Review: WIZARDS UNITE Is a Mixed Bag of Tricks

Unsurprisingly, Niantic has decided to take on yet another nostalgic property in the latest of its augmented reality games. Following the success of Pokemon Go and their flagship Ingress, the company released Harry Potter Wizards Unite! officially on June 22nd and unofficially a day early for various users who just happened to be so lucky.

The story is an updated-esque Potter world in which the user is tasked by the Ministry of Magic (who, magically, is operating internationally now) to help clean up a major magical event as well as find clues to help further unravel the story. I won’t say much more about the story at the risk of spoilers given I love playing Sherlock, but I will say it’s a decent premise. Plus, unlike Pokemon, which automatically gives you something to collect in its very nature, it actually gives people a reason to be roaming about their respective countrysides looking for magical artifacts. Unfortunately, there’s a level of inconsistency due to the story. For example: why have I been saving Snape when he’s been dead for years? And why are Wizards “Confoundables” (obstacles)? If they’re preventing a Ministry official from recovering a magical item, aren’t they breaking the Statute of Secrecy and thus subject to arrest? Or am I just overthinking this?

The really nice thing about this being Niantic’s third game is they’ve had a chance to work out a lot of the kinks Pokemon Go experienced in its early days (including, but not limited to their attempt to keep people from playing while driving). Players have the option to select their role as a passenger if they are going above a predetermined speed and that prevents exclusion of people who would play while riding public transit, for example.

Furthermore, fans of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery (and Harry Potter in general) will be delighted by the shapes of each spell. When one enters the mode for collecting items, your spell is predetermined and you must trace a pattern on your screen. One suggestion I make to anyone who finds it especially sensitive: check the settings on your phone (I still had mine set for a thicker screen protector). The crazy sigils made by spells light up the screen and fills a meter which helps, in turn, add to your experience (also determined by finding unique items and casting different spells). The “capture” method of the game not only makes sense but is also completely fun.

Unfortunately, energy regeneration is an utter joke. And you need spell energy in order to cast spells. Whereas Pokestops gave items you needed (Pokeballs) but also served as a bonus, Inns are a basic requirement to play the game. I had the game up for a simple trip around the grocery store and I was already out of spell energy when I walked to my car not ten minutes later. Unless you’re in an area with ample Inns, you’re going to spend a lot of time waiting. And, even then, the cooldown on the Inns seems to take an unusually long amount of time. Maybe I just didn’t notice it with Pokestops because I didn’t have an actual countdown timer, but it certainly discourages sitting in one location for any amount of time (much to the chagrin of businesses lucky enough to have a Pokestop in reach during the first summer of the game’s release considering the overlap between Stops and Inns).

Other game mechanics are certainly amusing. Players have the option to customize their wizard character badge (but nothing yet of customizing the physical avatar on screen) with everything from your wand to a picture with fun Potter-esque filters (you’d better believe this girl has her Ravenclaw scarf on from the word go). Brewing potions is a nice option, especially with picking up items as you walk about. I love the option of potions leveling up your spellcasting (as there are no Master Balls to speak of, obviously), and I look forward to unlocking more potions and the golden cauldron as I level up. There’s also a battle mechanic for particularly dangerous obstacles (I’ve encountered leprechauns, vampires, and pixies thus far) and a
profession (much like your team in Pokemon go) which allows one to level, for lack of a better term, talent trees. Choosing between professor, magizoologist, and auror wasn’t easy, but I realized, ultimately, I’m a professor. Additionally, players can add friends from the outset, though there’s nothing functional about that mechanic just yet. Due to my distance from any such locations, I have yet to do any of the challenges yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

I do have a few small gripes in addition. For one, the player cannot change the volume levels in the game. You have to change your overall media settings or mute it entirely. As someone who enjoys listening to podcasts while on walks, this is especially frustrating. I love hearing the sounds of the world but I won’t let it drown out anything else running from my phone. Secondly, you can’t check how much spell energy you have until you come across an artifact. It’s an especially big let down to find something you need and not be able to cast the spell because, yet again, you’re out of energy. Third, if you accidentally skip a character’s explanation, you’re pretty SOL. There’s no way to go back or any in-game help option to speak of yet.

All that being said, I’m in love with everything from the sound design to the graphics of the game— the flobberworms are appropriately disgusting— and I look forward to the future of the game. After all, there are so many more things to come in the game if the various menus are to be believed and, if Niantic is lucky, this will at least bring Potterheads of the world out in droves. Certainly, there are just as many people at least partially  interested in the Potter universe as there were Pokeheads. Unfortunately, between the number of incompatible devices and the ultimate battery drain many of us learned AR games to be (obviously fixable by turning off enhanced AR but removing an entire element of the game), it may be a slightly tougher sell. Maybe if they come out with some sort of wand you can carry around like the Pokemon Go Plus device? I’d buy that in a second.

Anyone else?

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