Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is the newest game based on the Harry Potter franchise, created by Jam City and Portkey Games, the new label Harry Potter games under Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. It takes place shortly after Harry’s parents were killed, but far before he himself is old enough to attend the school. This immediately sets it apart from all past Harry Potter games, allowing the player to see what the world of Harry Potter was like, before the Boy Who Lived turned it all upside-down in order to save everyone.
You play as a new Hogwarts student, visiting Diagon Alley for the first time, where you meet your first NPC, Rowan. They become the mouthpiece for your tutorial, directing you in how to get your first-year equipment, and eventually become your friend. They even offer to stand up for you, in the event that someone tries to harass you at school. When you finish gathering your equipment, it’s off to Hogwarts, where adventures await.
From this point on, this article will not be spoiler-free. Tread carefully, and have your wand at the ready.
Hogwarts Mystery sets up a rather intriguing plotline from the get-go. As a player, you learn during your first conversation with Ollivander that your brother, Jacob, was expelled from Hogwarts for breaking the rules. As you play, characters in all areas comment on your character’s performance, all viewing you in the long shadow of your brother, for better or for worse. Some of your own house members are straight-up hostile towards you without hesitation. These actions and dialogues create an atmosphere thick with tension, which is wonderful for a mystery game.
Your interactions with these players have an impact on your personality, in the form of statistics called “attributes.” When you give specific responses to situations, your courage, empathy, and knowledge increase. Some dialogue choices require a certain level in one of your attributes. The choices you make in your dialogues will impact the path the story takes, and how other characters respond to you in the future.
The game does contain microtransactions in the form of a premium currency, but no lootboxes, thankfully. Diamonds can be used to replenish your limited energy if you’re feeling impatient, or purchase new clothing and hair options for your avatar, but are on the whole not required to enjoy the game. On the off chance you want them, however, you can collect them as a reward for completing story events.
The game lacks creativity. This seems blunt, but it’s difficult to know any other way to say it. The events you encounter, at least in the beginning of the story, are so close to what happens in the book that you might as well play any of the book-based games, and just pretend your character doesn’t look like Harry. Yes, the premise of the storyline is interesting, and I’m holding onto the hope that later story events won’t be quite so wrote. Does that redeem the events that are tired and overdone? I’m not sure.
This lack of original content spreads into gameplay, too. Events, including classes and story encounters, take real-time hours to complete if you leave them alone. However, by spending “energy” to interact with different parts of the scene, you can shorten that time to mere minutes. Plus, you get interesting dialogue and rewards for doing so. This sounds like a mildly interesting way to play… until you realize it makes the game into, essentially, The Sims: Mobile with some Hogwarts robes on it.
Perhaps the most disappointing example of this is the Charms class. In the gameplay trailer, prospective players were shown that they would be given the chance to cast spells by drawing symbols on their screens. This does happen, so it wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the full truth either: Drawing the spell symbol only comes after several minutes of mindless, inane box-clicking in a timed event, and you only do it once.
Weirder still is Potions class. This lesson takes the same form as the Charms class, but at the end of this event, you don’t even get to mix the potion. All you do is draw a swirl on your screen, and then get a “task complete.” This is despite the fact that the drawing-symbols mechanic is explicitly tied to wand motions, and Snape says at the very beginning of class, “there will be no wand-waving.” This doesn’t make it unplayable – simply confusing, and again, disappointing. I had been looking forward to being able to mix potions in any sort of capacity. Perhaps that was foolish to hope for.
It looks half-finished. The backgrounds are gorgeous, but the avatars and NPCs look rough around the edges. Anything else takes on a comically Scooby-Doo-esque appearance: If it obviously stands out from the background and looks like a partially-finalized 3D model, you can expect it to start moving somehow. When the majestic Hogwarts Express makes its first appearance in a cutscene, it lags for a second before chugging along the track towards the viewer, and the closer it gets, the more obvious the middling-quality graphics become.
Speaking of lag, the banquet scene is nothing short of a load-time disaster. Otherwise-fine animations become rigid and halting because your poor phone is trying to deal with the stress of loading in 100+ individual character models and a couple dozen floating candles – most of which have no impact on the scene in general. I only have an estimate because I watched each individual NPC load in during the first, sweeping shot of the massive banquet hall.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed with the diligence of the development team for making each and every character model and managing to have a pretty decent spread of diverse looks. Unfortunately, any admiration I have for their work gets drowned out by my concern over what they had to do. One can only imagine that this game fell victim to being rushed out to the public before it’s truly ready, a situation we’re beginning to see in a rapidly-increasing number of games.
From a less technical perspective, I find myself frustrated with the middle ground taken between “choice-driven” and “railroading.” Hogwarts Mystery presents the player with the option to choose their appearance, their house, and even the tactics they employ to interact with other characters, but doesn’t allow you to decide anything about your character’s history, their family, or anything else. I can deal with my character’s brother being used as a story hook, but I take issue with the fact that, when consoling a distraught muggle-born Gryffindor, I’m not allowed to choose whether I might understand his struggles, as a similarly muggle-born mage.
There’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of bigotry that doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. One of the antagonists, a cruel girl named Merula, bullies a young boy named Ben over his muggle parents. This would be somewhat understandable if the player character was also a muggle… but they aren’t, and neither is the aforementioned brother. It would be understandable, too, if – like in the book series – the wizarding world was on the verge of a huge upheaval, but during Hogwarts Mystery, most of the wizarding world thinks Voldemort is dead. Anti-muggleborn sentiments still existed before that time, yes, but they never appeared to be so prominent that Merula would be able to get away with this as she does. And again: It seems to be largely irrelevant. For all the time they spend on this conflict, there’s no payoff, no indication that it could ever play into a larger plot.
Could it be a side-story about why bullying is bad, and why we ought to stand up to bullies? Could it simply be set up for later, story-relevant events? Sure. That doesn’t change the fact that right now, it feels extremely forced and out-of-place.
When it comes down to it, none of my criticisms are out of malice. I wanted this game to succeed, just like every other fan of the series. I was looking forward to a Harry Potter game that would do bigger and better things than the Harry Potter games before it, and I was swept up in the magic of the trailer and the possibilities that would come with it. That doesn’t change the fact that the app’s general performance is mediocre at best.
My hope is that future story events will make this game worth the trial of the first few chapters. I want nothing more than to believe things can get better, but I don’t think I’m going to be holding my breath. In the meantime, when I’m looking to get my Harry Potter fix, I think I would rather turn to the tried-and-true Lego Harry Potter game.
Great concept, lacking execution, disappointing and frustrating gameplay - if only because it's this close to being fantastic.