james debate
james debate

Sunday 9 April 2023

Developed by Avalanche Software
Published by Warner Bros Games
Genre Action role-playing game
Platform PC, Playstation, Xbox, Switch

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For years, fans have been asking for a game like this. If you asked a group of people what their dream videogame would be, often you'd get a response along the lines of "an open-world Harry Potter RPG that lets you live and go to school at Hogwarts." It's become something of a meme to ask why this game doesn't exist. You can see why. Harry Potter and the Wizarding World is, after all, one of the biggest franchises in the entire entertainment industry, with a built-in fanbase conservatively estimated in the multi-millions strong. Not to mention a fanbase that is notable for its passion, to the point where brick and mortar Wizarding World merchandise shops exist all over the world, with people routinely buying their own wands and Hogwarts regalia. A game that allows those fans to live out their fantasies seems like an obvious money-maker.

Well, they finally listened to the memes and did in fact make that game. Hogwarts Legacy is an open-world action RPG set in the Wizarding World of the late 1800s. In this game, players will design their own unique character, attend classes at Hogwarts, explore both the castle as well as the surrounding countryside and villages, and embark on an original adventure alongside a colorful cast of characters and fellow students. On the surface, it's everything fans have been waiting for.

Unfortunately, before we can really dive into reviewing this game, we need to address the elephant in the room. The creator of the Wizarding World, J. K. Rowling, has taken a lot of heat in recent years for making transphobic comments that have offended many and sparked an outraged response, to the extent that many have called for a boycott of all things Potter-related, including this game. While I obviously do not condone hate speech, nor the specific comments in question, I also feel strongly that the actions of one person do not justify disregarding the world of hundreds of others. Game designers, writers, and everyone else who has devoted years of their lives to creating this game, potentially the biggest project of their careers to date. They deserve to have their work evaluated on its merits, and not have their livelihoods trashed for the bad fortune of being in close professional proximity to Rowling. That is all I will say on the subject.

On first impression, it is surprising and impressive just how much this game tries to do. This game has clearly been designed with the fans in mind and goes to great lengths to provide fans with as complete a Wizarding World experience as possible. The staples are all here. Players can customise their wand in both appearance and various components. Players get sorted by the Sorting Hat into their house (and can choose if they don't get the sorting they desire). Players make friends, attend classes. You can fly your broom as well as various mounts including Hippogriffs and Thestrals. There is a chunky main quest line as well as numerous side quests. You can even play a few games around campus: broom racing, Summoner's Court and duelling. 

This is all more or less what I was expecting. What I was not expecting was for the world to be quite as vast as it is. Hogwarts itself is spectacular to explore. A whimsical, twisting, Eschereque maze of a setting filled with secrets and puzzles. It is everything that Hogwarts should be. But there is also a wide world outside of Hogwarts. Huge amounts of countryside and smattering of villages and towns, all full of various quests and collectibles. Hogsmeade itself is present and full of activities, some substantial, others more for flavour. 

There is a "player housing" type experience in the form of the Room of Requirement, a remarkably customisable space that players can decorate and furnish with all manner of items they discover from exploring the world. Much of this is superficial and solely for the enjoyment of the player, although there is a practical component from the various crafting mechanics and items.

Most surprising is the deeper than expected beast-rearing mini-game. That's right, Hogwarts Legacy draws heavily on the Fantastic Beasts films as well, with players able to explore and "rescue" various beasts, which can then be kept in a vivarium. Beasts can be pet and fed in exchange for various crafting resources, they can be bred, with a surprisingly deep set of genetic traits.

This is all so "extra" that it's surprising the game isn't a sprawling, chaotic mess. There's a lot here, a lot that didn't need to be here, but it's all very well executed and holds together. It's even more impressive considering the developer. With the greatest of respect, Avalanche Software has historically been a purveyor of fairly minor ports and licensed products. They have never come even close to taking on a AAA project of this ambition and scope. For them to have taken this project, and delivered on it to such an extent is a remarkable accomplishment and a huge step up for this team. But there are moments where the seams start to tear, and Avalanche's inexperience with projects of this scale begin to show. 

There are glitches. I've seen everything from crashes, to duplicating inventory items, to randomly falling through the floor. Most of the time the bugs are fairly minor or can be corrected by reloading an earlier save file. Sometimes the bugs do prevent progress, such as one I encountered when exploring a treasure cave, but was unable to proceed because my character randomly floated into the ceiling and got stuck. I will say, however, that I never encountered such large bugs along the main story quest, only while exploring. Still though, this is a console game. The hardware is identical for everyone. There is really no excuse for such noticeable bugs remaining at launch.

There are also a few moments where the game design can't keep up with its ambition. The game is large, but there's only the same three types of enemies, wizards, goblins, and spiders. This might seem like a fairly minor complaint, but when you're playing a side quest that takes you into yet another spider cave for the 30th time, it starts to get a bit tedious.

It's also quite a lonely game. For a franchise which focuses so much on friendship and the adventures of a core cast of characters, there is surprisingly little emphasis on this in the game. Your character does have friends in this game and they are pretty good, but outside of a few specific quest instances, you can't really do anything with them. It would have been nice for there to be more ways to interact with these characters, be it in sports or mini-games, attending more classes together, or some form of companion system where they can join you on your adventuring. It is hard not to feel like something is missing from the experience without that.

The quality of writing is noticeably variable. The main quest is fine, if unremarkable. Some of the side quests are excellent, others highly forgettable. In general, the game is at its best when it keeps you in Hogwarts, doing quests with your classmates and professors, so it is disappointing that there isn't more of this (such as those additional character interactions, as noted above).

It is also worth noting what this game is not. This is not a life simulator. There is no relationship system with your classmates. You can not repeatedly attend classes or go through the student life (as you can in, for example, Rockstar's Bully). I don't want to criticise a game for what it is not, but I can imagine a lot of Potter fans disappointed that there aren't more of these types of things in the game, especially when they've gone to such lengths to add unnecessary immersion in other areas.

But while it can be a bit rough around the edges in places, it comes pretty damn close to delivering on that vast potential. While it isn't perfect, Hogwarts Legacy is an excellent adventure game that will delight fans of both the source material and the genre in general. If these developers can tighten up the weak aspects and flesh out its strengths, the sequel could be spectacular.

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