What makes for excellent gameplay? Surely grinding isn’t at the top of the list. Who wants to spend their time doing a repetitive, meaningless, drawn-out task that in no way calls on skills or knowledge? It’s bad enough in MMOs when you at least know you’re heading towards some serious in-game advantage. Crafting an entire narrative around grinding though… that would be foolish.
Yet that’s exactly what we have in the new-ish mobile game Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery. It’s supposedly the game we’ve all been waiting for. You play a first year attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry, doing all the things that first years get to do: picking up school supplies, making new friends, going to classes, and solving the mystery of your long-lost brother who went mad searching for the Cursed Vaults. You know, average things. It’s the kind of story that I’ve been waiting for though, not only because it gives me the chance to attend Hogwarts without doing the mental jumping jacks of turning Harry Potter into Harriet Potter, but also because it heavily emphasizes the everyday aspects of a school environment. You’ve got the mystery, yes, but you’ve also got classes to pass and bullies to deal with. It’s the atmosphere of Hogwarts that I love the most—everything from moving staircases to Christmas in the Great Hall—so having a semi-open world to explore is just my cup of tea.
But of course, things are far more limited than that. There are numerous floors to ‘explore,’ but all there is to look at are a few bits of (nicely animated) scenery and the unchanging Easter eggs that provide extra energy. That energy is then used for grinding in classes, clicking on highlighted people and objects to collect experience until you’re out. Then you wait for your energy to reload so you can do it all again—and at one energy every four minutes, that takes a while. I’ve written before about how many iPhone games are designed to fit into peoples’ busy lives and Hogwarts Mystery definitely falls into that category. With the exception of some ‘complete within X number of hours’ requirements, I like that I can forget about the game while I trudge through the day, or not feel guilty about my productivity levels. I put Hogwarts Mystery aside after 10mins or so because… well, I have to. The game just stops once you’re out of energy and yeah, that’s annoying at times, but damn useful at others. If I had a Harry Potter game on mobile that just let me play non-stop with no repercussion? Yeah. I’d be getting absolutely nothing done.
Still, for all the ways that I can supposedly justify these choices, I don’t think I’m in the wrong to say that Hogwarts Mystery is just bad gameplay. It’s a pretty awful mix between clicking through dialogue and click-click-clicking through class. You get choices like “Read book” or “Talk to Rowen” (your BFF) and at first I thought these actually meant something. I’m in potions. Snape just said he wouldn’t tolerate any goofing off, so I guess that means I shouldn’t choose the option to chat with a classmate, right? Wrong. It quite literally doesn’t matter. You click on whatever you can and keep going until you’ve filled up the progress bar. Skill? Who’s she?
Same thing goes for the interactions you get in between each star. Sure, the focus thing was a little difficult at first, but you pick up the timing on that pretty quick. Meanwhile the few questions you’re asked in class are just laughably easy. “What does Lumos produce?” “Who is the head of Ravenclaw House?” (Asked when I am, in fact, a Ravenclaw.) These questions wouldn’t stump a films only ultra casual fan, let alone the Potter-Heads actually playing this game. Then on the flip side you have Penny quizzing you on potions—who thinks friends bond this way??—and hell, maybe that stuff is canon, but it sure sounds random to me. I don’t know what ingredient goes into to this oddly named brew…but wouldn’t it be cool if we learned? You know, if instead of grinding all day you actually took the lessons, learning information in each class that you then have to reproduce in order to pass? A game that trains you in Potter trivia and various fantasy mythologies? Maybe it’s just the Ravenclaw in me speaking, but I’d find that a whole lot more enjoyable.
You trace lines on the screen in order to cast spells or demonstrate your stance. Gobstones is won by distracting/terrifying/or gossiping with your friend. Definitely not the mini game I was expecting (and kinda mean too). Give me Harry Potter themed Candy Crush. I’ll take it. And don’t even get me started on the wannabe Rock, Paper, Scissors dueling setup—the one that everyone was convinced must have some sort of pattern behind it. It doesn’t. It’s a randomized AI, which makes your choices entirely arbitrary. Want to win enough duels to get the cool new outfit? Good luck. No literally: good luck. Luck is the only influential part of that gameplay.
It’s tedious. The story is meh. Your choices, when you do get them, are either inconsequential or so devastating they set you back 50 house points. I thought perhaps we’d choose which attribute—courage, empathy, knowledge—that we wanted to cultivate, but no. I thought that there’d be more open world aspects, but no. I even thought there were branching possibilities based on which friends you brought on your adventures. Again, no.
But you want to know a secret? For all my complaints I am still playing this game religiously. Every morning I am up, energy full, clicking away as I try to finish up a flying lesson. I’m logging in multiple times a day to see if a new storyline is up or whether it’s time to play gobstones again. Granted, this can be chalked up to any game’s ability to prove addicting. There’s nothing inherently wonderful about clicking non-stop to, say, serve food to imaginary customers… but I still get a rush whenever I do it. It’s the rush of completion. Of success. Of doing something right—even if it’s also something simple.
That’s a part of it, but at the same time Hogwarts Mystery has something even more compelling than Cooking Craze or Candy Crush: it has nostalgia. I’m a millennial, born and raised on this series. I watched Harry Potter move from the most beloved story since Tolkien to an imperfect tale like any other form of media. Now over twenty years later (oh my god) we have things to say about the logic of the world and the lack of representation. How we were given a picture-perfect ending of a house, heterosexual love, and 2.5 kids, despite the fact that Harry and his friends were supposedly beaten down by war and these days we’re living through wars of our own... but we're not getting that ending. Goodbye, rose colored glasses. I can’t claim not to miss you.
And yet… here’s Hogwarts Mystery. It’s the magical world again, the one we know and love, but well separated from Harry’s own journey (unlike a certain cursed child I could name) and whimsical in the way Sorcerer’s Stone once was. Despite being boring, that grinding element ensures that it’s the simple things that are emphasized: going to class, learning to duel, helping out in the hospital wing. The main storyline almost feels like a side quest. Finding your brother is important, sure, but he’s been missing for years now. His absence doesn’t have the same oppressive impact that, say, a freaking wizard Nazi has. Things are light. Airy. You get to choose your character’s appearance so let’s finally fill up Hogwarts with more people who aren’t white! Thus far there’s no romance options (we’ll see about later years) so there’s no drama attached to that either! (With the exception, perhaps, that both the male and female versions of Rowen appear equally attracted to Bill Weasley. Kudos there.) Maybe you make the mistake of lying to a professor… and get some house points taken away. Maybe you discovered the incredibly dangerous cursed vault that immediately attacks your friend… but they’ll be fine in a few hours. The stakes are low. They feel low even if, technically speaking, there’s a fair amount of conflict here. That results in a more ‘realistic’ experience. Non-stop clicking aside, this seems a little more like what a normal year at Hogwarts would be. Sometimes strange shit happens, must of the time you’re just attending class. Is that weird from a gameplay standpoint? Absolutely, but at the same time I kind of like it.
In the end you can’t go wrong because the game is free. What’s the worst that could happen? You waste a few hours of your life? Please. Wikipedia and Youtube are already doing that for you. So yeah, in the end I do recommend Hogwarts Mystery, if only because it’s a cheap, simple, non-timesuck way to get that Harry Potter feeling. The scholar in me might be going, “Eh it’s not that great,” yet the fan part of me just keeps on playing—and I get the feeling I’ll be playing for a long time to come.