There has certainly been no shortage of really bad Harry Potter games over the years, in fact the only ones we can think of that have been good are the 20+ year old Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Lego Harry Potter. Otherwise, it's been a lot of the kind of rubbish that used to characterise so-called movie licensing games: just take some crappy gameplay that bears no resemblance to the source material and add a Harry Potter theme.
But... Let's talk about something much more fun, namely Hogwarts Legacy. Even from the announcement almost three years ago, it's been clear that the level of ambition was on a completely different level. The fact that it's been delayed several times hasn't bothered me much because it has been a pandemic after all, and it shows good judgement on Warner's part that they've been willing to give Avalanche Software much more time to realise their grand plans - that is, to offer the first full-fledged simulation of J.K. Rowling's wonderful universe.
The adventure is set roughly a hundred years before the first Harry Potter book and consequently almost none of the characters we know from the books are in the game, with a few exceptions like the ghosts Nearly Headless Nick and Peeves. There are, of course, characters whose surnames hint that they belong to a family that will one day become very important. You get to create your own protagonist with a reasonably detailed editor, after which you're ready to set off on an adventure, joining Hogwarts in your fifth school year, which of course means you'll be way behind your classmates.
Reasons for this exist, of course, and without spoiling anything it seems that your newly created protagonist possesses some rather unique abilities, and that there are several parties who find this interesting for various reasons. Avalanche Software has attempted to create an entirely new story that is completely disconnected from all things Voldemort, and succeeded quite well. There are plenty of twists and turns in the story that you can also make your own through the choices you make during the adventure, with the caveat that I haven't had time to play several different houses and test how different choices actually have major consequences.
That being said, I chose to go with my favourite house, Slytherin. If you have the Harry Potter Fan Club app, you can link your account and get extra goodies and will end up directly in your chosen house. When the adventure begins, my hero is about as knowledgeable about magic as the muggle writing this review, but it's not long before he learns his first spells, after the trip to Hogwarts is hit by a mysterious and dragon-related mishap. Once at Hogwarts, we are greeted with the typical welcome for the term that we are used to from the books and films, and after being sorted into a house, I am given a quick briefing before being left on my own.
This is something I quickly appreciate about Hogwarts Legacy. Although I can't initially do much more than follow the story and help fellow students with simple errands (side quests), Hogwarts is crammed with secrets. I initially spent an obscene amount of time just running around looking for hidden items that in turn unlocked new things, and at the same time got to experience Hogwarts in a way I never had before. Everything from classrooms, gardens, towers, hidden rooms and even toilets are fascinating to examine and secrets are seemingly everywhere. The spell Revelio is therefore thrown around extensively to reveal everything, but it was also clear that I cannot get every secret I find. Thus, classes are needed.
So, just like in the books and movies, you have to take part in teacher-led lessons, in order to learn more about everything. Through simple mini-games you learn new spells, learn to grow plants that can be used for potions and so on. Since the lessons are considered part of the story, there's no risk that you'll get to places in the campaign where you don't have the magical tools you need to progress. Plus, you're always free to do other quests if you want. After a few hours of play, you'll have a hefty list of quests to choose from, most of which are side quests and a few of which are part of the campaign itself. I've done countless side missions and can report that they are pleasantly very well done. Sure, there are a few rotten eggs that can be described as so-called "fetch" missions, but even these usually have some sort of twist that makes them entertaining to play through. Also, some of them can affect the story itself later on in various ways.
Getting around the giant world is initially done on foot, later of course you'll also be able to fly with a broom and other things, and so you also have a fast travel system. Given the size of the school internally, and the fact that there are places like Hogsmeade as well as smaller farms to explore, the fast travel is incredibly useful, and works as it usually does, which is that you have to find places before you can travel to them this way. However, I still recommend you actually walk a lot, precisely because there are so many secrets. Everywhere you go you'll find painters whose work has been stolen, people who have lost something in the water and strange puzzles that need to be solved. The world is so rich in things to discover that anyone who has played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be able to draw a parallel to what it feels like to walk around.
So far, so good, but early on in Hogwarts Legacy, I'm bothered by the menus, and unfortunately, it's a frustration that doesn't diminish with time. On the contrary. In fact, they're the single weakest part of the adventure and something I have to continually mess with. The menus have several weaknesses, one of which is that Avalanche Software has chosen to make use of the mouse pointer system, which is superior if you actually have a mouse. But with an analog stick, navigation instead becomes sluggish. And it's made even more sluggish by the fact that scrolling between adventure progress, quests, map, equipment and so on isn't exactly snappy, with a slight delay between each step (as well as when the menus are brought up). Also, I'm bothered by the sorting of items being very arbitrary so finding which equipment suits me best includes going through everything I have to compare. Finally, I also don't find the map to be very cleverly laid out when choosing where I want to fast travel next.
Something that does work well, however, are the spells. Even in the first few hours, you'll have more spells available than you can have ready at any one time, which is four. This leads to you constantly having to swap them out, where I basically had three fixed ones that were used frequently and rotated one. But the amount of spells soon made even this unmanageable, leading to a bit later in the adventure where you're able to have many more available at a time with some clever button solutions that I actually think works well.
And that's fortunate, because the battles in Hogwarts Legacy are among the game's highlights. I'm reminded of games like Ninja Gaiden and Batman: Arkham Asylum in how my protagonist can constantly attack multiple enemies at a time, bounce them in the air using magic, and build long combos by playing smart and skilfully. Long combos, in turn, allow you to fire off special attacks of the far more powerful kind.
Of course, enemies respond differently to your attacks, with some not wanting to be sent into the air at all and needing to be handled with other things like fire, plants, potions or other means. You'll also have to be prepared for different types of defence when you're attacked yourself. It's elegantly designed and you really feel in full control during battles. However, it's never quite as smooth as the two aforementioned titles. Sometimes the design of the environment limits combat, and if you have a small height to stand on, you can often beat very powerful enemies by firing at them while they're not reaching you.
Graphically, Hogwarts Legacy is more of a mixed bag than I would have wanted. The fact that development started and lasted a long time for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (the game was supposed to be released in 2021) is often noticeable as the lighting effects feel a bit flat, the effects are somewhat primitive and the animations are a bit stiff. Things like trying to jump over tall objects, standing on uneven surfaces, and the way students and teachers move in the game world hint that it was done a long time ago, as does the uneven lip-syncing. That said, the design is absolutely first class all the way through and the faces and especially the monsters and creatures are phenomenal. It makes the cutscenes a joy and as long as I don't pay too much attention to the details, it's generally very beautiful.
One other thing I do want to whine a bit about is the game's computer-controlled characters, the NPCs. In fact, the vast majority of them are ones that I can't interact with at all. They just walk around or lean against things, and when I wake up in the morning in my room, I have no roommates at all. While Hogwarts, the game world and the story do a good job of drawing me into J.K. Rowling's magical universe, the NPCs do the opposite and remind me that it's actually a game. The difference from, say, Red Dead Redemption 2 in this area is very clear.
But... overall, I'm still incredibly pleased with my adventure so far in Hogwarts Legacy. It's the game all of us Harry Potter fans have dreamed of and deserved for so long. You can really dig into so many aspects of the adventure and even play it your way. Perhaps you prefer stealth to action? Then you can level up your character to be better at just that, and if you prefer more of a magical Rambo, the tools for that are included as well.
Complement this with the fact that Avalanche Software keeps adding new things to the gameplay mix all the way through and you get a very varied adventure that never once feels repetitive or stale. I've encountered a few bugs during my time with Hogwarts Legacy and been forced to reboot after getting stuck in a doorway, but in an adventure of this scale at launch it really has to be considered both good and impressive. In the end, I can easily recommend this to all Harry Potter fans, and even to those who are only slightly interested in his world. Being able to have a Butterbeer at Three Broomsticks with a wizard friend, brew your own potions from the plants you've grown, find the hardest secrets and fly broomsticks around Hogwarts' exteriors is - pardon the pun - magic.
Because of time related issues, we didn't manage to finish the adventure in time for the review, this means something might be added later this week.