Three years after Pokémon Go took the world by storm, Niantic is back to try to recapture that lightning in a bottle with Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Like its predecessor, Wizards Unite is a location-based AR game, and this time the developer is merging the formula with one of the only cultural forces bigger than the popular video game series: Harry Potter.
Unfortunately, after playing Wizards Unite for a few days, it’s clear that Niantic and Warner Bros. haven’t managed to build on the foundation that Pokémon Go laid in 2016. It’s more like a fresh coat of Harry Potter paint on top. Simply put: there’s just no magic left in the AR collectible formula.
Open up Wizards Unite, and the Pokémon Go DNA is instantly visible. Players go around trying to return (catch) foundables (pokémon) by using energy to cast spells (throwing pokéballs), which get added to their registry (Pokédex) if they succeed. Along the way, you’ll stop at inns and greenhouses (pokéstops), where you’ll be randomly given more spell energy (pokéballs) and items to craft potions. You’ll also randomly find Portmanteaus (eggs), which players can use keys (egg incubators) to open after they’ve walked a certain amount of steps, resulting in a rare foundable (pokémon). Certain locations are dominated on the map by fortresses (gyms), where players can team up together to fight more powerful foes in Wizard Challenges (gym battles).
Wizards Unite does veer from the formula a bit: each foundable is guarded by a confoundable (because it “confounds” your ability to return the foundable to where it came from), which requires one of several spells to be cast to defeat. That means that each encounter has some variation, instead of the same mindless throwing of a pokéball each time, but there are only a dozen or so spells, which means that the novelty wears off fast. The game also automatically selects the proper spell for you every time, so there’s no chance for creativity or strategy, either: you just try to trace the lines on the screen and hope that the game rewards you.
Like Pokémon Go, you’ll have the option to use an AR mode that places the random Harry Potter thing in the real world, but given that there’s no rhyme or reason to what the things are, it’s less charming. Seeing a Pikachu wandering around your local park or a Magikarp splashing by a pond makes sense. Running into a “memory” of Severus Snape encased in a potions bottle for entirely unknown reasons for the sixth time is far less interesting.
There are also legitimate combat encounters (both at fortresses and more rarely, in the regular map) that require a back and forth rhythm of attack and defense spells to succeed. But here, too, there’s little player input: you just draw the sigils back and forth, and hope that you don’t run out of health first.
Adding to that is a complicated, almost RPG-like system that requires players to choose a character class and unlock a surprisingly large skill tree using items that are granted as rewards. There are three classes, which have a rock-paper-scissors-style strength system (Aurors are good against one enemy type, but bad against another, and so on), but in my time playing, it was hard to tell how much the different classes would really chance the combat experience. And with the slow pace of unlocking skill trees and huge investment of in-game resources, odds are whatever class players start with will be the one that they stick with.
Credit does have to be given to the Portkeys, which while derivative from Pokémon Go in function, offer a far flashier execution that might be the most impressive part of the game. When you’ve walked enough to unlock one, you’ll be asked to place a portal in augmented reality that you’ll need to physically walk through, teleporting you in AR to a location from the Harry Potter world. It’s impressive technology, even if it’s only used for a simple “collect the lights” mini-game each time.
There’s also an actual storyline, which marks one of the biggest departures from Pokémon Go. Unfortunately for Potter fans, it’s not very good, offering more of a thin excuse for the game’s cloned gameplay mechanics than actually expanding Harry Potter lore in any meaningful way. Niantic is promising a “deep, multi-year narrative arc,” for the story, explaining what caused the foundables to appear, but mostly it pops up in randomly rewarded objects and bits of dialogue from Ministry of Magic employee Constance Pickering, who guides players through the game.
There are currently dozens of foundables to collect, and to pad that out, many of them need to be found and captured multiple times to fully add them to the registry. Some foundables are also only available in the fortress challenges, which means players will have to seek those out to catch them all. Once you’ve completed a page of the registry, you’ll be able to prestige it, resetting your progress and requiring even more captures of the same foundable to check it off again, but with more experience points granted. In other words, there’s plenty of grind here, even without the advantage of literally hundreds of pokémon to catch.
But Wizards Unite fails in a few key aspects. First — and most critical — is that the base concept of Pokémon Go, the idea of going out into the world, exploring your neighborhood, and encountering and capturing pokémon was perfect for the brand, translating the long-imagined promised of the video game series to the real world. (It was such a good fit for the franchise that Nintendo would go on to make a full-fledged console Pokémon game based around it.) Going around and collecting the foundables (officially labeled as “magical artefacts, creatures, people, and even memories”) lacks the same narrative fit.
Wizards Unite is also plagued by the same issue that other free-to-play games are dogged by: nearly every time you open a menu it feels like the game is about to ask you to pay up. Want to store more spell energy so you can play the game longer? Carry more potion ingredients? Place more Dark Detectors to lure foundables? Get more keys to unlock Portkeys? You’ll need coins for all of those, which are doled out in a very limited supply for free players. If you want to play seriously, expect to have to shell out some real-world cash to get some in-game gold just to be able to keep up.
Pokémon Go was one of the biggest cultural phenomena in recent memory. For a magical few weeks, it seemed like everyone on the planet had come together to try to catch them all. Kids filled parks, teens roamed the streets, and even adults joined in the fun. But one of the reasons that Pokémon Go exploded is because it let everyone finally feel like a real pokémon trainer.
Wizards Unite doesn’t make me feel like a wizard — or even a part of the Harry Potter universe at all. It just presents a bunch of “things from Harry Potter” and asks me to collect them. It suffers the same problem as the recent Fantastic Beasts prequel films, mistaking sentiment toward the familiar names, places, and settings of the Wizarding World for actual substance in gameplay or story. And robbed of the unique charm of the Pokémon trappings, the underlying game just isn’t very fun.
Wizards Unite may offer a more fantastical setting than Pokèmon Go ever did, but three years on from the original AR success, the magic feels gone.