to the game, the mystery of the London Five isn’t enough of a hook to keep me playing.
Pokémon Go offered cuter creatures and more captivating goals, and Wizard Unite’s intriguing skill trees aren’t enough to motivate me. With the exception of the Fortresses, Wizards Unite fails to justify itself beyond the basic appeal of watching numbers go up in increasingly complex tiers. Maybe hardcore Harry Potter fans will be able to hold on to that initial charm of watching an owl swoop to your location, but those who haven’t been turned off by the series’ latest developments have a pretty basic mobile game left to explore.