Originally due out next week, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery has quietly gone live on iOS and Android. And while the premise makes for a fun romp through the wizarding world and the torment of Hogwarts, the game is a painful grind, beset with a series of timers that funnel the player towards microtransactions on a frequent basis.
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is one of the first games released under the Portkey Games label, founded last year by Warner Bros to publish games under the Harry Potter license. It's made by Jam City, Inc. which has mostly released match-3 games like Cookie Jam Blast and Juice Jam so far.
Hogwarts Mystery is more of a story-driven game, with mechanics akin to Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Players have three separate in-game currencies: cash, which is used to pay for clothes and other cosmetic items; energy, which is used to fulfil tasks; and gems, which you can use to buy energy.
Gems and coins cost real-world money, whereas energy can only be bought with gems. How much energy you can buy is capped, however, although as your character completes more flying lessons and other tasks (like learning spells from Charms class), your maximum energy increases.
Story-wise, the game is set a couple of years after the death of Harry's parents and the disappearance of Voldemort and his followers. Your character is pitched as the younger sibling of a Hogwarts student who supposedly went missing after looking for cursed vaults within Hogwarts. The rest of the Hogwarts folk and faculty are of the opinion that your brother was a supporter of Voldemort, but you don't really know where they went, and so you're determined to find them and the cursed vaults to draw a line under the whole saga.
You start off in Diagon Alley, fetching your books and first wand, before moving to the Hogwarts Great Hall and choosing what house you want to be in. Having spent a bunch of time playing the Harry Potter card game of late, where the Ravenclaw die (mostly) lets you draw extra cards, I opted to go with the House of Blue.
From there the game becomes a slow progression through the world of Hogwarts. Each "year" of Hogwarts is split into different chapters, with the player tasked with learning basic skills like flying, casting Lumos, or just getting to know your house prefect and other teachers.
Everything is learned the same way, mind you. A task pops up, and you have a certain amount of hours to complete the task by tapping on metres as they appear. Your character starts out with a certain amount of energy, with one unit refilling every five minutes. Unless you want to drop absurd amounts of cash just to accelerate your magical education, Hogwarts Mystery is the kind of game you'll play for two minutes on the toilet, ignore for several hours, and then come back to knock off a Potions lesson or two.
To break things up, the game occasionally has little mini-games which don't require any energy. They're basically scenarios that are broken up into a scissors/paper/rock style model. One early on has you sitting in the grand hall, trying to console a Gryffindor student who's nervous and concerned about not fitting in.
You're given a choice of dialogue responses to help calm them down, each of which is tied into one of your character's three main attributes (courage, empathy and knowledge). It's not difficult to pick the most optimal response in each scenario - don't brag to someone who's worried about fitting in, for example - and you'll progress slightly further depending on how advanced your wizard or witch's attributes are.
Duelling, which comes up fairly early, is a similar model. The goal is to whittle your opponent's stamina to zero, which you do through by choosing a series of stances each round. If successful - being tricky beats a defensive stance, which counters an aggressive stance - you then get a choice of two actions, both of which gain extra bonuses depending on your character's affinity for the relevant attributes.
Throwing an item, for instance, is tied to courage, while taunting someone gains a bonus if your character is an empath. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but you kind of just have to roll with it. Instances where you have to cast certain spells will also bring up an icon that you have to trace, although that wasn't a requirement in the below scene.
The game is playable now, although on Android the app is clearly marked "unfinished", which explains some of the missing animations and effects in the video above. Nonetheless, the mechanics are set in stone: Hogwarts Mystery is basically a Harry Potter narrative wrapped up in energy metres and microtransactions, and it's not especially generous with either.
130 gems will set you back $7.99, with 275 gems costing $14.99. Those gems don't go particularly far: it costs 35 gems just to refill 10 energy orbs, which is about two-thirds of your maximum energy when starting out. The "best value" purchase is 20 energy orbs, at a cost of 60 gems, but your maximum energy won't hit 20 until you've completed a few flying lessons and potions classes.
You can also spend up to $159.99 in a single hit for 3125 gems, if you're insane and/or you accidentally hit a few buttons.
For the sake of this article, I bought the $7.99 pack of gems just to see how far it would last. It wasn't enough to get me through a single five star flying lesson, which seems pretty stingy.
There are some story-based activities that aren't tied to energy metres, however. As you progress through the lessons, you'll get cut scenes where your character encounters other aspects of Hogwarts, other teachers, or menacing students convinced you'll result in the destruction of Hogwarts. The game will then give you two or three choices which can then feed back into the story, while also earning you points for your house.
Winning the House Cup isn't guaranteed. Make enough wrong choices, and you'll only win a measly 100 gold at the end of the first year. 200 gems are on offer if your house of choice wins the house cup, and there's a little leaderboard where you can see how much influence you and other students have had on the standings.
It's not mentioned whether other real-life players affect the results, or whether the game is just autopopulating the leaderboard with random names. (There's bugger all Ravenclaw students at the moment, though, with Gryffindor and Slytherin enough comfortable leads in my game.)
I'm still playing through the first year, and I've spent about four to five hours grinding out so far. There's no word on how long it'll take you to complete your Hogwarts education, although I've no doubt that Jam City and Warner Bros will make an absolute motza by the time someone does.
There's enough story elements in Hogwarts Mystery that I'm keen to see how it pans out. I just wish the game wasn't quite so stingy, although that's not really how this end of the mobile market works. But if you're vigilant about putting the phone down and leaving a game for a few hours, Hogwarts Mystery could be a nice romp through Harry Potter - at least until Niantic's Harry Potter spin-off comes out later this year.
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is available for free through the Play Store and App Store now, with an official release date of April 25.