Preparedness in Magic(k) is as important as it is in War
Reviewed on the computer, via Steam.
Wizards and that, then. I’ll admit, this whole Wizarding World thing passed me by—I’m just slightly too old to have been captivated by the books. I’ve read them, and quite liked them, but I’d been reading Pratchett and Rankin and Kerr and Wolfe for a while already, when H Potter became the phenomenon it is now. It always seemed a little too positive to me—while there is quite a lot of darkness in the books, it’s fairly standard goodies vs. baddies storytelling, and I’d been spoiled by characters like Rincewind.
Wizards are funny to me, bumbling, inept and brimming with misplaced confidence. You’re supposed to feel a connection with H Potter—I thought he was a speccy little irritant, and I wanted the bigger boys to stuff him into a magic toilet. It was all a bit too earnest, set in a big boarding school but without ever having the cheeky irony of Molesworth, or the sheer joyous volume of Charles Hamilton’s work*.
I mean, the H Potter books are great, there’s no disputing that. But they carry for some people a huge weight of attachment, in the same way the first twenty or so Discworld books do for me. So, well, I can see why for a lot of people the idea of ‘being’ a wizard in a sort-of prequel, wandering about Hogwarts and doing spells and that, in a recognisable, beautifully realised setting, would be a big deal. And I can see why WB would pour a lot of resources into Hogwarts Legacy.
I’m a sucker for a well-realised world, innit. And this one? This one is really good, you guys.
At least, if you don’t stare for too long.
Hear the thunder roll
It doesn’t start that promisingly. A quick character creation menu (really quite limited, no chance of creating a deformed Skyrim monstrosity here), a slightly terse (no, you can’t call your character ‘Clarence Fuckbringer’) naming screen, and you’re pretty much off. Your hand is very much held through the first hour or so—establishing plot, teaching basic mechanics and that—and then, boom. Yer a wizard, Clarence. You’re just sort of dropped into an unfamiliar boarding school and left to get on with it, which is remarkably accurate to the way boarding schools work really.
I’m a wanderer, in open-world games. If I’m told to go North in order to advance the plot, I’ll cheerfully scamper South, just to see what happens. Sometimes, you’re met with an invisible wall, a cross NPC or just an on-screen bollocking for doing this. But the best open-world games let you crack on, and Hogwarts Legacy is quite happy to let you explore most of the map before you even learn a tenth of the spells it has on offer. This isn’t an awful idea—enemies scale up with your progress, so for the most part you’re not going to get splattered across the terrain—but it does highlight one major flaw in HL: it’s far too easy.
Not to get elitist and that—it’s a game ostensibly for kids—but the emphasis on combat here is more about protection and causing vulnerable states than actually knuckling down and having a proper scrap. It feels a bit Dark Souls-y, in that fights are about learning a particular tempo of offence and defence, responding to audio visual cues and gradually becoming comfortable with each different enemy’s patterns. It’s just a Dark Souls with its wings clipped, a little. That’s fine—you have the option of hard mode, and if you’re feeling spicy there are plenty of rebalancing mods already out there. It’s just that there’s little sense of danger to the environment, despite the many warning signs about monsters and spiders and trolls and that. If you take advantage of the incredibly generous parry timing, very little is going to touch you. This can mean something of a proper wizardy power fantasy, or it can become boring pretty quickly, depending on your tastes (I’m the latter, hence cranking it up a notch.)
While aggression is a positive, it can lead to some issues: I’ve experienced a few softlocks, when barrelling in and punching a load of goblins up the chuff. Sometimes, you’re expected to be stealthy for important plot reasons, and the game doesn’t seem to know what to do if, before your guiding NPC can explain what they want you to do, you’ve already killed everything. Again, fine—but a touch frustrating. I suppose, given that the violence in this game is surprisingly, er, violent, slowing down a bit can be good for the soul. Or something.
As well as doing fights, you’re often expected to solve puzzles. These are… ever play Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver**? Yeah, they’re nicked from that. Move blocks with telekinesis, find the right configuration for the room, hop through transfiguration portals that change the environment. Nothing too taxing—but again, this is a game designed around accessibility.
And fear the sky shall fall!
Story, then. It’s got one, I suppose? For me, this is where H Legacy falls a bit flat. See, as I said earlier, I’m not that into H Potter. So the constant breathless reveals of locations, objects and concepts are a bit like being told about something cool by your tween nephew—I can tell that they’re clearly supposed to be important, and I appreciate the enthusiasm, but it’s grating as an outsider. Gradually, I stopped caring about anything the game wanted to show me, because I had no attachment to it. This isn’t a criticism of the game, it’s entirely on me.
Where the game can be blamed, though—and is, by me—is the overall environment. It doesn’t feel like any Scottish highland I’ve ever visited, atmospherically or geologically. Huge valley sides with forests and sheer cliff edges mean, from the ground, you feel strangely hemmed-in. And from the air, when you earn a broom or mount, it all starts to fall apart a bit.
Open worlds are hard. They need to be strangely hyperrealistic, or we begin to grow bored with the space. Take a modern Grand Theft Auto game—they’re constantly screaming for attention. There’s noise, colour, people. Interesting lines to move along and things to see and do. You’re not given time to breathe, and that’s good, actually.
H Legacy gives you a LOT of time to breathe. Moving between quest points takes a long time, before you unlock all the fast travel, and this means you begin to see how sparse the world really is. There are monsters, but not very many types, and they’re spaced out at quite a distance from each other. There are collectibles and resources, but they only exist to stretch out play time by asking you to gather things before advancing quests. There are NPCs, but they’re either shops, fetch quests or props.
An open world should feel alive, and H Legacy feels emptier than a Fable game. Remember when I said not to stare too long? You’ll notice the seams. And then everything begins to grow a bit dull. You’re not a wizard, you’re just playing a computer game, and the magic dies.
At least the NPCs are mostly well written and voiced, with a few standouts (Prof. Fig is really good, the protagonist is all right, most of the Hogwarts staff are great.) Your fellow students can be a bit strange in their mannerisms, but all of this can be handwaved. It’s a magic boarding school, innit—I’d have much preferred some ‘you ghastly rotter!’ writing in the style of C Hamilton. It’s a school story, after all, set in the golden age of school stories!
A magician’s lapis-lazuli excels in Ur, descending to their underworld.
Yeah, anyway. It’s all right, this game. If you’re a H Potter fan, and I gather a lot of people are, it’s be right up your diagonal street, or whatever that train platform thing is in the movies. It runs well, if you ignore raytracing. It looks good, it plays well, it has a plot you’ll probably love, if the books are special to you.
It’s Skool Daze meets Dark Souls… for kids!
*Seriously, look this chap up. Estimated to have written over a hundred million words in his lifetime (this is a very conservative estimate; a complete record of his pseudonyms doesn’t exist), he’s likely the most prolific writer ever to have lived. And this wasn’t random empty calories shouted onto a page—there are arcs and storylines in his work which gradually untangle and redeem themselves over vast periods (five years, one character’s arc takes. It never stops being compelling and interesting over that time). Brilliantly, he didn’t write out of a love of the medium, or a supernatural compulsion, rather he was a terrible gambling addict who would cheese it to Monte Carlo the second he received payments and smash the lot in minutes.
There are some lists of his work online, but they tend to be woefully incomplete. What’s much more fun is popping into those ancient bookshops/magazine traders (you know the sort of thing, there’s one near the Arndale in Manchester) and ask the chap behind the counter if they have any old boys’ weeklies, school stories, Tom Merry etc. Their faces will light up. It’s great.
**You know what? H Legacy is a Legacy of Kain game for people who like pointy hats instead of cool vampires. It really is.