Liam Maguren puts his addiction-free status on the line as he tries Wizards Unite—the Harry Potter version of Pokémon GO.
GPS smartphone game Pokémon GO was a 2016 phenomenon that had its positives and negatives. On one hand, it encouraged friends and families to go outside and have an adventure together. On the other hand, people died.
Three years on and numerous updates later, there’s now a version specifically designed for fans of JK Rowling’s Wizarding World. But if you were hoping to star in your own version of Fantastic Beasts and where to Geo-locate Them, you might want to cast obliviate on yourself.
The 2016 film, which introduced us to Newt Scamander secretly finding fantastic beasts, seemed to pair perfectly with the premise behind Pokémon GO. Wondering around the real world with your wizard phone and having your sense of discovery rewarded with a new critter to save? Seemed like a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, Niantic’s Harry Potter: Wizards Unite pulled up a dump truck of Potter-merch and buried a good idea with all the product placement it could find.
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So this pretty much excludes anyone who saw The Great Hack on Netflix.
The app also asks for a first and last name, which they assure will never be shared with anyone. Good to know they’ll protect at least one asset you give them.
Then finally—finally—the game starts up, looking just like Pokémon GO but with a fresh coat of Potter. Ol’ HP himself gives you a quick “Howdy-do” before shifting tutorial duties to Constance Pickering—a Ministry of Magic intern who seems moderately satisfied with her career choice.
Pickering explains how the ‘Calamity’ has caused a lot of very wizardly stuff to go wrong all over the world. Put in toddler terms, these events are called ‘Confoundables’. Once you overpower it, you collect a ‘Foundable’ which gets filed in a registry under one of many, many, MANY categories.
This includes the ‘Magizoology’ category which holds the Fantastic Beasts you’ve found. In a perfect world founded by me, Niantic would have focused the game squarely on securing and releasing these creatures. Unfortunately, whether there’s simply a lack of beasts to sustain the girth of the game or Warner Brothers pushed to have as much Potter content in there as possible, JK Rowling’s animals only make up a fraction of the adventuring.
To fill the experience, the game confronts would-be wizards with a hodgepodge of clean-up tasks that seek to remind you of all things vaguely Harry Potter-related.
One ‘Confoundable’ saw Hagrid tangled in spider-webs attached to the Flicks whiteboard. Another saw some Hogwarts numpty frozen in a block of ice next to the Flicks.co.nz fan. The third encounter had me ruthlessly take down an ogre thing minding its own business on the Flicks.co.nz work desk.
From the very first ‘Confoundable’ you conquer, the game celebrates your victory like an overproud parent whose baby just belched something that vaguely sounded like “Mama!”
A ghostly reindeer descends from the heavens as your XP rolls in by the hundreds. Your achievements (“First Spell Cast Success!”) are listed with the patronising gusto of a pat on the head. Rewards are showered upon you, even though you haven’t been told what all these things do yet.
Unwebbing Hagrid earned me ten coins, a key, three different coloured vials of i-don’t-know-what, and 25 lightning bolts.
Anyone who’s played Pokémon GO religiously can probably figure out the function of these tokens. You can also, of course, just keep playing and let the game tell you (eventually).
In a nutshell, they help you track down and overpower bigger and better ‘Confoundables’ so you can rise up ranks of the Statute of Secrecy Task Force. If you need more items, you can buy some using the game’s fake money. And if you need more fake money, you can buy some using your own real money.
Hey, Niantic’s gotta make money somehow.
The app’s certainly robust, but because Wizards Unite makes you venture around the real-world just to do wizard chores, the adventuring and collecting simply don’t feel as rewarding as Pokémon GO.
It’s a damn shame, too, that the game doesn’t relish in the more suitable Fantastic Beasts side of JK Rowling’s world. Though, given the underwhelming Crimes of Grindelwald, perhaps it was the right call. Happy to say that, as of writing, I still haven’t encountered Johnny Depp hiding in the bushes. (That may change if the game rewards me with a human-sized mousetrap and a jug of Jack Daniels.)
But I’m just a humble fan of the Harry Potter series. There’s probably something in here for hard-out Pott-heads looking to join the post-Deathly Hallows Wizarding World as an agent of the Ministry of Magic. Boasting an obscene amount of content for those willing to gradually—oh so gradually—work their way up the ranks, there are plenty of incentives hiding around.
The profile creation section is one such bear trap. First, you pick your house (I’m a ride-or-die Hufflepuff). Second, you create your wand via the ridiculously in-depth wand creator that lets you choose a length, density, wood type, and animal component. (Mine was a reasonably supple 10.5-inch maple wand with unicorn hair finish.)
Your house and wand sit next to your Title, Professions, and list of Wizard Achievements. Such a profile-heavy game wouldn’t be complete without a selfie function that lets you filter the shit out of your face.
It might have been my favourite part of this whole experience.
Me, a member of the Ministry of Magic.
Admittedly, there were a bunch of features I was unable to test such as the multiplayer challenges and arenas. There’s also a “multi-year narrative arc [that] will have players solving various mysteries including the truth behind what caused the Calamity.”
I don’t plan to play this for multiple years, so this review will have to do.
I’m also limited by my multi-year-old Samsung phone, which heated up after roughly 10 minutes of play. Desperate to get some proper wizarding experience in before it exploded, I walked outside for another task.
But when the app scolded me for going too fast, I was done. Yes, my calf-game is on point, but I don’t walk at the speed of a vehicle.