Pokémon Go thrived on the joys of simple discovery and exploration. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, as befits a game inspired by the goings-on at an imaginary elite school, requires learning so many extra features that it sometimes feels more like taking a class.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It does probably mean that its extra dose of complexity will keep developer Niantic’s game from achieving the same pinnacle of popularity as its 2016 blockbuster, but its appeal lies in offering the best bits of Pokémon Go’s experience for a different sort of crowd. After spending some time with Wizards Unite, I’m fairly certain I number among them.
After all, I’m one of those fantasy-loving nerds who keeps a replica of Sting from The Lord of the Rings hanging on his bedroom wall. As such, I admire how Wizards Unite leans more into the lore of its parent franchise than Pokémon Go ever did, which becomes apparent as soon as you see the massive, detailed sheet explaining the significance of the different types of wood used for your prospective wand. The Pokéstops and gyms of Pokémon Go become Wizards Unite’s inns, greenhouses, and fortresses, and that approach neatly complements the Potterverse’s idea of a wizarding world that exists alongside our own. Here you’ll find charm to go with your charms, manifesting itself in everything from the lovely overworld map to the oh-so-British cadences of Constance Pickering as she shows you the ropes.
I always loved the business of hunting and collecting Pokémon in Pokémon Go, but it tended to lose me once I had to venture into the business of evolving creatures and using them to battle for control over gyms. I couldn’t bring myself to care. Suddenly, though, I find myself interested in Wizards Unite’s theme of finding and stopping creatures and events that threaten to expose the existence of the wizarding world to us lowly muggles (although I’m still not too sure why this is such a bad thing). Later on, Wizards Unite will allow me to be an auror, a magical zoologist, or a professor and make my own potions so I can get back into the fight and the hunt.
Indeed, with all these options, it’s a wonder that Wizards Unite doesn’t come with any kind of sorting-hat quiz: Instead, it simply lets you choose whether you want to be a Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, or whatever. It’s a weird oversimplification considering its complexity over its forerunner. Worse, it’s a weird flex in light of the teams in Pokémon Go, which in no way prohibits members of those teams from helping out someone in another.
That’s only a touch of the increased depth Wizards Unite offers over Pokémon Go. By far my favorite the way its AR encounters bid you trace out spells with your fingers on your iPhone’s display, which I find much more appealing than tossing a fishing bobber-like ball at critters in Pokémon Go. The latter always made failing to catch a Pokémon simply frustrating. When I try to help Hagrid wrestle free from a web trap or Luna Lovegood escape from a fire-breathing chicken in Wizards Unite, though, I feel as though there’s a real reason to attempt pulling off the spell correctly. By Dumbledore, I feel as though I’m learning.
A simple problem
All that, I fear, is why Wizards Unite likely won’t take off as Pokémon Go did in 2016. The magic of Pokémon Go sprang from its simplicity: You didn’t need to know jack squat about Pokémon to get into it (and, in fact, even I barely did at the time). You exercised, you found critters, and you threw balls at them. You didn’t need to be able to know a Rattata from a Pikachu to get into that, and so it succeeded in pulling in throngs of folks who otherwise wouldn’t have been caught dead with a Nintendo 3DS.
Wizards Unite, though, seems to expect you to know about the very specific people you find in the so-called “confoundable” and “foundable” events popping up around your neighborhood. It expects you to care about those wands and wants you to thrill at the name of Ollivanders. (If you don’t get that reference, you have an idea of what I’m talking about.) Pokémon Go was able to serve as a gateway drug to Pokémon as a larger concept, but I feel safe in saying that Wizards Unite will only succeed in uniting existing fans.
Don’t take that to be a pronouncement of Wizards Unite’s impending doom. There’s clearly a market for this sort of thing. After all, I wrote a caustic piece on last year’s Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery in which I all but expressed my desire to work the Avada Kedavra on its payment model, but for all that, it currently commands almost a five-star rating on the App Store after 679,000 seemingly glowing reviews. I expect we’ll see much the same response with Harry Potter: Hogwarts Unite, although fortunately its approach to in-app purchases—and there are many—feels more benign.
Right now, mere hours after Wizards Unite’s release, I find myself thinking that maybe it doesn’t have to be as popular as Pokémon Go. Much as the seemingly smaller world of wizards and witches in J.K. Rowling’s universe exist alongside our own, Wizards Unite can exist alongside Pokémon Go and thrive. It’s a Pokémon Go for those of us who want a little more roleplay, a little more fantasy, and a little more reason to live in one of the best imaginary landscapes of these troubled times.
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Leif is a San Francisco-based tech journalist. He's a big fan of fantasy RPGs, and you can find his previous work on IGN, Rolling Stone, VICE, PC Gamer, Playboy, Mac|Life, TechRadar, and numerous other publications.