Wonderbook: Book of Spells Review
I’m not easily swayed by new technology, especially if it only exists for the sake of flash or seeks to replace substance with dumbed-down special effects. Therefore, it’s saying something when I endorse Wonderbook: Miranda Goshawk’s Book of Spells, which embraces the concept of augmented reality and gives youngsters a mesmerizing virtual world in which to lose themselves. Fans of the insanely popular and widely revered “Harry Potter” franchise should step forward; what it lacks in longevity it makes up for in sheer “wow, isn’t this cool?!” factor.
It’s difficult – or perhaps impossible – to accurately compare the visual presentation of Wonderbook with other video games, primarily because part of what you see is…well, you. Those who are unfamiliar with AR (Augmented Reality) may not realize that you’re always seeing yourself in the background; the PlayStation Eye captures your figure and obviously, part of the room in which you stand. So that’s not “graphical,” per se. Therefore, one can only focus on the overall design and artistry of the highly creative effects, which are almost literally right before your eyes. These are crisp, appealing, and highly imaginative, as you might expect.
The slickness of the technology is augmented (get it?) by the sound, which is also clear and sharp, as pleasing effects match every wave of your wand. Those who have always wanted to become wizards-in-training will love the way the game responds to most every movement with a rewarding effect – both visual and audio – whenever you make an effort to get all magical. Sometimes I think the game is almost too quiet, though. There is a soundtrack, of course, but the developers would’ve been well advised to work at least snatches of that quality score into the aspects of the production where there is less general activity.
Twenty of the most recognizable “Harry Potter” spells await your perusal and eventual mastery; these spells will increase in power, which means you will be able to perform more impressive acts of wizardry as time goes on. You need the PlayStation Move and while I have lamented the lack of top-quality titles for Sony’s motion-sensing device, Wonderbook is a positive addition to the library. With the combination of the Move and the Eye, you can create a wondrous, luminous world right there in your living room. The idea is to be sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room in question, although you can be sitting in a chair if the Eye is correctly positioned.
When you first start, the wand is displayed before you; it’s larger than the Move controller you hold in your hand, and therefore gives you a proper illusion. When manipulating the wand, you’re looking at the virtual picture, not the thing in your hand. You really start believing what you’re seeing, too, which is of course the purpose of AR. It’s just that I’ve utilized this technology before on the Vita and it simply wasn’t the same, as the level of immersion in Wonderbook is far greater; it doesn’t feel chintzy or gimmicky, it just feels fresh and involving. Further, the learning curve is appropriate for the intended age group.
There are five total chapters and each chapter contains a certain number of spells that you must learn. This is where the game could’ve crashed and burned: If the tutorials required to teach you these spells weren’t sufficient, if they were clunky and difficult to understand, this would’ve become an exercise in boredom and frustration. Thankfully, though, the instructions are clear and even the younger players shouldn’t have much difficulty executing even the most complex gestures. At the end of each chapter, you’ll be tested – just as if you were a real Hogwarts student – on your acquired expertise. Don't worry, it isn't too tough.
And here we come to another potential stumbling block. Had this experience been limited to only learning spells, it would’ve felt a little thin. But again, the Sony team in charge has taken an extra step by colorfully informing you of the history of each spell you learn. Sometimes, an amusing little theater of sorts will pop up on the screen, and various wizards and witches will act out how the spell came to be. This isn’t entirely non-interactive, either, as you can occasionally use the Move to change certain aspects of the story, which is an amusing little addition to the overall gameplay. It also provides players with a break in the spell-learning, which I found helpful.
The control feels just about right, despite the extreme sensitivity of Move. In this case, that sensitivity doesn’t seem as irritating as it has in past Move-based productions, and even kids won’t be stymied by finicky control. Everything works as it should with some minor exceptions; for instance, there are times when the Eye just doesn’t catch something you did, whether or not it was because a portion of your hand was outside the camera’s range, I’m not sure. But no new tech is truly perfect and most will be willing to put up with these small eccentricities. After all, you’re learning how to become a powerful wizard, and that’s plenty of incentive, right?
Having J.K. Rowling pen the stories that are included in this game is just another bonus, and the creativity of the design is really something special. It mirrors the amazing fantasy of Rowling’s books quite well, which is why I think fans of the series will be satisfied. Lastly, it’s not a completely casual experience, in that there’s no reward for superior spell-casting; you’ll receive more house points if you perform the requisite gestures with more skill. So there’s a reason to practice, which I didn’t really expect to see. If you’ve got a child who is a huge “Harry Potter” fan or you’re a fan yourself and you like this concept, you should give it a try.
There are a few problems that might dissuade you, though. Firstly, for a game based on the engrossing and highly detailed lore of Rowling’s books, the story doesn’t really deliver the emotional and dramatic goods. It’s obvious that the author had a hand in creating the individual stories, but the end result is less than impressive. On top of which, this is a single-player-only experience and it does end relatively quickly. I suppose one could argue the difficulty isn’t really high enough, either, as even younger players will finish the adventure too easily. But even if that's true, I think this is more about the overall experience than the inherent challenge.
Wonderbook: Book of Spells is a fine start to the Wonderbook saga. This is the best use of AR I’ve seen to date and the Move also functions very well in this capacity. The great design and high level of creativity is to be commended and appreciated, the game provides an effectively immersive environment, and “Harry Potter” followers should really love the style and the chance to become a virtual wizard. The end feels anticlimactic, there’s no multiplayer option, and there are a few small technical bugaboos but other than that, this is a really solid step in the right direction.
The Good: Fantastic imagery and imagination. Solid control via PlayStation Move. Diverse experience goes beyond spellcasting. Immersion is thankfully quite high. Reflects the boundless creativity of the Harry Potter fantasy world.
The Bad: No multiplayer and kinda short. Story isn’t all that impressive. A few small technical hangups here and there.
The Ugly: “Oh come on, even the creatures that are supposed to be ugly are adorable.”
1/7/2013 Ben Dutka