Wizards Unite is the latest augmented reality catch-em-up from the makers of Ingress and Pokémon GO. Developer Niantic has really upped the complexity with its latest effort, which will no doubt delight some players while turning others off entirely.
Despite this new-found complexity, the basic premise is simple: around twenty years after the main events of the Harry Potter series, a great evil known as “the Calamity” has stolen away all kinds of items and characters from across the wizarding world. Naturally, the Ministry of Magic wants you – yes, you – to help track down these “Foundables” by traipsing around the real world, engaging in random virtual encounters. However, each Foundable is defended by an evil Con-foundable, which – of course – you’ll need to defeat with spells.
Spellcasting is a simple matter of tracing a glowing line on-screen, but it does a surprisingly decent job of replicating the flicks and swishes involved in Hogwartsian wand-wielding. It’s certainly more intuitive than the flick-and-hope system from Pokémon GO, rewarding speed and accuracy with higher success rates.
This, of course, is where the augmented reality (AR) elements comes in. You’ll wave your device camera around to “search for traces of magic,” after which you’re treated to a nice virtual representation of whatever random person or object you’ve tracked down this time. It’s a process which really does feel quite magical until you realize that it drains your battery exceptionally fast and draws concerned looks from passers-by. Thankfully AR can be disabled once the novelty wears thin, and there’s a battery saver mode hidden away in the game’s settings.
Across the map, you’ll find plenty of Inns for collecting items, a few Greenhouses for growing your own, and the occasional Fortress. The latter are the rarest of the lot, and allow players to undertake a series of wizarding challenging to prove their worth. Wizarding combat also involves tracing lines to cast spells, but these encounters are much more dynamic, with defensive spells just as important as attacks.
As you hit certain milestones in the Wizards Unite, Ministry of Magic employees (including some fan favorites) will pop up to explain the more obtuse side menus of the game, or fill you in with crumbs of lore that eventually flesh out the game’s original backstory. The plot centers around the “London Five investigation,” a missing-people mystery that explains the origins of the Calamity. It’s no Prisoner of Azkaban, but the storyline is a nice touch that can be easily skipped if you’re not into that kind of thing.
That leads to the most divisive part of the game: there’s a lot to keep tabs on. Runestones to initiate challenges at Fortresses. Potions for healing or buffing your spellcasting abilities. Ingredients for brewing those potions. Seeds and watering cans for growing those ingredients. Add to that spell energy, portkey portmanteaus, dark detectors, spell books, professions, challenges, and more. You may find yourself overwhelmed before long.
Some of those things have wait timers attached, and nearly all of them can be purchased with real money if you’re feeling impatient. Unsurprisingly, the exchange rate at Gringott’s from real-life cash to wizard-world gold isn’t great. Rest assured there is a lot to do here without spending a single galleon, but catching ’em all without a financial leg-up is gonna be an incredibly tough and laborious task.
Meanwhile, players can customize their characters by designing their own unique wand and choosing which Hogwarts house they want to join. All well and good, but we would have liked to see a Sorting Hat personality quiz deal with that particular aspect – it doesn’t feel right for a player to choose their own house!
We do have a few other complaints, too. Performance can be sketchy, even on Apple’s X-class iPhones, leading to dropped frames and frustrating lag between interactions. It also takes an age for the app to boot up, which really detracts from the appeal of popping it open for a few moments in those flashes of downtime through the day.
Perhaps most annoyingly, the app must be running to track your movement progress – that’s a big deal when unlocking certain items requires you to walk 10km! Pokemon GO’s Adventure Sync feature links up to the iOS Health app to track your steps in the background, and it’s strange that a similar feature hasn’t been included here.
But overall, Wizards Unite is a well-polished experience with pretty impressive AR and loads of audio-visual delights for Harry Potter fans. It’s Pokémon GO with a Harry Potter twist and a lot more complexity.
Treasure-hunting completionist types will revel in the myriad collectibles, youngsters will be excited by a positive feedback loop that consistently bombards users with small rewards, and Potter-heads will revel in the detailed Potter-ness of it all. But freemium cynics and those who dislike grinding through menus and random encounters should probably steer clear.