Three years ago, a little game called Pokémon Go exploded onto smartphones everywhere like a Charizard after a weeklong chili pepper binge. That augmented-reality game, created by a company called Nantic, was an unexpectedly huge hit. And people have been wearing out touchscreens, while running around their neighborhoods gathering up virtual beasties, ever since.
Moneymaker? Oh yeah, it made a bit. Last year at this time, Forbes reported that in its first two years, the little Poké-game-that-could pulled in almost two billion dollars from in-game purchases. And it’s still generating income to the tune of some $2 million a day.
So, if you had any question about why Nantic was eager to create another one of these mobile games, you can consider that query answered. Besides, this time it’s all about Harry. Potter, that is.
Let’s see … source material with a rabid fan base? Check. A list of recognizable characters who advance the famed storyline (if only a bit)? Check. The ability to kinda, sorta put yourself in the shoes of a budding wizard with his or her own skill sets? Check. A creative, location-based AR experience? Check.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite appears to check all the boxes that a hungry Potter devotee might want. Just sub in wands and spells for Poké balls, wizards for trainers and fantastic beasts for pocket monsters and you’re ready to lay claim to another fanboy kingdom, right? Well, maybe.
So, what exactly is happening in this game?
When you open the game app, you get the gist of things pretty quickly: Harry Potter and Co. need you to help them deal with a wizardly problem called The Calamity. Someone has mysteriously ripped a hole in the fabric of things, and magical items called Foundables are dribbling into our non-magical realm and then being held in place by dark spells called Confoundables.
Still with me? Good. Keep reading.
To solve these sorcery conundrums, players must wander their real-world locales gazing at their AR-infused phone screens. When objects pop up, they will attempt to return (or “catch” in Poké parlance) Foundables (Pokémon) by casting spells (throwing Pokéballs) to defeat the dark forces on hand. Then they add the magical items to their registry (Pokédex). With each success, players gain rewards and XP boosts and slowly upgrade their personal wizards (trainers).
In addition to Foundables, officially described as “magical artifacts, creatures, people, and even memories,” players also gather frog brains, newt spleens, poison roots and other bits for potion-concocting in a cauldron. Those magical potions (similar to the various Berries in Pokémon Go) enable healing and increase your wizard’s ability to return the Foundables you’ll encounter. Along the way, players will also look for Inns and Greenhouses (two different variations on Pokéstops), where they’ll be awarded small amounts of spell energy (Pokéballs) and other wizardly ingredients with which to craft those potions that boost their spell-casting moxie.
There are also things called Portmanteaus (Eggs) that can be discovered and picked up. And gamers use keys (Egg Incubators) to unlock these doodads; then, after walking around a requisite distance (once again 2, 5 and 10 kilometers), those Portmanteaus yield rare Foundables. And let’s not forget those in-map Fortresses (Gyms) where young wizards can team up (with Friends) to take on more powerful dark creatures, wizards and witches (Gym Battles).
Of course, two of the main activities here are all those tossed-about spells and mano-a-mano fortress battles. There are no words or phrases uttered verbally, but rather lightning-like, bluish-white glyphs (each with its own name) appear on the phone screen for you to trace with your finger. The faster and more accurately a player traces the glyph, the stronger the cast. The glyphs also show up when visiting Inns, Greenhouses and Fortresses. In those Fortress battles, however, there are both offensive and defensive casts, and you can swig health potions to stay upright.
On top of those basics, Wizards Unite has multiple layers and other menus to tap into and deal with. There are daily assignments that award items and XP, Wizard profession lesson plans to “buy,” potions to stew up, and other magicky bonuses to fiddle with.
If you’re a Pokémon Go player, you’re, uh, catching the similarities of the two games, I’m sure. They have some cash inclinations in common, too. Like Pokémon Go, this game is promoted as being free. But are there really any free rides these days? Even Harry would blush at that.
The gameplay formula starts out fun and easy as you go about gathering up Hagrid’s umbrella, a Flesh-Eating Slug or a mummified Hand of Glory. But pretty quickly, it becomes clear that to really excel and achieve the levels and rewards that you’re seeking, in-game purchases become nearly essential—much more so than was the case with Pokémon Go.
For instance, storage “vaults” for potion ingredients, spell-casting energy and other necessities max out pretty quickly. Meanwhile, you’ll also burn through spells and potions much more quickly that you would in Pokémon Go. You can buy more capacity, of course, but you pay quite a lot for a very small upgrade. And who wants to grind and grind when a smidgen of real-world gold can buy a bucket of in-game cash or other needed bits you can’t seem to find.
As I mentioned in a blog earlier this week, an adult friend of mine noted that he’d only been playing Wizards Unite for a few days before investing 30 bucks or so. And the expended booty can easily grow from there.
But that’s just one of the problems here. There is one other big element that parents in particular ought to be considering before downloading this game to their phone. And it really doesn’t involve game mechanics as much as game content.
No, there are no bloody massacres to worry about here. But the magic component of play is, frankly, one-dimensional and constant. Unlike the relationship-focused, self-sacrificial adventures of characters in the Harry Potter books and movies, the major thrust here is nothing more than continual spell-casting, potion making, and dark-‘n’-creepy item gathering. Sure, it’s all done in the context of a fantasy world we’re likely familiar with already. Still, various permutations of witchcraft and sorcery infuse this particular game a bit more frequently than the stories it’s based upon. Vampires, werewolves and other vaguely nasty creatures turn up pretty regularly, too.
Let’s face it: We live in a culture that glorifies and promotes the creepy-crawly joy of dark magic and the occult. No matter how lightly that all may be handled here, the effect of it can still raise a kid’s curiosity about magic and wizardry. And any curiosity raised on that front can be something potentially satisfied through worldly falsehood before the church or your family can satisfy it with truth.
And that … is a problem. Even if it’s just a silly smartphone game.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.