A new challenger has entered the augmented reality ring. Wizarding wonder Harry Potter is coming for Pokémon GO’s title — but despite the shared basics, they’re very different games.
I downloaded Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and immediately on opening it was told it was out of date, much like J.K. Rowling’s alleged views on the transgender community. A quick update and I was in.
Wizards Unite is an augmented reality (AR) game based out of your phone. It’s almost impossible to review any mobile AR game now without comparing it to Pokémon GO, so I’ll get the basics of that out of the way now: the two games are developed by Niantic, and have a similar core concept: walking around and fighting battles. However, there are plenty of differences that will draw in new audiences or offer something innovative to old ones.
In brief, Pokémon GO has slightly more basic graphics and is based on a decades-old, beloved children’s game; Wizards Unite has high-quality AR imaging and is based on the retroactively progressive fantasies of a secret Tory.
The game opens with Constance Pickering, an agent of the Statute of Secrecy taskforce. She will be your guide. There’s been a Calamity: people, things, and even memories have been stolen and displaced, much like the faith fans had in J.K. Rowling after she supported the casting of Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts series.
“The Calamity waits for no one,” warns Constance. I wondered how long J.K. Rowling waited after the last Harry Potter book was published to announce that Dumbledore is gay. Exactly two months, apparently. Hey, that’s just in time to stay in the news cycle! Nice!
The stolen items and people are called foundables and they’re now littered across the globe, putting the wizarding world in danger of being discovered. Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to retrieve foundables from the muggle world and return them to their rightful place. On my first walk, I collected one Russian hag, a cat called Kneavle, and a disgusting music box. All were captured and returned to their origins, safe from sensitive muggle eyes. I would also want to keep these repugnancies a secret, much like J.K. Rowling keeps her lust for tax cuts close to her chest.
Engaging with foundables is the equivalent of a battle in Pokémon GO. There are different kinds of foundable interactions: fighting a magical creature, releasing someone from a web of chaotic magic, breaking up a fight between a chicken and a cat; the list is, so far, endless. You may encounter a Cornish pixie more than once, but it will always be up to something new.
Some fans were hoping the spellcasting would be verbal; that they’d be able to yell spells into the phone to cast them. The last thing I want is a gang of AR-addled 26-year-olds standing on my front lawn and screaming “flippendo!” If fans want to be true to the books they’re going to have to start shitting themselves, so I’m glad Niantic veered away from this. Instead, they’ve made spellcasting a swipe of your touchscreen.
Harry Potter is a little more generational than franchises like Pokémon. The universe has mostly continued to survive and thrive thanks to fanfiction like The Cursed Child, and kind of relies on players being familiar with background details like Platform 9 and ¾ and the existence of portkeys. Older millennials would be the ideal audience for this game, but they’re all too busy working three jobs in the neoliberal gig economy J.K. Rowling loves so much to play it.
Much like in the real world, players can drop into inns dotted around the neighbourhood and re-charge their spell energy with a lucky dip of food and booze. It’s nice to see open, warm hospitality. The developers must have come up with this on their own because J.K. Rowling wouldn’t. In 2016, she publically expressed sympathy for Syrian refugees entering Europe, and frustration at inaction toward the crisis. Despite this, she straight-up ignored a 64,000 signature-strong petition for her to house just a few of the said refugees in her 18-bedroom mansion (she has another mansion so she didn’t have to actually live with them).
Dotted on the map almost as frequently as inns are greenhouses. You can pick plants, sow some seeds, and generally live your best gardening life. The plants you grow can be combined with found ingredients to make potions. The potion-making process is genuinely cool: it takes into consideration the moon phase, time of day, and even the weather. It’s real Wicca hours. Unlike real Wiccans, you can speed up the brew-time on a potion by crossing the cauldron’s palm with a few pieces of gold.
Once you’ve reached level six — which is only a day of casual playing — you can choose your profession: Auror, Magizoologist, or Professor. Your ID papers have a couple of other details to fill out: your wand make-up and your Hogwarts house. This is Durmstrang erasure, but then ignoring the lived realities of those outside her 30-foot hedge fence is J.K. Rowling’s prerogative. In any case, unless you’ve done all the quizzes on Pottermore you’re basically winging it. I point this out because at no point does this game link out to Pottermore.
Your chosen profession will come in handy when encountering a fortress. Fortresses are Wizards Unite’s version of Pokémon gyms, and they are nicely engaging. Fortress battles are dynamic, exciting, and very user-dependent; each player will have a slightly different experience based on the skills they’ve honed and their profession.
Like other mobile phone-based ARs, Wizards Unite urges its users to go for a walk, get some fresh air, and explore the hidden gems of their city. It will be interesting to see if this formula can work twice; at this point post-release, Pokémon GO players were plastered across every news page. Relying on a fanbase that doesn’t have the after-school hours to go exploring may hinder uptake of the game, but with millions of Harry Potter stans refusing to die out it will still generate plenty of revenue. And now, over a decade after the last book, revenue is all J.K. Rowling has left.