Being a big fan of the Harry Potter series and a big hater of the mobile gaming industry, Hogwarts Mystery left me feeling very conflicted when I first saw it featured in the App Store. I put off installing it for weeks, leaving it in some sort of Schrodinger’s limbo, fearing what I might find if I install it.
As a matter of fact, I only actually got to downloading it after all the negative reviews started rolling in. That was already a dead giveaway that the game was indeed a colossal disappointment, so I went in hoping that it wouldn’t be as bad as everyone was making it out to be.
In truth, it was even worse than I expected.
Before getting to the actual review of the game, let’s address the elephant in the room: microtransactions.
Microtransactions aren’t the evil bane of gaming by default. In truth, they are a good way for indie developers to make a profit and they are what makes free-to-play games possible. But, as always, you can be sure that the suits heading the big corporations will thoroughly exploit them, just like they do everything else.
And let’s not kid ourselves: microtransactions are nothing new and they have been around for years, present both in mobile and in AAA titles. Regardless of how much flak big companies get for exploiting them, microtransactions will be around for as long as there are people who are more than happy to feed the trend, oblivious to what it’s doing to the industry as a whole.
However, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery takes the trend of exploitative microtransactions much further down the rabbit hole, pushing the limits of ethical boundaries and raising the bar when it comes to how much money can be charged for nothing.
What Types Of Microtransactions Are Present In The Game?
As is the case with many other mobile games, the microtransactions boil down to in-game resources. Much like in innumerable other mobile games, these are: gems, gold coins, and energy.
Now, gold coins are the least problematic of the three. Fairly large quantities can be attained simply by playing the game and they are used only for non-essential cosmetic items. However, it is with the other two that the problem arises.
Gems and energy are the dynamic duo behind this game’s shameless money-grabbing. Here’s the deal: in order to progress through the game, you need energy. Energy does fill up on its own over time, albeit at a very sluggish pace, namely, 1 point of energy each 4 minutes. Alternatively, energy can be bought with gems, which previously have to be bought with real money.
Why Are They So Bad?
So, with the above in mind, you can refill roughly half of your energy bar in an hour. That doesn’t seem so bad out of context, but consider that you need more than two full energy bars to progress through any but the shortest of encounters, and the ugly truth rears its head: if you don’t want to wait for hours before being able to progress, pay up.
But hey, energy can’t be that expensive, right? Well, estimates show that it would cost approximately 50 dollars to play the game for an hour without having to wait on any timers. Let that sink in. Fifty dollars per hour.
Keep in mind that nearly every aspect of the game is monetized. Sure, you can play it without spending a dime, but when played that way, the game devolves into a chore. Each encounter has a time limit, and there is a limited amount of energy that can be generated passively over time.
As a result, I literally had to set alarms to go off every hour or so in order to be able to progress through an encounter. Because hey, guess what happens if I don’t start spending energy before it reaches the cap? The passive energy regeneration will stop and I won’t be able to get enough energy before the encounter timer expires, and then I’d have to do the whole thing all over again.
Don’t be fooled for a moment thinking that encounters were not deliberately designed that way. And speaking of deliberate exploitative design, just wait to see the developers’ best tactic yet!
Holding Your Character Hostage
It didn’t take long for one particular encounter to start a massive controversy, one that you’ve probably heard about already.
So, the beginning of the game is mostly smooth sailing and there is no lack of energy until one encounter which was designed specifically to rid you of all your energy: the Devil’s Snare. You probably remember this nasty tentacled plant from the first Harry Potter book/movie.
Well, your character just happens to walk into a room filled with the icky thing, initiating a very long encounter that will lead to the very first instance of the game hitting you with a paywall – a paywall deliberately placed in the middle of a tense encounter. Halfway through, you are given a choice: buy gems or let your character be strangled for another few hours until your energy bar refills?
I don’t think I need to comment on how dirty of a tactic this is, especially since dozens of people have already done it. Check out the video below, where YongYea talks about this encounter in greater detail.
How Are They Getting Away With This?
Well, let’s not forget that this is Harry Potter we’re talking about. It is a series with a global cult following, one with fanboys and fangirls galore who are more than happy to shovel copious amounts of cash into anything that has the name “Harry Potter” stapled onto it.
Then there’s the fact that there are so many people out there who just don’t realize how crooked of a practice microtransactions are nor how much they are hurting the industry as a whole. People don’t realize they are paying for canned air.
A game like Hogwarts Mystery is worth no more than $10, period. Yet, some will spend hundreds – literally hundreds – of dollars on free-to-play mobile games in this vein, encouraging the proliferation of the cancerous trend that are these exploitative microtransactions.
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery Review
Hogwarts Mystery was released on the 25th of April 2018 for both the iOS and Android platforms. It is also the very first mobile Harry Potter game and was developed by Jam City, a seasoned company with multiple popular mobile games under its belt.
So, being a small game with a big name behind it, it must be doing its best to do the Harry Potter series justice, right? Actually, it’s quite the opposite. I don’t think any product has more potential to damage the brand more than this completely unremarkable blunder of a “game” – and considering that The Cursed Child is a thing, that’s saying something.
Granted, the microtransactions are what ultimately ends up ruining this game entirely, but even if they were to be taken out of the equation, the game is just completely unremarkable as a whole.
Hogwarts Mystery takes place at a point in time that the series hasn’t yet explored: immediately after the murder of Harry’s parents and Voldemort’s temporary death. Naturally, this leaves plenty of wiggle room, as the setting and the story don’t have to be constrained by the existing material.
And what did the writers do with this opportunity? Absolutely nothing. Hogwarts is pretty much exactly the same as it is during Harry’s stay at Hogwarts. Sure, they managed to squeeze in a few recognizable characters like Tonks and Bill Weasley, but they serve no purpose other than capitalizing on the fans’ nostalgia.
The story is completely unremarkable and follows our cast’s quest for a MacGuffin known as “the cursed vaults”. It revolves closely around the player character’s sibling who, apparently, did something bad enough to get himself expelled and gain school-wide infamy during his own search for the vaults. Sounds generic? It most certainly is, and the characters aren’t much better either.
Aside from our customizable player character, the rest of the cast are pretty much just walking stereotypes of their own respective houses and you will not find them to be intriguing in the least.
All in all, the story is simply not engaging, the characters are uninteresting, and the overall premise seems like nothing more than second-rate Harry Potter fanfiction that does its best to borrow all the washed-out concepts and tropes from the original series.
Now, we get to the absolute best part – the gameplay. Or rather, a lack thereof.
Throughout the entire game, you will be doing three things:
- Tapping objects with blue outlines
- Drawing simple patterns on the screen
- Playing rock-paper-scissors
- Playing dialogue mini-games
Yes. That’s it. Whether you’re taking classes or fighting enemies, the encounters will devolve into tapping the screen and drawing patterns. No precision required, no reflexes required, no chance of failure.
Occasionally, when dueling other students, you will have the opportunity to play rock-paper-scissors – a timeless classic! You pick between three stances: aggressive, defensive, or sneaky (?), and if you win, you get to choose which spell you will cast. Exciting, no? No.
And finally, there’s the dialogue mini-games where you pick one of three available responses. One is wrong, one is right, and one is “kinda right”. But much like the dueling mini-game, if you’ve got as many as two working brain cells, you stand no chance of losing.
The RPG Elements
Let’s not forget that this game is labeled as an RPG (Role-Playing Game). And sure enough, it does have something resembling stats and dialogues, but they are both ultimately pointless.
The attributes, you will level up through randomly generated prompts. They serve no purpose other than unlocking occasional extra dialogue choices, but considering that all of your attributes – courage, empathy, and knowledge – will always be around the same level, you’re unlikely to miss out on any of the locked-away responses.
But what if you somehow do miss one? Are there any lasting repercussions? Why, of course not. You may earn a small bonus here and there by using one of the attribute-related dialogue choices, but like the rest of your choices, they remain completely irrelevant in the end. There are just no choices to be made. No branching storylines, no major alterations to the game as a whole.
Not to mention that we didn’t even get a sorting quiz. There are countless fan-made ones on the web and there’s even an official one on Pottermore, but how does the Sorting Hat decide our house in Hogwarts Mystery? We just pick it ourselves.
So, in the end, why am I so disappointed by this game?
No, it’s not the microtransactions or the fact that the game feels like someone just plastered dialogue and pretend-gameplay over what looks like scenes acted out with cosplaying Sims. It’s the wasted potential.
This is Harry Potter we’re talking about, a franchise that anyone in any part of the world is bound to recognize. Yet, we have had virtually no game that could be called good during all these years that the series existed. The film-based games were mildly okay up until the Order of the Phoenix. The Lego games, while good platformers in their own right, didn’t contribute much to the franchise as a whole.
Something that fans have been yearning for for years was an RPG game that would let them recapture the magic that the series had during its (and our) younger days. Intentionally or not, Hogwarts Mystery pretends to be precisely that kind of game, but in truth, it is nothing more than just another corporate money-grab over a popular franchise.
So, what can I say? It is sad that, despite all the funding at their disposal, WB aren’t investing in a proper game that would do the series justice. But why spend 50 millions dollars developing a real game and charging a flat $60 for it when you can give substantially less to a mobile developer and charge $100 for in-game currency?
As for Hogwarts Mystery itself, its goal isn’t to be an enjoyable gaming experience. Its goal is to milk the franchise and make money. While it was obviously successful at achieving that goal, it completely fails as an actual game, hence the final grade.
What We Loved
- Some good visuals here and there
What We Didn’t Like
- Linear and generic story
- Bland characters
- Shameless, forced microtransactions