As an avid Harry Potter fan I've been waiting for Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery with bated breath. It could either be the mobile game I'd always wanted. Or, it could be another lifeless disappointment.
Well, it's not lifeless, but it is a massive disappointment. Though it looks and feels like it's set in the wizarding world, there's very little magic about it.
Swish and flick
Hogwarts Mystery is an RPG-like narrative game where you design a character, pick your house, and build your own school experience.
Whomever you decide to be, your Hogwarts journey isn't going to be particularly smooth thanks to the shadow of your older brother. Some say he was expelled, others say he disappeared, but the truth will come out eventually.
You have to deal with the wariness and prejudice of other students, including a rather bitchy Slytherine called Merula, and learn all of the necessary skills a young witch or wizard needs.
One thing that it absolutely gets right is the audio. The music and effects are high quality and stir up the most magical feelings. Portkey Games and Jam City also roped in some of the original actors for the occasional line.
The graphics are simplistic, like The Sims, but still rather pleasant. It's fun to see the inside of Hogwarts castle, but it would've been nice if you were given more freedom. Or any freedom.
When it comes to gameplay, the game doesn't offer anything close to an open world. Rather than ambling about and discovering secrets and cool little details, you scroll across the screen and tap on specific destinations, like your common room, the potions classroom, and various corridors.
During classes you have to tap on glowing items and spend energy to learn bits and bobs. Once you've spent the necessary energy you'll draw on the screen and cast your spell. Simple.
During each lesson you're asked a piece of trivia to see just how good your knowledge is. It won't be for everyone, but I thought it was a nice touch for any Harry Potter nerd.
Throughout the game you carve out your own path. Each decision you make and conflict you handle earns you an attribute. The higher your Courage, Empathy, or Knowledge attributes, the more ways you'll be able to respond to different situations.
You can also change up your wardrobe by buying clothing and new hairstyles with coins or gems.
Swish and... wait
For the most part, everything sounds brilliant. That is until the utter beast of a paywall gets in the way.
You get about ten minutes of guilt-free playing before you're locked in with a tangle of Devil's Snare. You need five stars to pass, you've got eight hours to do it in, but the first two moves wipes out your entire 24-energy bar.
Each energy takes four minutes to re-gain, meaning that you'll have to wait an hour and a half to replen your entire stock. Or, you could just pay your way and finish quicker.
To get energy you need gems. To get gems you need to spend real money, ranging from 99p / 99c for 25 gems to £99.99 / $99.99 for over 3,000. While this isn't a new method, it's one of the most maddening free to play models, especially in a story-based game.
If you don't have enough to work with you can't leave the activity, either. You're just stuck waiting until you get enough energy to finish, otherwise you have to do it all over again.
This wouldn't be as much of a pain if there wasn't a timer attached to lessons. Twice I got caught out waiting for my energy to build up, only to run out of time and start the whole thing over.
By the time you manage to finish the task and move onto the next one, usually to be caught by the same blockade, you've lost a lot of patience. It makes it hard to find the motivation to finish the first week, let alone seven years of wizard school.
Any interest in the story I had quickly faded, leaving me incredibly disappointed. And yet somehow it's not surprising.
Aside from getting blocked by the monetisation, the Potter nerd in me was also a little sad that you just chose your Hogwarts house instead of getting sorted. A detail that won't bother everyone, I know.
There are elements of Hogwarts Mystery which make me excited. I want to learn more about the story, the music is great, and the decision-making is a nice, personal touch.
It's just such a shame that everything great about the game is locked behind a paywall which punishes you for not wanting to throw money at it. Children who play the game and people who don't have the money to spare aren't given another option besides waiting.
Perhaps if you could restore energy a little bit quicker it wouldn't feel so pushy, but as it is it's just not fun.