If there is an element of mobile gaming that can still get me excited, it’s seeing how developers utilize smartphone cameras to create dynamic AR experiences. Pokémon Go was an absolute blockbuster title even if it didn’t work all that well at the beginning. The game still rakes in millions of dollars for developer Niantic and its success has spawned a fruitful genre of real-world, location-based gameplay. Dragon Quest, Yo-kai Watch, and Minecraft all have their own AR mobile games in the works while film and television franchises like The Walking Dead and Jurassic World have jumped on the bandwagon. There’s also Garfield Go for the cat-sweater-wearing grandmothers out there.
As the originator of this walkabout genre, with Ingress kicking it all off back in 2012, it’s no wonder Portkey Games went with Niantic to bring The Wizarding World into our world. With a solid foundation in place from its last two games, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite has something of a leg up compared to its contemporaries. However, as I’ve learned over the past two days of playing, the Harry Potter brand might not be the best fit for a game like this.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite (Android [reviewed], iOS)
Publisher: Portkey Games
Released: June 21, 2019
MSRP: Free-to-Play w/ Microtransactions
Wizards Unite casts players in the role of an enforcer in the Statute of Secrecy Task Force. Somebody has been taking elements of The Wizarding World out of their place and time and sticking them in our world. As a member of the task force, it is up to us witches and wizards to find these Foundables and return them to their rightful place in the world. Wizards Unite is big on story and as players explore and retrieve Foundables, they’ll learn about what’s happened to cause this calamity as well as investigate a mysterious wizard named Grim Fawley who may be behind everything happening in the game.
Niantic is promising a multi-year storyline for players and in the early hours of the game, it’s a nice addition to what can sometimes feel like an o experience. Taking place after the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, familiar faces from the book and film series regularly make appearances. Harry Potter himself, voiced by someone doing a damn fine Daniel Radcliffe impression, plays a large part in the early going. Hermione Granger is here as well as is Professor McGonagall, who sounds a bit like Dame Edna doing a Groundskeeper Willie impression. There is also the new character of Constance Pickering, who just might have the Harry Potterest of Harry Potter names.
The storyline to Wizards Unite is mostly confined to the SOS missions Constance will assign to you, as well as any secrets and artifacts you find in your adventures. The meat of the game involves walking around your neighborhood, saving Foundables from the threat of the Confoundables. Opening up the strikingly earth-tone map, what you’re looking for are boring little symbols that denote a Confoundable needs to be taken care of. Get close enough to one and you can tap on it, initiating a spell-casting sequence.
Where in Pokémon Go you had to throw Poké Balls to catch those little pocket monsters, Wizards Unite has you trace a symbol on the screen to cast a spell. You have a short time limit from when your finger touches the screen to when you need to finish the trace and if you’re too slow, you’ll have wasted some of your spell-casting energy. If you do too sloppy of a job it’ll also be seen as a failure to you have to try again. The game’s tracking what constitutes a good trace or a bad trace feels unreliable. I’ve had a few admittedly bad traces score highly while genuinely good traces have only been considered “fair” by the game. Of course, getting a good trace doesn’t guarantee you’ll free the Foundable, however, in the same way nailing a great throw of the Poké Ball doesn’t guarantee you’ll catch that Pikachu. If you are having trouble getting your magic to work, there are potions you can use to make your spells stronger.
Freeing all those Foundables gives Wizards Unite something of a “gotta catch’em all” feel. The game has a scrapbook Registry where all of your freed characters, critters, and magical creations are marked. Some Foundables only require you to free them once to mark them in the Registry; others are split into fragments that you’ll need to catch several or even a dozen times before you can get the full credit for freeing them.
Besides those Confoundable markers on the map, there is a small variety of arguably bland-looking landmarks to make use of. Inns provide random amounts of spell-casting energy, greenhouses allow you to grow plants from seeds you find in the fields, and fortresses are home to magic duels that feature synchronous multiplayer gameplay. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anyone around me playing this game at the moment, so my few successful attempts of these fortresses were solo affairs.
It’s quite strange to see the public reaction to this game compared to what we got with Pokémon Go. I haven’t seen droves of people with their phones out rushing from inn to inn, working together to conquer powerful wizards. Perhaps the sheen has all but worn off The Wizarding World, with J.K. Rowling’s ridiculous tweeting and a prequel film series that has only blemished this cherished franchise. Or maybe, it’s just because I now live in a town with about 3,800 people. It could be in San Francisco, New York City, and London, throngs of witches and wizards to teaming up to stop the calamity and I’m just destined to be the lone wizard of my small town. If that is the case, so be it. Because for right now, it’s getting me outdoors and exploring my surroundings.
I must give credit to Niantic for learning from the mistakes that surrounded the launch of its last game. When we reviewed Pokémon Go, six days after it launched, players were still having trouble staying connected to it. Outside of the first 35 minutes of play, I haven’t experienced anything of the sort with Wizards Unite. At the very beginning, there were some issues with error messages, but they haven’t popped up since. I have had to keep the app open as I explore as it doesn’t track travel when it’s closed, but that’s been a negligible inconvenience. Otherwise, it’s been a very stable experience that has really allowed me to engross myself and live out this wizarding fantasy more vividly than I ever could in something like Hogwarts Mystery.
To those wondering about microtransactions, yes they’re here and they come in a variety of flavors. You can spend real money on stickers and special lenses for your wizard photo; buy kits with gold, energy, potions, and more; or just buy a crapload of gold. I have no idea why Google Play and the App Store still allow developers to include $99.99 “microtransactions” in their games, but that’s here too. I’ve earned 180 gold coins so far through regular play and really haven’t had a need to spend any of it, but that could soon change. I will admit, the Ravenclaw Pride pack currently available for $10 is mighty tempting.
There is a lot more to Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, including professions, skill trees, potion mixing, and Portkeys. I’m excited to delve deeper into the many facets of this game over the next week and will cover all that and more in my final review.
[This review-in-progress is based on a retail build of the game downloaded from Google Play]