Three years ago, Nintendo and Niantic released Pokémon Go, and the resulting game became an instant cultural phenomenon on hundreds of millions of mobile phones. In retrospect, the formula seems simple enough: combine a beloved children’s series with a wander-and-collect-with-your-phone gameplay hook, and everyone will fall in love, right?
This week, Niantic returns with an entirely new game, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and it proves that the above formula isn’t necessarily an instant winner.
Wizards Unite tries to expand the Pokémon Go formula with a few new features and a completely new visual and gameplay theme. But its barrage of timers, currencies, missions, and screens full of text does something interesting: it proves in its failures how much more elegant and focused Pokémon Go really was. Getting this particular AR gaming formula right isn’t as simple as slapping fan-favorite characters on a go-anywhere phone game.
Why are we collecting magic stuff?
Pokémon’s “catch-em-all” branding was a natural fit for the real-world search-and-find gameplay of Pokémon Go. Making the same premise work in the magical world of Harry Potter is a bit more difficult. So in Wizards Unite, now there’s an overarching story about a mysterious wizard who cast a “Calamity” spell that has captured a bunch of “Foundable” magical objects and people behind a series of “Confoundable” traps. The wizarding world (i.e. you and your friends) have to join together and scour the map to find and rescue these foundables in order to maintain the Statute of Secrecy that keeps witches and wizards hidden from muggles.
That plot is a bit convoluted maybe, but it’s fine enough to set up the walk-around-and-collect-stuff gameplay. But then you almost immediately find Rubeus Hagrid—yes, the Rubeus Hagrid—trapped in some sort of immense spider web. A bit later, you might find Professor Snape captured in a large bottle or one of a series of interchangeable Hogwarts students. These well-known humans (who can be found and saved multiple times from the same fate, somehow) are mixed in with random magical creatures and artifacts ranging from a Hippogriff to assorted Quidditch equipment.
When you rescue enough copies of a distinct foundable (by tracing a simple shape on the touch screen as quickly and accurately as possible), you can put its picture in a massive registry of images that acts as Wizards Unite‘s version of a Pokédex. Perhaps there are some Harry Potter superfans out there who will be thrilled to finally find that last “Azkaban Wanted Poster” to fill up their Dark Arts sticker page. Personally, though, collecting such a random and disorganized assortment of Harry Potter ephemera has felt a little bit directionless so far.
To Wizards Unite‘s credit, each individual foundable is rendered with its own lovingly detailed 3D models and animations, complete with relevant and often unique spells you need to cast to free them from inventive confoundables. But the “realistic” style of these low-polygon models achieves a sort of uncanny valley effect that wasn’t present in the brighter, more cartoon-infused Pokémon Go. And the “unique” animations start to feel a little less so after you see one for the third time in as many minutes, for instance.
The animations and “rewards” interface also runs quite a bit slower than the zippier process of Pokémon-collecting, which in turn slows down the quick find-and-catch tempo of Niantic’s previous game. Wizards Unite‘s complex animations and character models can often lead to long load times the first time you see a new foundable or object (you can get around this by pre-loading all the game content from a menu, but that requires a massive 3.3GB download to your mobile device).
Wizards Unite also seems to be trying to lay the lore on thick, with a lot of text-based discussions involving Harry Potter himself. A lot of these provide cute (if pointless) backstory—such as the source of the “foundables” name—but some seem to be hinting at a grander, overarching mystery plot surrounding who cast the Calamity spell in the first place. It’s a nice nod to added depth, but you might feel compelled to skip through it quickly as you proceed on your walking search for ever more collectibles.
Wizards Unite‘s collect-a-thon extends from foundables to a seemingly endless variety of items that can be acquired in the Inns and Greenhouses scattered about in the real world (in the exact same places as Pokémon Go‘s Pokéstops and Gyms, amazingly enough). You have to collect energy to cast spells, of course, and coins to buy extra items from the shop. But there are also dozens of individual magical ingredients that can be used to brew a variety of potions that can help temporarily in your magical efforts.
You can find these ingredients just littering the real-world map in the game, or you can collect seeds to grow more in greenhouses. But both growing and brewing potions are controlled by a global timer that can be sped up (or filled in with missing items) by spending coins. And coins can, in turn, be bought with, you guessed it, real money.
There’s also an endless variety of runestones, used to participate in Raid Battle-style duels with powerful wizards (these introduce a simple and slightly more engaging point-at-the-target minigame to the usual trace-the-line spell-casting). Then there are scrolls to improve your abilities in a complex skill tree and silver keys that can unlock found portkeys to earn even more items (but only if you walk a certain distance in the real world while the app is open).
Some of these items try to add a little bit of depth to the basics of the Pokémon Go-style experience. For the most part, though, I already feel weighed down with a bunch of largely indistinguishable and not-that-meaningful items like “Vervan infusion” and “Level 3 Magizoology runestones” and “Baruffio’s Brain Elixir.” There’s also a seemingly endless supply of temporary goals and achievements to give the illusion of constant progress, but completing a Daily Assignment like “return 10 foundables” doesn’t exactly feel like a grand step on a huge quest.
To Wizards Unite‘s credit, there are a few nice touches to try to make each individual player feel like an important part of Harry Potter’s world. Soon after starting, you get to personalize your own wizard profile, complete with a picture, customized wand, and slogan. You also eventually get to choose your own Hogwarts’ house and a professional line that best represents your personality (which can affect things like your specific skill tree).
Overall, though, wandering around to collect bits and bobs from the Harry Potter world so far hasn’t drawn me in the same way that trying to catch hundreds of Pokémon did (and I say this as someone who has never been a big Pokémon fan). All the new features and items layered on top of the core collecting end up being a distraction from what is, by comparison, a much more focused and smooth Pokémon capturing experience.
The biggest problem facing Wizards Unite, then, might just be the existing competition from Niantic’s own Pokémon Go. With both games dependent on grabbing your attention while walking around the real world, it would seem difficult to fully engage with both at the same time. Jumping into Wizards Unite, therefore, means halting any progress you’ve made in the last few months and years to fill out that Pokédex.
That might be fine if you’ve lapsed from previous Pokémon-collecting obsessions, or if you feel Pokémon-ed out and want to try something new. But Wizards Unite so far feels like an overly complicated twist on what we can now safely call “the Niantic formula” that’s best suited for extreme Potter fans.