When Portkey Games was announced in 2017, fans of the Harry Potter universe were understandably excited. With a single publishing label overlooking the development of Harry Potter video games, it meant that the games stood a chance of being much better than the many lackluster movie tie-ins that have been released over the years. Unfortunately, the first game released under the Portkey Games banner, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery from studio Jam City, does not leave much hope for the future of Harry Potter video games.
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is a shameless cash grab that is so aggressive with its microtransactions that it’s baffling, and if it weren’t so predatory, it would be hilarious. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is based entirely around an energy system, where players have to spend energy in order to complete almost every action in the game. Players will often find themselves having to wait literal hours in order to continue a school lesson or complete a quest, unless they want to break out their wallet.
Now, it’s understandable that free-to-play games need some way to make money. However, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery simply doesn’t give players much value for their cash. Spending $5 on the game will yield maybe 10 minutes of uninterrupted gameplay. $10 maybe 20 minutes. In our testing of the game, we purchased $20 worth of in-game currency and were able to play for a little less than half an hour before we were completely out of energy again.
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery seems to be designed to purposefully bore and frustrate players to convince them to spend cash. Other free-to-play games use their microtransactions to do things like give players special cosmetic items or special advantages that they don’t actually need to keep enjoying it, but Hogwarts Mystery doesn’t. Its entire business model consists of people playing it for a few minutes, hitting a roadblock, and then having to wait or pay to continue playing.
What makes this even more frustrating is that Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is a game that Harry Potter fans will definitely want to keep playing. The story presented is actually fairly compelling, and lets players see what Hogwarts was like in the 1980s, nearly a decade before Harry Potter would attend the school. Granted, the game does break established canon at certain points and there are some glaring plot holes as well, but despite these inconsistencies, the core mystery is still interesting enough to make people want to see what happens next.
In Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, players take on the role of a Hogwarts student whose brother Jacob went missing years ago while searching for “Cursed Vaults.” Jacob is also accused of working with Voldemort as a Death Eater and engaging in other questionable activities, and the player sets out to discover the truth about their missing sibling.
Along the way, players have the chance to interact with a number of recognizable characters from the books and movies, with some of the film cast reprising their roles. Voice acting is so scarce that the movie cast lending their voices to the game is hardly a selling point, but it’s still a nice bonus for Harry Potter super fans nevertheless.
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery actually uses the Harry Potter license quite well. For fans, exploring Hogwarts and interacting with recognizable characters like Professor Snape and Madam Hooch is a real treat. The game also throws in some interesting story developments that help make the player feel like their presence has a lasting impact on the Wizarding World, like when they’re given the chance to name Fang or have the opportunity to go adventuring with a young Bill Weasley.
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery actually seems to understand what makes the Harry Potter franchise charming, so it’s just a shame that the actual game is so shallow. Besides simply clicking on random things to fill up meters, gameplay also consists of searching the castle for free energy reserves (which take many hours to recharge), tracing outlines to cast spells, and answering random trivia questions about Harry Potter.
Players can sometimes have conversations with their friends as well, almost always in the Great Hall while they eat sandwiches. Hogwarts’ lack of meal variety seems like it should be a pressing issue, but instead players mainly chat with their friends about their insecurities. Players are given three dialogue options to choose from, with one wrong answer and two right answers. The goal of these conversations is to fill up a meter, as well as level up friends, though there doesn’t seem to be a point in doing except to collect free gems.
These interactions with friends would actually be a decent way to give players more to do in Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, but at the time of this writing, they are limited to very specific points in the game. Oftentimes these conversations come about as part of side quests or even main quests, meaning all players will have friends at the same level by the time they reach the end of the game, unless they somehow fail to successfully complete a conversation.
One would imagine player choice would play a role when it comes to friendships in Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, but it doesn’t really, and in fact, player choice hardly matters at all at any point in the game. Despite player choice being advertised as a major part of the game, players will all end up with basically the same Hogwarts experience when it’s all said and done.
This may not be a huge deal in other games, but since students are sorted into houses with specific character traits in the Harry Potter universe, it does ruin the immersion. The story developments and choices players encounter seem to be built with the idea that players were sorted into Gryffindor or Ravenclaw, as they can’t really exhibit any traits normally associated with a Hufflepuff or Slytherin. So anyone hoping to use Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery to roleplay will be left sorely disappointed, as it’s more of a visual novel than anything else, with a very linear plot.
In its current form, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is a complete and utter disappointment, and not a good start for the Portkey Games label. The game fails to take player choice into account in any meaningful way, the gameplay is shallow, and its free-to-play model is designed to frustrate and bore players into buying microtransactions. The story is interesting and hardcore Harry Potter fans will find the nods to the books and movies amusing, but there’s not much else to enjoy about it. Perhaps Portkey Games and Jam City can fix it in the future, but as of now, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is little more than a game where players will find themselves waiting a lot more than they are actually playing.
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is out now for iOS and Android mobile devices.