My initial thoughts about Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery
I am not a gamer. Nowadays, I almost never play any video games; when I was younger, I only played racing games, not ones akin to Zelda and Final Fantasy. So, it is bold and stupid of me to review something which belongs to a realm I have almost zero experience with. But, I cannot help myself from doing it.
I mean, this is a Harry Potter game, after all. As a pothead who has relatively good understanding of the HP universe, I am credible enough to review it, even if I know next to nothing about the medium. But, in this case, I am confident with my game design critique.
Even from the first seconds I played the game, its flaws were immediately obvious: this supposedly interactive media work is anything but. Instead of allowing players to explore the settings in great details, it only allows us to stare at our avatars doing nothing but standing; they move only for doing tasks.
At first, I loved the energy points. The fact that it took four minutes to restore only one encouraged me to drop my phone more often. But, the more I play it, the more I am agitated by it. They force me to undergo choppy and ungratifying pacing, which leave a bad taste in my mouth; if I want a more seamless experience, I have to spend actual money.
God, I hate how on-the-nose the microtransactions are!
If we want to gain energy quicker, we must spend our gems. Sometimes, we need to wait hours for the next task and the only way to speed up the time is to spend some gems. While they are obtainable by attending classes, doing the extra tasks and reaching a new XP level, we never get them in bulks; therefore, spending money is the easiest way out.
One can argue this is how the developers of this free game get their cash; in other situations, I would agree with that sentiment. But, the problem is they also sell galleons which, unlike the gems, are extremely easy to obtain; if you want more cash, just attend more classes.
Thanks to my obsessive tendency to attend the virtual classes (can’t say the same thing about the real ones), even when I don’t have to, my galleons are almost always 50k, the maximum limit; they almost never go below 49k. That’s how easy it is to obtain them. While I can see the validity in the ‘income’ defence, the fact that they sell easily obtainable items show how greedy the people behind-the-scenes are.
If I want to implement a Marxist lens here, the feature is a reflection of real-life economic inequality; if one wants less discomfort, one has to spend more money. Obviously, this implementation does not hold strong ground; surely, the accessibility of education, healthcare and legal defence is more consequential than the ability to experience good gaming immersion. But still, the shameless display of greed is too grotesque to ignore.
The way the classes are designed also does not make much sense. While teachers mostly ask topically relevant questions, they also occasionally ask about irrelevant topics, like the colour of Madam Hooch’s eyes or the name of Dumbledore’s predecessor. To make it even stupider, we also have to answer our classmates’ questions, none of which are relevant to the lessons! But, there are also other features that I love.
You will also require to complete these three tasks: 1. trace your fingers along shaped lines; 2. tap an ever-expanding and shrinking circle and make sure it stops within the given outlines; 3. tap an icon in a vertical bar, make sure it stays within the marked area until it becomes fully green and you have only thirty seconds to do it; the only way to move the icon is to tap (going up) and untap it (going down).
What I like about those three tasks is they require our concentration; I still have problems with the first and it took me a long time to fully master the third. While I doubt they are the most difficult things video games have to offer, they are undoubtedly more superior the topically-relevant questions which enforce the traditional and often-worthless rote-learning. And that’s not the only good aspect of the game’s design.
The characters’ movements are often repetitive and when they assemble in large together (especially when they attend the Weird Sisters concert), each individual has the exact same movement, resulting creeply robotic-looking crowd of androids. When I mention bodily movements, I exclude facial expressions.
The characters are able to exude subtle, expressive and relatively true-to-life faces while still looking very cartoonish. Again, while there is nothing ingenious about it, I am impressed by the animators’ ability to avoid the uncanny valley which many in the industry still fall for.
Now, about the world-building aspect…
There is one Extra Credits video that discusses about kindness in video gaming. They cite NieR: Automata, a game where it encourages players to risk losing their save files just for the sake of helping their fellows, most of whom they will never meet. It is a contrast with other video games where helping others will give us more rewards, where the kindness is phony and insincere.
That video influences how I view Hogwarts Mystery, where we also get rewards for helping the main character’s friends. While getting more knowledge, empathy and courage points does make sense, why the hell would we get more galleons and gems for doing so? I cannot say if this can negatively affect the psyche of young players. But, it sure reminds me of the real life, where kindness is often phony and insincere.
Obviously, helping my avatar’s friends require interactions and they reveal how dreadful the game’s writing is. The dialogues are so cheesy, cliched and unrealistic, they make Rowling’s uninspiring writing style looks masterful in comparison. Frankly, in this case, I hate it because they distract us from how deep the characters are.
Okay, the characters do have problems. Barnaby Lee, for example, is a brawny and kindhearted airhead; he is two stereotypes combined into one. Ben Copper is fearful of literally everything. Merula Snyde, the main character’s enemy, is a Slytherin known for her constant gush of conceit and condescension. Madam Pince is an even bigger scowling guardian of the books. Rowan Khanna is a bookworm who enjoys studying. They seem like one-dimensional characters. Seemingly.
In general, it is impressive how the main character befriends Slytherins like Liz Tuttle and aforementioned Barnaby, despite not coming from the same house; it is a contrast with the canon where the characters have almost entirely volatile relationships with the Slytherins, who are seen as moral lepers. Even Merula will extend some goodwill gestures (albeit insults-laden) from time to time by helping the main character in a handful of quests.
And Merula is not mean just for the sake of it. She suffers from insecurity due to being a child of imprisoned Death Eaters; it also does not help she got backstabbed by fellow student, Tulip Karasu. No matter how mean and arrogant she is, I cannot help feeling sincerely sorry for her at times.
Barnaby Lee, another Slytherin who stopped befriending her for her nasty personality, is also a child of imprisoned Death Eaters, who were abusive to him. So, beneath that stereotypical kindhearted yet dumb facade lies a child who knows how it feels to be hurt and who presumably refuses to make others experience what he experienced.
The aforementioned Tulip Karasu is an eccentric and seemingly happy-go-lucky prankster. But, she sincerely regretted how she backstabbed Merula and she often convinces the main character how his/her nemesis isn’t as bad as she appears to be. And Merula is not the only one who is kinder than she appears to be.
I never remember Madam Pince showing a soft side in any of the books. But, unexpectedly, she gives the game’s main character and his friends house points for making her recall affectionate memories of James Potter and Lily Evans. Despite still being a stereotypical obsessive librarian, she has a soft spot for the students.
I think Severus Snape in this version also has a soft spot for the students. Well, not really. But, despite the aloofness, he is not a teacher who unfairly favours Slytherins and who bullies every student he deems weak. Basically, this version of the character deviates the canon. And I don’t mind it at all.
Snape grew up in a volatile household and was bullied by the Marauders (a fact many potheads love to sweep under the rug). Such individual would grow up either as an individual whose desire for vengeance turns him into a bully (and I wish some in the pro-Snape faction stop romanticising him)… or as an aloof one who detest bonding but still refuse to inflict pain on others, having first-hand experiences with it. While the latter is clearly not canon, the resulting alteration is not contrived.
I should also mention Rita Skeeter, whose depiction is a lot more nuanced. In the novels, she does nothing other than ruining the characters’ lives. But, in the game, the sleazy reporter encourages the main character to open his/her eyes to the ugly side of humanity.
While some may perceive this as cynicism, I consider this is as a dose of realism. She is right to assert that humanity is not all flowers and rainbows and perceiving it through a sugary lens will detach us from the reality. Well, she only lightly slaps us back to reality. But, it is still a slap, regardless.
Oh, I almost forgot about Ben Copper. So far, I see nothing deep about the character. But, what I love about him is how his existence gives the fixation with Hogwarts Houses a giant finger.
Yes, Ben Copper is not canon. But, in an article I made where I chastised the obsession with the school houses, I pointed out that not only the characters betray the values of their respective houses, the values themselves can be destructive in the context of education. In the end, substance is more crucial than labels.
Now, about the story…
So far, despite the poorly-written dialogues and the sometimes-superficial characters, I love it. I am personally intrigued by the never-ending stream of mysteries and I love how we often doubt certain characters’ motives, encouraging us to not fall for their potentially-deceptive veneer. But, as this game is still unfinished, I don’t know if the conclusion will be profound or disappointing.
In fact, there is a chance I will change my mind about this game once it is completed; I may end up hating the potentially-overdone revelations and I may end up finding certain characters deeper or more shallow than I previously thought.
As I am writing this, I am still on the 22nd chapter of year five, waiting for the next quests. I don’t know how long the devs will take to finish the game. But, I do know it will be long enough for me to change my mind eventually.
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