Updated review follows the original review below.
Over the course of seven books, eight movies, and countless other adaptations, Harry Potter and his friends have defeated those who seek to use magic’s dark arts for villainy. So when the mobile game Harry Potter Hogwarts Mystery was announced, touting the interesting hook of being able to create your own character and carve out your own path within J.K. Rowling‘s beloved world, I was immediately on board. Sure, the graphics were a little clunky and outdated, the voice acting from principal cast members was quite limited despite press releases to the contrary, and the “tap this thing a bunch of times to complete your objective” approach was pretty weak, but those shortcomings were easy to brush aside as the story rolled on. But after just about a half an hour of playtime today, microtransactions stopped my progress in its tracks.
Microtransactions (essentially, small “opportunities” for you to spend real money in a “free” or “freemium” game) are just as unavoidable as they are, when improperly implemented, inexcusable these days. There’s a place for mtx to be sure and they’re great ways for developers to recoup some of the massive costs of producing games, especially when the game itself is initially offered for free. They’re great ways to add fun elements to a game like cosmetic changes or other customizable options. They’re even perfectly fine for those players, flush with cash, who are impatient enough to get to that next level that they’ll happily purchase power-ups and upgrades in order to do just that. However, microtransactions should never be impediments to the game’s core story itself.
Imagine the mtx model in any other form of entertainment, say going to the movies or dining out. Imagine going to see your favorite Harry Potter movie in the theater and finding out that the screening was free! That’d be great. But then, when you get to that first climactic moment where Harry, Ron, and Hermione find themselves in a bit of trouble, the projection stops dead until everyone in the theater ponies up some cash. Just a little, mind you, a buck or two, here and there. Or, since this theater isn’t a money-grubber by any means, no of course not, you and your friends can just sit for 15 minutes while the cooldown timer resets and allows the movie to continue playing on. Doesn’t that sound like fun? No, not at all. It’s a modern incarnation of the ol’ nickel-and-dime tactic to slowly leach more and more money out of patrons duped into thinking they had signed up for a good old time.
As for the rest of the game itself, from what little I got to play of it, it was fine. There are a decent amount of options available for customizing the look of your character; more are unlockable through, you guessed it, microtransactions–this is one area where I’m totally fine with the model. The story adds some interesting twists like an older trouble-making sibling who has gone missing and other students who will become friends or enemies based on your multiple choice responses and interactions. The magic elements themselves are also fine; I basically got to learn one spell and one potion before the cooldown timer stopped me dead in the grip of a Devil’s Snare. (By the time you’re done reading this, I might have “earned” enough energy to get out…)
The story takes place when Harry Potter himself was just a baby, recently found to be very much alive and now in safe keeping; this lets Dumbledore and the original teaching team preside over the storytelling. You get to choose your Hogwarts House without much interrogation from the Sorting Hat, which seems a missed opportunity for a fun bit of personality-building through questions and answers, but I digress. And the design of Hogwarts itself is fun, if a bit limited, featuring other students, familiar faces and voices of professors, and cool, interactive elements in the backgrounds, like paintings you can touch to activate or a creeping house elf here or there.
Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of my experience. When running out of energy to accomplish certain tasks (for which there’s a generous timer in order to get them completed even without buying extra energy), you can buy more with gems, which of course can also be purchased with coins. It won’t surprise you to find out that you can buy both coins and gems with your real-world currency of choice. It’s unfortunate that Jam City, Portkey Games, and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment have opted to go this route, but ultimately it’s up to you, dear player, if you want to shell out your hard-won Knuts, Sickles, and Galleons. For me, the magic’s already run dry.
Rating: ★★ Fair
Update: I confess, I’ve played a good amount of this game in the week or so since posting this original review. The implementation of microtransactions haven’t changed, so I haven’t changed my stance on that, however the folks behind the game’s upkeep have responded to this and similar criticisms in a couple of ways: First, they’ve initiated specials that let you buy gems (which can be traded for energy or customizable options) at a discounted rate; yeah, this is still Microtransactions 101 but it lessens the burden somewhat on those who want to make these purchases. Second, they’ve upped the amounts of coins/gems they dole out as rewards while you play the game, making customizable options or the ability to skip ahead to story points* more reasonable. (*There are moments in the story where you can either wait anywhere from three to eight hours to, say, talk to your bets friend, or you can pay 55 gems to do so immediately. Please.) Third and finally, the energy bar automatically grows as you play the game, allowing you to do more activities in a given period of time. That takes the clamp off the playability of Hogwarts Mystery in a significant way, which is a good thing when you consider that the central mystery, the characters you meet along the way, and the skills you get to learn are actually all very entertaining. So while I still would recommend against spending any real-world coin in this game (your mileage may vary), it’s worth a playthrough.
Updated Review: ★★★ Good