Yer a Wizard, MalkAgain, at the most basic level Wizards Unite bears a resemblance to its Pokécessor: You walk around the real world, and take occasional breaks to interact with AR elements. You swipe, you collect. But this is like drawing similarities between Fox in Socks and Pale Fire. They both feature words written on pages, and rhyming couplets, but you’d never confuse the two.I don’t necessarily mean this as a compliment. The Wizards Unite on-boarding process, in particular, feels like a detour into some backwater Pottermore forum. I admit that I still haven’t fully grasped the contours of the game’s plot, but it goes something like this, as handed down to you through dozens of expository dialogue panes. An event known as the Calamity has resulted in many items of value—known as Foundables—gone missing. You find Foundables by looking for Traces, a rough equivalent of a Pokéstop, where so-called Confoundables guard them until you cast a spell to make the Confoundable disappear, at which point you can place the Foundable where it belongs in the Registry. Deep breath.And that’s just the very most basic basics. There are also Mysteries and Challenges and Potions and Portkeys. There are Fortresses and Greenhouses and Inns. You can pick up frog brains off the ground; I’ve already got nine of them, no biggie. They go into potions you can brew once you have the right ingredients; potions improve your spells in Traces and Wizarding Challenges, and oh right, there are Wizarding Challenges, can’t forget those, that’s what happens in the Fortresses. That’s where you use your runestones, too. I’ve got 17 of them! Totally forget how. They go nicely with my three packets of Leaping Toadstool spore seeds and 20 water cans. Did I mention you can reduce your potion brewing time if you get enough Master Notes?In truth, the most fun I had in my first stretch of Wizards Unite was coming up with my wizard name (Magic Malk, a regrettable collision of Magic Mike and a throwaway Simpsons gag) and designing my wand, which is made of English Oak and has “reasonably supple” flexibility.That Wizards Unite contains multitudes feels fitting for the ever-expanding Harry Potter universe. It also requires more focus than the confines of Pokémon Go, where the most mentally taxing moments center around deciding which Fearow to evolve. I don’t mean to overstate it; you’re still playing a mobile game, not taking an AP Calculus exam. But with Wizards Unite, Niantic has embraced ambition. The digital world it creates doesn’t just sit in one flat layer on the real one; it has depth and breadth of its own. And, I cannot stress this enough, a troll in a music box.
Lost and FoundablesDespite the narrative bombardment, I eventually came around to Wizards Unite, which gets a lot more fun once you stop getting your bearings and start blasting spells. The game mechanics are more involved than those of Pokémon Go, but all for the better. Instead of a repetitious tossing of Pokéballs, each Trace calls for a different sort of spell. You execute those by tracing your finger along an appointed route, which sounds easier than it is in practice—either that or I have idiot fingers, which is extremely possible.The key, I think, is that the Foundables all have just the right touch of whimsy to them: Snape in a giant glass bottle. Hedwig stuck in a mini-tornado. That music box troll, which still gets me. I’m sure I’ll get tired of these, especially since they do repeat with some frequency. If you find multiple Remembralls, you just keep collecting them. But the game has dozens of Foundables across 10 categories. I’m looking forward to finding more.You can also fight, whether it’s in a Fortress or being accosted by a centaur on an afternoon stroll. This also involves swiping, but first you have to use your finger to line up a star with a target star and hold it in place.There are only two things I don’t enjoy much about the actual AR part of Wizards Unite. First, if you take a step after engaging with a Trace, the game gets confused and makes you step back to where you had been standing. This is fine, just awkward for any neighbors who might catch a glimpse of your stutter-stepping back into position. More galling is the issue of so-called spell energy, which basically caps the number of spells you can place without replenishing at 75. That sounds like a lot, but you’ll run out faster than you might think. To get it back, you have to go to an Inn, but if there’s none nearby, you have to pay up.This is admittedly similar to running out of Pokéballs in Pokémon Go. But at least in that game, almost every stop is a Pokéstop, and almost every Pokéstop can restock you. In Wizards Unite, if you’re surrounded by Greenhouses, it’s 100 coins to replenish most, but not all, of your spell energy—the equivalent of a little over a buck.I feel a little bit insane typing all of those words in that order. But take it as testament that when I ran out of spell energy playing Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, I was disappointed that I couldn’t play more right then and there. Not disappointed enough, though, to spend real money on my imaginary Confoundables crusade.
Low and SlowIt appears I’m not the only one in that frame of mind. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is currently the most downloaded free game on both Android and iOS. But on Android it only slots in at 57 for top grossing games; it fares slightly better on iOS, but still sits at 27. (Pokémon Go persists; it's currently still top 10 in Google Play, and second overall in the App Store.) In its first weekend, according to data from app analytics company SensorTower, Wizards Unite brought in $1.1 million. That’s no small change, but Pokémon Go generated $28 million in player spending in its first four days after launch. It’s not even the best-performing Harry Potter game in recent memory: A decidedly non-AR entry called Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery racked up seven times as much revenue as Wizards Unite in its first four days after launch, when you compare the same markets.
Those numbers don’t make Wizards Unite any kind of failure. It’s on track to make $10 million in its first month, a tally most developers would cast an unforgivable curse for. And almost all top-performing apps—including Pokémon Go—rely on so-called whales , or deep-pocketed power users, to propel sales after the initial fizz subsides. A game with as many nooks and crannies as Wizards Unite seems destined to attract more than its share of hard core devotees.But the biggest takeaway of Wizards Unite may be the reminder that augmented reality games, even when built on the same template, can create entirely different experiences. Niantic hasn’t let Pokémon Go’s success pigeonhole its Potter fantasia. The result is bloated and overly complex, especially for a subway station time-killer. But it’s also fun, and different, and a world apart. It makes you excited to see what’s next, both within the game and beyond it.
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