The developers of Pokemon Go have summoned an intriguing magical adventure
I’ve accepted that I’ll never go to Hogwarts. That letter must have gotten delivered to the wrong house, and even if it found its way to me, a 27-year-old jumping into a first-year Potions class might look a little silly. And yet I’ve craved for the wizarding world to seep into my muggle life.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, from the developers of Pokemon Go and set for a 2019 release, aims to do just that. It’s an experience not nearly as immediately sellable as Pokemon Go’s catch-and-collect loop, I loved the potential for this new AR adventure to deliver an engaging, daily dose of magic after spending an hour freeing hippogriffs and dueling dark wizards.
I’ll admit, before learning about Wizards Unite, I remained skeptical of how Niantic’s location-based gameplay could be adapted to a Harry Potter experience, much less one tapping into my fan fiction dreams of living in the wizarding world. But, Niantic and WB Games San Francisco’s initial hook is an interesting one — a great Calamity threatens to break the Statute of Secrecy that keeps the wizarding and muggle worlds separate. Objects, people, creatures, and even memories have been displaced from time and space, trapped and potentially about to break that world-separating seal en masse.
Every player has been brought into the Statute of Secrecy Task Force, as a wizard or witch entrusted to find these various items and rescue them before, presumably, werewolves start accidentally roaming through Times Square.
Taking place in modern day after the events of the Harry Potter books/films, players will investigate the mystery of this Calamity — and yes, Niantic and WB actually have a plan to tell the story of why this bizarre event is transpiring — but the initial conceit is a smart way of not overwriting the beloved canon of J.K. Rowling’s world while also allowing players to feel like a part of it.
And what’s been pulled in by the Calamity will be familiar to Harry Potter fans — everything from a Hippogriff to a scene of Harry being attacked by a dementor can appear as a result of this worldwide phenomena.
Now, you’re probably wondering how you encounter such disparate things. And here’s where things start to get complicated. Yes, Wizards Unite undoubtedly shares DNA with Niantic’s Pokemon Go and Ingress, but this iteration is much more complex, with plenty more types of things to encounter and points of significance. It is, thankfully, pretty easy to get the hang of when actually playing — after the hour or so I walked around San Francisco playing, I had a grasp on just about every aspect.
But, there’s a lot to break down, so let’s jump into what it’s like to actually play.
Solemnly Swear I’m Up to Some Good
Wizards Unite will look familiar to anyone who’s played a Niantic game: you’ll see a stylized overworld, mapping out the real world surrounding you. Wizards Unite has a more storybook style to its world — the warm greens, blues, and browns are all more fantastical, giving the world a pop-up book feel.
As you move, so will your nondescript avatar — rather than worrying about decking out a witch or wizard model, you represent yourself in-game with a customizable selfie photo adorning your Task Force ID card. There’s a lot to encounter on the map as you go.
Like Pokemon Go’s PokeStops, real-world points of interests — monuments, buildings, parks, etc. — will be denoted on the map as places to check in to. But rather than spinning a signpost, you’ll be jumping into either an Inn or Greenhouse, the former giving you food, which powers your magic, and the latter offering ingredients for potions you can brew on your way to usurping the Half-Blood Prince’s status.
But the bulk of what you’ll be looking for are those objects scattered by the Calamity, known as Foundables, represented by differently colored emblems on the world map. Every Foundable comes with a Confoundable, a complicating factor that you need to free it from to save and archive it. With a Hippogriff, which is the Foundable, the Counfoundable is the ball-and-chain shackling the poor beast, which you must trace a spell over with your finger to break.
You’re marked on your skill of how accurately and quickly you perform these spells, and in freeing a Foundable, players are rewarded with stickers related to those items. Collect enough of those stickers in your Registry, and you eventually unlock the ability to pull that Foundable into a Photo AR mode and pose with it.
Wizards Unite’s AR is one of my biggest concerns for the full experience. The prospects of its AR are really exciting, but I do worry about the reality of fully employing them as often as I would want to given phone battery and scaling quality. Niantic did say they’re cognizant of the wide range of devices people play on, and AR won’t be required to play, but, given battery life issues, I worry how exciting the experience may be in the long run without employing the AR all the time.
In addition to unlocking these stickers, rescuing Foundables also awards you with different Runes based on the type of Foundable. There are 10 categories in total, from Sports and Games, to Hogwarts, to Magizoology, and more, and each category has its own rune. These runes, each of which have their own level, come into play in Wizards Unite’s take on Pokemon Gyms, Fortresses.
Strong as We Are United
Fortresses are where some of the more communal aspects of Niantic’s design philosophy come into play. Think of them as multi-level dungeons – with up to five people in synchronous play, players can jump into timed encounters on each floor of a Fortress. This is where players will unlock some of the rarest items in the Registry as you engage in duels with wizards, werewolves, vampires, baby basilisks, and even some familiar faces. (While I didn’t face them myself, there’s a clear implication a few famous Death Eaters and more could appear in-game.)
Battles emulate the same spellcasting as any Foundable — you’ll trace your finger on the screen in a certain pattern to both attack and defend, with the former requiring you to line up your spell each time you attack.
Completing all the challenges of any Fortress floor in under the allotted time will give players rewards, and the specific bounties will be dependent on which Runes players choose before jumping into a floor. (Niantic is staying mum on which combinations will offer what, so it will take some player experimentation to find the best loot.)
And if you’d like a deeper layer to combat, Wizards Unite also allows players to choose one of three professions — Auror (attack), Magizoologist (support), and Professor (all-around). Each comes with their own skill tree filled with dozens of skills to choose from and outfit your wizard or witch with stat bonuses to accuracy, power, and more.
If you’re wondering where those potions I mentioned way back when come into play, by the way, you can use potions mid-combat to heal yourself or improve your spells, too.
Now, I know that sounds like a lot. And it is. Wizards Unite is undoubtedly more complex in its permutation tracking than Pokemon Go, but, as I mentioned, it all feels quite intuitive. Niantic has integrated plenty of explainer and tutorial text, including some voiceover from new and old characters, to guide you through the experience whether you’re a Pokemon Go master or a first-year student in the school of Niantic. And I could see the experience playing very well to people of different interests — if you’re less into the Fortresses, there’s still plenty to do in the simple exploration/cataloging aspects.
Beyond the Veil
As a nice capper to my hourlong demo with Wizards Unite, Niantic introduced us to another key feature — Portkeys. The closest approximation for Pokemon Go players are the eggs you have to incubate to hatch new Pokemon. Similarly, Portkeys can only be activated after walking a certain distance with Wizards Unite. After doing so, you can place the Portkey — a boot, much like the one used in Goblet of Fire, for my demo — in the physical space around you via the game’s AR.
Once placed down, you can physically walk to that point and step into a new location, one plucked from the many famous locales of the wizarding world. For the demo, I hopped into Olivander’s wand shop for a bit to catch wrackspurts and gain some bonus XP and items.
It’s a clever implementation of Niantic’s continually evolving AR tech and, while it’s not the exact use of Portkey lore some fans might expect, helps to further cement Wizards Unite’s goal to blur the line between our world and the magical one.
Speaking with Niantic and WB representatives throughout the demo, the companies are committed to continuing Harry Potter: Wizards Unite with updates just as Niantic has with Pokemon Go. The phrase “forever game” was uttered more than a couple times, with intentions to continue unfolding the story of the Calamity and offer more updates to the deeper, RPG systems of the experience.
And I’m really excited about the potential for Wizards Unite. The hour turned me from a skeptic to someone excited to dip into the magical world for a little bit every day, and not just for the daily tasks and rewards Niantic is integrating. No single aspect of your gameplay is quite as iconic as the act of catching a Bulbasaur or Eevee, but when all the pieces come together there’s an engaging, layered experience I’m excited to explore and test out its longevity
There’s a lot going on with Wizards Unite, and it could certainly throw off some of the more casual players who just want to hang out with Harry, Ron, and Hermione or learn a few spells at Hogwarts. But by smartly trying not to deliver that fantasy of being a wizarding student, Niantic and WB have crafted a new type of adventure in the wizarding world — one that I’m excited for, and one I hope can bring a bit of magic to my everyday life.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s News editor, Beyond! host, and PlayStation lead. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.