Zeit Für Magie (Place of Magic) says the sign on the concrete pillar. Viewed from the outside, this couldn't be farther from the truth, as the Mehr! Theater am Großmarkt is located in a drab industrial lot close to Hamburg Central Station. But once the doors open, it quickly becomes clear why people from all over the world travel here to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, despite the play being performed solely in German. The carpet is emblazoned with Hogwarts insignias, each decoration, such as the gargoyles at the mainstage, is handcrafted with unique features, and from the ceiling glimpses more than 3000 light bulbs, the small copper wires bent to resemble the logo of the show. It feels impressive. Grandiose even. And also very empty, with the play currently on hiatus as it's being shortened and reworked for the next line of performances.
All this to say that the venue is fitting for the first hands-on showcase of the much awaited Hogwarts Legacy. For much like the German theatre, the Hogwarts we got to explore during the preview session felt at the same time impressive and, if not downright lifeless, then at least a little sterile.
The hype has understandably been massive for Hogwarts Legacy. An open world RPG set in the Harry Potter universe, the game aims to fulfil the childhood dream of being whisked away to the magical school of wizardry and wonders. It's also the first Harry Potter game in more than a decade not involving Lego bricks, motion controls or augmented reality, and the developer many times stresses that this is a brand new experience set in the well-known universe.
Asked whether any of the previous titles, such as the movie tie-in games, have influenced Hogwarts Legacy, Narrative Director and Advanced Game Writer Moira Squier simply answers "Nope," before elaborating a bit. "This story is completely new. It's a new time period, a new setting, new professors. Just sort of new everything."
As with the Fantastic Beasts film trilogy, Hogwarts Legacy takes place in the 1800s, more than a century before Harry, Ron and Hermione set foot in the remote castle. Fans well-versed in the lore of the universe might still recognise some of the characters you'll meet in the game. But mostly Hogwarts Legacy is all about you. A point emphasised many times by Game Director Alan Tew during a small video presentation before the actual hands-on.
To help with the immersion, Avalanche Software has included an extensive character creator. I quickly passed through the many options of adjusting skin tones, voice pitch and number of freckles in order to get the most out of our all too brief one hour play session, but was still quite impressed with what was on offer. Just don't expect your scars (if you choose to add those) to reflect any dramatic backstory as was the case with Harry in the novels.
"There was a lot of talk during development about whether we should give you [the player] a backstory. And what we decided was just letting the player come in with whatever backstory they wanted to tell or even let them develop their own backstory as they play, because it is their game," tells Kelly Murphy, Lead Designer on Hogwarts Legacy. While the backstory is all in your own head, Squier reveals that the writers have still instilled some personality into the player character that can be both clever, fun, brave and perhaps a little snarky depending on your dialogue choices.
After creating my own character, I'm finally released onto the Hogwarts grounds. While not being completely blown away by the texture quality - this is after all a game releasing for all modern consoles including, at a later date, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch - the gardens still look impressive with the students milling about on carved stone patches while elaborate bush figures are attended by flying gardening tools.
Jumping on my broomstick gives me a nice view of the blue ponds and grassy mountains on the horizon. These are not just for show, as most of the surrounding areas, including famous locations such as Hogsmeade Village and Forbidden Forest, can be visited. Unfortunately, an attendee warns me not to fly too far away during this preview, and so I head inside the castle itself, where I encounter talking paintings, moving staircases, living books and all sorts of other magical paraphernalia. But since I'm mostly just taking in the sights, it all feels a bit stale, like I'm wandering in a digital museum.
It's then that I realise I'm wandering around with a magic wand in my hand that might perhaps liven up the place. So I throw a standard attack at a student carrying a large pile of books. Since he is wearing a Slytherin cape, I figure he might be in on my little prank, but he ignores me completely, not even flinching at the spell. Outside I spot a gigantic beehive and have to suppress a giggle thinking of all the chaos my Incendio spell is going to release. In all fairness the texture is briefly on fire, but alas, no angry bees emerge. It's all peace and quiet at Hogwarts. At least for now.
When I confront the developers with my destructive urges, they tell me that they have limited the interactivity of Hogwarts itself, and that their definition of role playing doesn't include burning the school down. "How you progress your character, how you look like, what you wear, the choices you make. Those things took precedence over saying you are going to be a set character, or we are gonna have a really deep simulation like GTA of cause and effect everywhere," explains Murphy.
It's no Bully then. And not Persona 5 either despite Murphy revealing it to be an early inspiration. Your adventure will not follow the school year, as in the first couple of novels, and while you will attend classes in Herbology, Quidditch and Defence Against the Dark Arts, they mostly serve as a tutorial letting you come to grips with the game's mechanics. There is no continuously running House Cup either which perhaps is a good thing since my attempted antics would probably already have put my house down by a thousand or so points. This being said, I still wish there was more interactivity, and not just of the mean-spirited kind.
Through the most powerful spell of them all - the debug mode - I'm transferred to a later point in the game, a mission called Of Fire and Vice. And it is here that the RPG inspiration really shines through as Hogwarts Legacy suddenly feels a lot like Dragon Age: Inquisition or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
I talk to a young Huffelpuffer called Poppy Sweeting who leads me through a snowy hillside with a big quest marker hovering over her head and a YOU'RE STRAYING TOO FAR AWAY FROM POPPY popping up whenever I take a few too many steps in the wrong direction. I collect crafting materials, loot chests for colour-coded loot and explore an empty poacher camp which provides clues to the location of a stolen dragon egg. As I approach the enemy hideout I put on an invisibility spell which leads Poppy to excitedly exclaim "Oh, that's a brilliant idea!"
Whether it was her yell or my clumsy footsteps, we are suddenly engaged in a hectic wizard battle, spells flying like fireworks close to the ground. I finally get the chance to unleash my arsenal of spells, and boy, it's destructive! Explosive barrels can be magically thrown at enemies or even other objects, and I managed to destroy a bridge dropping an unlucky poacher down a chasm. Even better, you can also grab enemies and swing them through the air or into the ground with small flicks of your wand. As I go about like a mad conductor of a demented symphony of screams and broken bones, I have to wonder what wizardry it took to get a PEGI 12 rating.
It's hard to disagree with Squier describing the combat as "cathartic and fun," even if I didn't get to see "the more comical finishers," promised by Murphy. As I progress further through the mission I also learn that combat is surprisingly deep with different spells countering others, and the possibility of executing combos such as drawing an enemy close with one spell and lighting them on fire with another. During the final showdown of the mission I found myself chucking potions even as I tried making use of both a magical shield (parry) and the ubiquitous dodge roll. The quest concluded with us unleashing a captive dragon that immediately started to chew and barbeque its way through its few remaining tormentors.
With the major caveat that a 15-minute-long mission in no way is near enough to assess the overall quality, I still came away with a feeling that the RPG fundamentals of Hogwarts Legacy are firmly in place. Which is a good thing since we are looking at a quite long adventure with up to "40 hours of playtime" according to Murphy. And that is just for the main quest. Avalanche Software could easily have phoned the game in, relying solely on the Harry Potter brand for sales, but Hogwarts Legacy seems like a full-fledged AAA action RPG in its own right.
My main concern then is, just how much will you actually be able to affect the experience. While interactivity on the school so far seems rather limited (but who knows what secrets hide in the huge school and surrounding areas), Avalanche Software assures me that your choices do matter. You just have to play a little longer to find out how.
"The overarching story is generally the same main storyline," explains Squier. "But throughout you as a player can make different choices. Some are small, some might just be a single quest or how you interact with an NPC later in the game. They will remember what you chose to do in that. Others are much bigger. You can make some very dark choices. If you want to, you don't have to. And if you do make those choices - I don't wanna make any spoilers right - but later on in the game, how you want to resolve things, having made darker choices earlier on, gives you the option to make some darker choices later too."
However you decide to play it, Hogwarts Legacy releases on February 10 for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and PC with other versions to follow at a later date.