It’s taken a surprising amount of time to get a game that exemplifies what most people would have expected from a Harry Potter title. The pitch practically writes itself in fact; take the setting of Hogwarts school for Witchcraft and Wizardry and allow players to create their own avatar and enjoy a mixture of school sim and original adventure. Set it within a period where enough recognisable faces from the popular novel series are around but not while Harry, Ron or Hermione are in attendance to avoid breaking canon.
Most reviews will call this title a straight narrative adventure with limited player choices. These reviews are looking at the way in which the game has been presented rather than the genre it more adequately represents, as when looking at it on paper this is a WRPG through and through. Turn based combat, stat levelling through player actions and a user created avatar through which to explore a semi-open but well directed store are all on firm display in this title.
Graphically, the games take primary inspiration from the films, recreating whole environments wholesale and in intricate detail using 3D from a fixed camera angle. Characters have the appearance of their film counterparts without infringing on the likenesses of famous actors and actresses, which allows them the ability to create a version of Dumbledore that somehow manages to resemble both actors to don the role simultaneously. Characters are 3D models, with the player avatar being fully customisable and also look very high quality for a freemium mobile game. The games user interface is distinct without being overly decorative and for the most part there’s very little visible clipping, even with multiple camera angles, model builds and held items.
The game does a very good job in recreating the background music of the films, delving into the kind of merry working tones that the movies would use for background filler. It is missing the notable Harry Potter theme from John Williams however, and is definatly aimed at the earlier Chris Columbus movies levity rather than darker tones. This works in the games favour in setting an atmosphere, but does lead to a lack of overall punch. Sound effects are crisp and clear but similarly weak and repetitive. Overall this leads to the game being a weak aural package that doesn’t really do the high production values justice. A theme for the player character or one of his NPC allies would have gone a long way toward the game building a sense of identity.
Narratively you follow the adventures of a self-made hero (in both appearance, attitude and background) who starts as a first year student under the shadow of his/her older brother who was expelled after trying to find a forbidden and possibly non-existent area within Hogwarts. Shortly after this event he vanished and many people believe that he was secretly a death eater, and certainly a trouble maker. Your avatar has to break out of some pretty heavy pre-set expectations, search for clues on his whereabouts and survive the school year right from the outset. It’s well written and aptly handled, with some excellent storytelling choices in evidence, but obviously incomplete in its current format.
Gameplay is split between three key areas and as the player you can explore the castle screen by screen at any time and swap between them freely. Lessons are the most apparent, with players tapping away at blue-outlined objects on the screen a set number of times, building a star gauge at the top of the screen whilst depleting energy (which ticks back up by 1 point every 4 minutes in tried and true Freemium fashion). Meeting the gold Star’s required for the lesson (or plot based activity) within the required amount of time will net a win and pay out in gold and experience points for one of the games’ three stats. Boosting through further stars will lead to bigger rewards. Occasionally this is broken up with tiny quizzes or touch-based pattern recognition to cast spells, which serves to break the tedium on the longer 8-hour stretches. It’s worth mentioning at this point that all activities require the use of Energy, which can be purchased using in-game currency that you earn as a reward or using real money. Whilst the game gates events with energy requirements or timers that the player can pay around, neither really requires money to action if the player is patient. Character interactions make up the second most used kind of gameplay and these take the form of text based conversations with multiple answers to choose from, some of which are only available if you have a high enough stat in a certain area or a specific spell in your arsenal at the time. Occasionally these also spill into quizzes to earn trust or win at games the two are playing and having higher stats here will help sway opinion and boost friendship levels with others. Stats are grindable by replaying lessons as you choose, and these also serve to win points for the house cup at the end of the year (with each year broken into chapters with objectives). Combat is the least used but most fun application of the game, and embarking on a wizarding duel sees you mixing spells, potions and items you’ve learned about into a turn based combat system reminiscent of rock, paper, scissors with a few additional wrinkles. Here damage, life and defence are based on your stats in the most traditional sense and the game manages to break out and have a little fun with its animations.
Overall, Hogwarts Mystery is an attractive package but the elephant in the room needs to be addressed before you rush out and download it. The game does its best to shield the player from the knowledge that everything can be accessed for free. You will be prompted to use in-game currency to solve problems on a regular basis and the tutorials do not adequately explain that it’s not possible to miss content if a timer counts down, rather that timer charts the wait until it becomes available. The use/buy button pops up in the centre of the screen and will be easily tapped by accident, wasting hoarded in-game currency if you are too tap-heavy. This is also an incomplete story that may be less compelling over later chapters, but for now the available content is character rich. We strongly advise fans of the series to play the game, and for those looking for a gateway into RPGs in general this is a fantastic first experience to try.