Last Friday, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite launched in the UK, and I was Here For It. The new game from the creators of Pokemon Go promised to bring their walk-around-and-collect-things formula to the Harry Potter franchise, and as someone who puts a LOT of hours into Pokemon Go, and even more hours into Harry Potter nerdery, I was intrigued.
Then I downloaded it. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is a much, much prettier game than Pokemon Go, but I immediately felt the unfortunate truth that Harry Potter is not, in fact, Pokemon. It’s not a game, and it’s not about collecting things, other than Horcruxes. I was immediately confused by the number of things I seemed able to do and the outpouring of lore and explanation, which soon had me clicking desperately to just get through it and get to the actual gameplay.
But after a weekend with it, on and off, it’s a pretty fun game. It doesn’t really need to be an AR game, since there’s no radar for nearby collectables to motivate you to move, and I’ve spent most of my playtime in spare moments while sitting on my couch. But I love seeing the magical creatures, especially, the in-game map is rich and living, and overall it’s fun enough — or would be, if not for the balancing problems and microtransaction pushes that are already appearing.
Unlike the initial simplicity of Pokemon Go — there are Pokemon in the world, and you gotta catch em all — Wizards Unite seems to have more elements in play. The main draw, as far as I’m concerned, is basically a virtual sticker book. You find items and characters from the Harry Potter universe around the real world, and once you’ve found them, you get to full in their silhouettes in your album. And like a real sticker book, you can see the gaps you still need to fill, motivating you to try and get them all.
It’s not really a natural gameplay mechanic, in the way that “catch Pokemon” is, but it’s pretty fun so far.
Except, of course, it’s not that simple. Some basic items just need you to find them once. But there wouldn’t be enough longevity in the game for that, so some items need to be found up to 15 times before you have enough “fragments” to get that sticker. It’s a bit disappointing to work hard to catch the Philosopher’s Stone, say, only to find out you need to do it another 14 times.
There are other elements in play. You can fight dark creatures at Fortresses (something I’ve not really done), and one time I found a dark creature to fight while sitting in my house, although I’m not really sure the how or the why there. You can brew potions, and there are wizarding career paths you can take, which mostly seem to boost your skills during the battles that I’m not taking part in.
But some things that you might expect are missing. You won’t be sorted or go to Ollivanders — you can pick your own house, and pick wand elements entirely to your liking too. You also can’t customize your character, being represented by an outline of a generic red wizard instead, which is disappointing when everything else looks much prettier than Pokemon Go’s world map.
And already, a few days in, the collecting is starting to get mildly annoying. You can see items on the map telling you what kind of sticker you’ll find — Hogwarts, Quidditch, Beasts, etc — but you don’t know what it is exactly until you click on it. So it’s basically like trying to find a Ditto in Pokemon Go. You have to engage with everything to find out whether it’s Harry Potter’s version of a pidgey or a snorlax, and that moment of frustration when it (finally) loads to reveal your 5th kneazle of the day really takes away a lot of the fun.
But the more annoying problem is the game’s system of magic energy. Basically, it’s the game’s version of Pokeballs — a limited resource you spend every time you attempt to “catch” something. But unlike in Pokemon Go, this resource is very limited. The maximum is 75, and every spell cast burns one of them. And this includes spells cast during battles, where there is a lot of back and forth before it’s done. That means that even a battle that goes really well is probably going to burn through about 10 energy, while attempting to collect an item can burn through 1 to 10 or more, depending on how hard it is to catch.
You have to go to inns to restore this energy, but there are less inns than there were Pokestops — some locations are greenhouses instead for that potion brewing I don’t really care about — and they don’t replenish all that much. Of course, if you run out of energy, the game is happy to offer to sell 50 more for 100 in-game coins. I don’t think I ever ran entirely out of Pokeballs in Pokemon Go, but I’ve already run out of energy twice here. And it costs £0.99 for 80 gold, so you actually need to spend £1.98 to get the 100 necessary to replenish that power bar. And even that won’t fill the power bar. It’ll get you 50 out of your max 75.
You can spend 150 coins to increase that max spell energy capacity by a whole extra 10, but I can’t see this being all that useful, when the problem seems to be collecting enough in the first place. Maybe I simply don’t live somewhere urban enough for the game to work well.
The game nudges you in other ways too. Wait 2 hours for this potion to brew, or just spend 12 coins to have it finish now. You can collect potion ingredients as you walk, but I filled this space up after about 2km with the game, didn’t have enough of the right ingredients to brew any potions to clear space, and was of course offered the chance to boost my storage from 200 to 230 for a mere 150 coins when it occurred.
I’ve spent money on Pokemon Go. I’ve bought extra incubators to use during exciting events, and also splurged once and got my avatar some Pikachu ears. But I never felt like the game was telling me I needed to pay to be able to have fun, and I can already feel that creeping into my experience of Wizards Unite.
I still get a thrill when I find a cute magical creature or get to stick that Hegwig sticker in my book, so I think the game has a few more days of play in it at least. It’s telling that I’ve opened the app several times while writing this, and just had a rush of excitement when I found a dementor. But is this the next Pokemon Go? Not a chance, in my opinion. It’s fun enough to poke around on, but it lacks that same inherent addictive appeal, and the frustrations will soon outweigh the fun.