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Critical Consensus: Wonderbook: Book Of Spells

Sony's Potter powered ARG wins over mainstream, but can it win over gamers?

Sony's Christmas kiddie pleaser, Wonderbook: Book Of Spells has managed an impressive amount of mainstream coverage, probably thanks to the mix of Harry Potter theme and Christmas shopping season. And while games using Sony's camera and Move controller have often been cynically received in the past, Wonderbook's first instalment seems to have won its reviewers over... or at least most of them.

Steve Boxer at the Guardian awarded the alternate reality title 4 out of 5, pointing out that “Book of Spells certainly isn't a game in the conventional sense.”

And while older children will “find it somewhat basic once the initially euphoria of entering the Potterverse has worn off,” there's plenty to enchant smaller muggles, and has enough in it to act as a “digital babysitter.”

“The feeling of actually being in Hogwarts, living a life much like that of Harry Potter, is deeply appealing, and will surely make young Harry Potter fans very happy indeed,” said Boxer.

Boxer is just one of the reviewers to mention the involvement of the famous author in the product, and has nothing but praise for the results.

“It's clear that JK Rowling has had plenty of involvement: there's a wealth of new material regarding the mythology around each spell, and it's all as sharply and amusingly written as you would expect.”

It was echoed by GameSpot in its video review that scored the game 8 out of 10, which said that the trade mark humour made sure that the “hand of JK Rowling herself is easily detectable.”

And while it recognised a few flaws, both technical (the Move controller and wand's different lengths, making for a few catches on scenery) and those stemming from gameplay, namely a lack of replayability or opportunities for multiplayer, it's a positive review.

“There's not a whole lot in here for adults, but in the context of children's entertainment where it resides, Wonderbook: Book Of Spells is a triumph.”

Film magazine Empire didn't break the run of good scores either, with a 4 out of 5 from Matt Kamen.

“The way you interact with the physical book, manipulating it to peer down wells or brush off dust, adds a fantastic tactile element that, for younger fans, will really make it a - sorry - magical experience.”

And while it calls the technology and concept basic, it also believes it's brilliant and “genuinely enchanting.”

And while it isn't one for adults or older teens, “ for its intended audience, Wonderbook: Book of Spells is a charming, captivating must-read, and one that might even warm over some of those cynical adults too.”

Push Square came in with a lower score, but only just. Sammy Barker's 7 out of 10 is “a stark reminder of the platform holder's chops when it comes to capturing the attention of the mainstream market,” a verdict backed up by the reviews above.

The length is an issue for Barker, “the entire experience is over before you've had time to properly pronounce the words Wingardium Leviosa” and while the subject matter proves irresistible, it's a “a must-have for Hogwarts nuts,” Barker still feels something bigger is missing.

“For all of the title's enthralling inventiveness, it feels very much like a dress rehearsal for a far grander idea,” suggests Barker.

“It's clear that much of Book of Spells' development was spent overcoming technical hurdles, rather than creating truly compelling content. Outside of the J.K. Rowling connection, and the novelty of the concept itself, there's not a whole lot to keep you invested in the game.”

Not that all those technical hurdles have all been overcome, namely a need for space a light created by the camera set up.

In this review, and those above, it seems the issues with the tech are those found by anyone attempting any type of ARG, a reliance on the users ability to set up their gaming space properly, and for the user's brain to adapt to the difference between what's in their hand and what's on screen.

As for the world, that seems faultless, with the only complaints suggesting they just want more of it.

But sadly for Sony it's not all chocolate frogs and magic, as Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead gives it just 5 out of 10. The problem here isn't with any technical difficulties, but with a lack of depth. In fact, Whitehead suggests that anyone getting it for Christmas could be finished with it by Christmas dinner, a massive blow for what is clearly being marketing as a surefire Santa win.

"Torn between a character license it can't fully use and an experimental format of vague structure and uncertain purpose, Wonderbook's magic spell grows weaker over time, rather than building to a fantastical crescendo."

Where others have praised the heavy use of Hogwarts, Whitehead points out that characters from the series aren't mentioned, and that while it might be set in Harry Potter's world, it isn't about Harry Potter at all. And those elements that are recognisable can still disappoint. While a player can collect house points for executing their spells well, those points are, well, pointless, and mean little at the end of the game.

"Anywhere that Wonderbook might validate, challenge or compensate the player for their actions, it fails. But since it's so hard to pin down what Wonderbook is trying to be, it's hard to work out how damaging this lack of ambition really is."

And perhaps most damning of all was the reaction of Whitehead's own children, the target market.

"For the sake of a little anecdotal evidence, my two kids, aged 6 and 10, each a bright and eager reader with the eldest a casual fan of the Potter books and films, both grew restless after less than one chapter and showed little interest in coming back to it later."

Sony don't need to sweat their scores too much for Wonderbook: Book Of Spells it seems, but they might worry a little more about the reaction of the children that the game is actually aimed at.

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Rachel Weber avatar
Rachel Weber: Rachel Weber has been with GamesIndustry since 2011 and specialises in news-writing and investigative journalism. She has more than five years of consumer experience, having previously worked for Future Publishing in the UK.
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