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Look like Harry Potter? It sort of is… and isn’t. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Look like Harry Potter? It sort of is… and isn’t. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureFebruary 15, 2023

Review: Hogwarts Legacy tests the limits of childhood nostalgia

Look like Harry Potter? It sort of is… and isn’t. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Look like Harry Potter? It sort of is… and isn’t. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

It drags the Harry Potter universe into the new gaming generation, and brings a lot of baggage with it. Sam Brooks figures out if it’s all worth it.

I can’t start a review about this game without acknowledging the discourse that has formed around it. Hogwarts Legacy is, obviously, a part of the Harry Potter universe. The Harry Potter universe comes from the mind of an author who has, since 2020, beeen outspokenly, repeatedly transphobic, using her public profile to actively battle trans rights, right up to the release of this game.

Although she seems to have little involvement with Hogwarts Legacy, which is only tenuously linked to her books, JK Rowling remains the ugly shadow that hangs over it. To make matters more complicated/tiresome, the game has become a lightning rod for people to decry “woke politics”, with a vocal wing of fans purchasing the game specifically in support of  its author’s beliefs. Just as vocal as the group calling for people to boycott purchasing and streaming the game.

I understand the appeal of Hogwarts Legacy, if you happen to be unaware of all this. Harry Potter is a source of major childhood nostalgia, long before anyone coined the word “terf”. Hogwarts Legacy is a triple-A game that lets the player roam around and explore Hogwarts, and what human under the age of 35 doesn’t want to do that?

But it’s become a personal (and political) choice to decide to purchase and play Hogwarts Legacy. Video games do not exist in a vacuum. Supporting a game like Cyberpunk 2077, where it was revealed that the makers had exploited its workers, is like supporting the work of comedian Louis CK; engaging with a piece of pop culture, and giving it your money, or even your attention, continues its legacy. (By getting a copy of the game for free, I’m able to sidestep this moral dilemma and use the flimsy shield of believing it important to write about one of the biggest games of the year, and its controversy.)

That’s the discourse. What about the game itself?

Hogwarts, as seen in Hogwarts Legacy. (Photo: WB Games)

The game’s really as troubled as the conversation around it. While the first few hours are a solidly decent open world game, each successive hour reveals the game as a mere husk of its source material. What could have been a giant, magical candle that smells like a good childhood memory is instead a cigarette held by a chainsmoker outside the dive bar after last call, struggling to be lit in a storm. For every game mechanic that works, there are about three more that resist being set in a very specific (and some would say restrictive) world with its own lore that rejects modern triple A gaming trends. It is, in short, a mess.

The story, set a hundred years before the books, follows a player-generated fifth year student who finds themselves embroiled in a goblin rebellion (yep, the goblins are still uncomfortably full of anti-semitic tropes) popping up around Hogwarts. It’s a perfunctory story, which isn’t helped by the mushy, bland character design; everybody you encounter looks like the first draft of a Sim. Neither the story nor the characters ultimately matter; fans are here to role play being a student at Hogwarts.

This is where the tensions within the game start to reveal themselves. Yes, you get to explore Hogwarts, which is as close to a carbon copy of the movie version as possible. Yes, you get to be a student at Hogwarts, occasionally do classes, and play mini-games to complete assignments. Any resemblance to the world of Harry Potter, as defined by the books, the movies, the games, or your own childhood imagination, stops there.

The combat in Hogwarts Legacy doesn’t feel bad, but it doesn’t feel like Harry Potter. (Photo: WB Games)

There’s a reason why Harry Potter isn’t in the title. It’s because the game doesn’t feel like Harry Potter (also he’s not a character). The player character might be a fifth year student, but nothing about the experience of it lines up with established lore. Your player character ruthlessly murders hundreds of goblins and dark wizards, casts Unforgivable Curses with nary an eyebrow raised, and barely spends any time engaging in classes. The story attempts to handwave this by explaining that the character is a wizard of rare talent, but it feels like a justification to stick to familiar gameplay mechanics. Combat is much more of a focus than it ever has been in Harry Potter, and it’s quite hard to justify any game that has a a 15-year-old slaughtering their way through their own school. The combat itself isn’t bad, but the amount of time the player will spend fighting compared to everything else is jarring.

Other mechanics are layered on top of the game awkwardly, as if trying to rope in as much of the existing lore as possible to distract  from the fact that… this does not feel like Harry Potter. There are endless menu screens, which either reward the player with micro-achievements, customise the player character’s look or allow them to travel faster. There are about 10 hours worth of sidequests handed out by identical-looking, mushy-faced NPCs that reward you with something meaningless. There’s even an animal breeding mechanic, which is oddly surplus to the requirements of the world depicted by the game. 

None of these mechanics are inherently bad, but they’re also not fun in this context. The worldbuilding of the original Harry Potter was always flimsier than people wanted to admit, but Rowling’s Hogwarts at least had a pretty solid set of rules, established across seven books, eight films and countless side stories. Hogwarts Legacy doesn’t play by those rules, but instead plays by the rules of triple-A gaming – the more game, the better the game – and completely ignores any of the wonder that Rowling created. Almost every gameplay mechanic in Hogwarts Legacy fails to add depth to the game, but instead sits on top of the world, hoping that the player’s investment until this point will stop it from crumbling underneath the weight. 

Childhood nostalgia is an effective blindfold. A lot of the movies barely hold up as movies. The play is incomprehensible if you don’t know the lore back and front. Those first Harry Potter games weren’t very good, but the ability to cast a few spells as a low-polygon Harry was enough to enshrine them in people’s memory. Charm is also an effective blindfold, and those games had it in spades. 

Hogwarts Legacy is all makeup and no charm. It helps you rip off the blindfold of childhood nostalgia and realise that what you’ve blinded yourself to – an author’s transphobia, bizarre yanking of anti-semitic tropes, and some truly ugly online discourse – and all for a game that simply isn’t very good, let alone worth it. 

Hogwarts Legacy is available on Playstation 5, Xbox Series X, and Microsoft Windows. It will be available on Playstation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch at a later date. The reviewer was provided with a review copy on Playstation 5 and completed the game once.

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