Content Type: Gaming Reviews
Date: February 7, 2023
There are many, many people who love Harry Potter. Who read all the books and watched all the movies growing up. People who adore the franchise, people for whom the Wizarding World means an incredible amount. And it is those people who see Hogwarts Legacy as the chance to return to the Wizarding World — and Hogwarts specifically — after a long period of subpar movies and minimal progression. It has been said that Hogwarts Legacy is a game that “is like receiving the acceptance letter we never got in real life.” And it is; only… Maybe we should be careful what we wish for.
You see, I grew up in the 2000s, was a voracious reader, and loved magic. So, of course, I was — and, admittedly, am — one of those people: a huge fan of the Wizarding World. Put simply; I have immense nostalgia for the property. And, what’s more, I’m a huge fan of the kinds of open-world games this is clearly inspired by — be it Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, or the Witcher 3.
And that makes it hard to review this game with any sort of objective metric. Because Hogwarts Legacy lives on nostalgia. It thrives on it. And not necessarily in a negative way. It wants people to play thinking, “It’s like I’m in the movies/books again” or “It reminds me of all the best open-world games.” It is pleading with reviewers like me to say, “Welcome back to Hogwarts.”
And I want to. I desperately want to. I want to sink into this game, like it was a comfy bed that I’ve been away from for years, and to let that consume me. I want to, but I cannot. Because this comfy bed is old. It’s been cleaned up, given fresh sheets, but the smell of dust — of stagnation — is still in the air. This game is like a daydream of childhood.
But it is melancholic. I’ve grown, but the past has stayed the same. When I reflect upon that fond memory, I find that there is nothing left in it that I would want today. Only old passions for things for which I am no longer passionate. Old dreams, gone to die.
What changed? I already told you: I grew up. Hogwarts didn’t. Its gameplay is fresh and polished, but not new. It takes old design principles and executes them flawlessly, without ever noticing that those principles are tired and worn. Its story is a return to form for the Wizarding World, but it fails to realize that the world now is a different place than when the last Harry Potter movie came out, one which yearns for Hogwarts to change with it. And its overall design emulates all of the magic from the first time we saw Hogwarts, but… well, you know what magicians say about performing the same trick twice?
If you are the kind of person who can sink into nostalgia, who can truly drown out the outside world and let your mind slip back into the halcyon days of the early 2000s, then Hogwarts Legacy is for you. Ignore the rest of my review: you will find the game nearly flawless, and you deserve the escapist whimsy that it has to offer. We all deserve that respite. For people who can look into the past with that degree of verisimilitude, this game is a 9 or 10.
However, I am not one of those people. I just feel like I’m playing the newest version of the games I got tired of years ago, seeing the newest iteration of the story I grew out of a decade ago. This game is obviously nothing new, but it also isn’t what I want from something nostalgic. It’s expired ingredients, put together by world-class chefs, but which is still, identifiably, past its prime.
Let me explain.
Up to this point, I’ve been vague. Now, let me be much more concrete, and moderately more positive (at least at first). The gameplay in Hogwarts Legacy is solid, but there is one place where it truly shines: Combat.
The combat in Hogwarts Legacy, which you spend most of your time doing, is nothing short of incredible. It could’ve very easily fallen into the same trap that every other Harry Potter game ever has, of just having its myriad spells be turned into third-person-shooter-esque weapons that fire at enemies and damage their health bar, and what we got instead is a complex, enjoyable, and engaging combat system, fully fleshed-out to fit within the Wizarding World.
At the heart of this combat system is the spells, which are numerous enough to give you enough combat options that you’ll never grow bored – and then some. By combining spells in various ways – say by setting an enemy on fire with Incendio, picking him up with Accio, and then hurling him at his allies – combat becomes truly dynamic, and the unique blocking and parrying system actually manages to do with ranged combat what games like Dark Souls or Elden Ring do with melee.
At higher difficulties, combat is legitimately challenging, forcing you to think and maneuver cleverly in order to survive. The many different enemy types act in unique ways, forcing you to adapt depending on your foe and circumstances, including using the environment to your advantage, both with Ancient Magic prompts and with your regular spells. This is what combat in Harry Potter should mean – spells flying, causing all sorts of mystical effects, all while you desperately try to stay alive and come out on top.
But, there’s the issue. It’s what Harry Potter means. Thankfully, we’ve never had a Harry Potter game get it right, and so this great combat is refreshing, but it still is bound by the same systems as a dozen other titles. A selection of powers, all with cooldowns, healing with a button prompt, dodges, an upgrade tree with new abilities, a combo meter, consumable buffs, and a bar that fills up so you can activate your powers. Yeah, it’s polished, but that’s just because it better be because we’ve been doing this since Batman: Arkham Asylum. Heck, we pretty much perfected it with games like Spider-Man (2018), The Witcher 3, and Shadow of Mordor.
The newest of those games came out five years ago. Games are a medium of innovation, of setting new standards, of creating fun, new experiences. Not reskinning decade-old gameplay tropes. It is time to take that and move on. Build on it.
The new God of War game and the more modern FromSoft releases (most notably Sekiro and Elden Ring) have already started revolutionizing this genre, breathing life into this style of combat. And they did so by looking forward, asking what the third-person action genre could be. And, for me, games in that genre now have to answer to those. They have to bring something new to the table, or at least meet God of War and Elden Ring where they are. And Hogwarts Legacy doesn’t. I refuse to believe that the Wizarding World is a universe exclusively for kids, but it sure refuses to mature.
I don’t want to play down the game’s combat. It is fast and fluid, with responsive and lore-accurate controls. You have plenty of control over your character and the battlefield, and the rock-paper-scissors mechanics (of which there are several) force you to think on your feet. As much as Hogwarts Legacy borrows from the combat of other games, it at least avoids the “Press Counter to Win” issue that some of the other games I mentioned have. It leaves me wishing the developers experimented just a tiny bit more, but it doesn’t leave me with a bad impression. Like those other games, I could play and enjoy this combat for many, many hours, meaning that it accomplished its goal, even if it wasn’t a particularly lofty one.
As for the other gameplay mechanics, what do you want me to say? There are quests, which follow the same formula as every quest from a game you’ve seen before. There is XP, which you use to level up, which unlocks new talents, which are just part of the aforementioned same-old upgrade tree for new combat abilities (in fact, this one is quite minimal). There is barebones stealth, scaleable loot, a metric ton of collectibles, and simple, time-waster puzzles. The only mechanic I found myself really falling in love with was decorating the Room of Requirement and caring for beasts, but that’s just because the team at Hogwarts Legacy snuck Wizard Sims into a game that is otherwise disconnected from those mechanics. If you’ve played an open-world action RPG in the past decade, you know what you are getting. Hogwarts Legacy gets some points for doing all of it very competently, but that only goes so far. Arkham City also did all that competently, after all.
So, if Hogwarts Legacy doesn’t shine (but also doesn’t slouch) in its gameplay, perhaps its story is more riveting? More original?
Well, pick whichever Harry Potter movie is the closest to the middle-of-the-pack in terms of quality (Goblet of Fire, in case you’re wondering). That is what you’re getting again, both in tone and quality. And, in fact, plot structure.
The story of Hogwarts Legacy is more interesting at the very beginning, while you play as a witch or wizard who is newly introduced to the Wizarding World. After a fairly interesting (if somewhat predictable) introduction with Professor Fig, you find yourself in Hogwarts as a fifth-year student. This is highly unusual, seeing as nearly all Witches and Wizards begin school at age 11 as first-years, meaning your late introduction can serve as a fascinating look into the school. After all, you have a unique perspective and are introduced to magic at an age when you can be far more critical and aware. You ought to have a disconnect, quite severe, from your fellow fifth-years, and so much can be made of that.
The potential is monumental. Fascinating conflicts can emerge from this, with Malfoy-esque bullies harassing you for your less magical origin. Critiques of the world can be established, as your character might question why Hogwarts is okay with employing slaves (house elves) or might be predisposed to agree with the Goblins in their rebellion for rights. So much can be learned, because you will need to catch up on five years of school — the perfect chance to introduce new lore for magic in the Wizarding World!
Well, that doesn’t happen. Instead, what happens is that everyone is perfectly fine with you coming in late, you catch up very easily to the rest of your year, very little of the world and lore is expanded upon, and the status quo of the Wizarding World goes unquestioned.
Yes, you meet very interesting characters, people who are perfectly in line with the books and movies. Characters like Professor Ronen and Poppy Sweeting are lovable immediately, and it is fun interacting with them. They do react to what you do, and genuinely seem like fleshed-out characters, and some of the individual writing in cutscenes for them even manages to break through the otherwise uninspired story in order to deliver some real emotional impact.
You will also embark on a quest to “save Hogwarts.” You battle not one, but two mustache-twirling villains in epic battles with twists and turns and missions and on and on. I really wish I could say it was more than that, but I can’t. It’s a Harry Potter movie, only self-contained within a single entry. There are whimsical events, and there are some fun set-pieces, but the plot is just a simple “save X” plot you’ve seen a dozen times. No subversion, no iconic twists, no real analysis or fresh takes. It’s a by-the-numbers hero story, well-written but ultimately derivative.
And that derivative nature includes side content, which sees you doing everything from going to classes all the way up to battling monstrous beasts. There is a multitude of quests, and they are, by and large, well-written and voice-acted. While some of them are incredibly dull and simple, quite a few of them see you embarking on fun mini-journeys that are perfectly in line with both the main plot and the Wizarding World as a whole. Just don’t expect any of them to truly change things.
For as much as the marketing has hyped up your ability to choose things in missions, and for those things to “have an impact on the world,” the reality is that you just occasionally get a single dialog prompt (usually one which is obviously good, and one obviously evil). These choices don’t actually impact the world much — they generate different gossip and can lead to different developments in the story (all along the same cookie-cutter path, don’t worry). That’s it. If Hogwarts Legacy was an ice cream cone, then the choices in quests wouldn’t be for different flavors or even different toppings. They would be for dark or light chocolate chips.
I want to reiterate: the story of Hogwarts Legacy isn’t bad. It’s just… The same. You’ve watched or read Harry Potter, and you’ve seen hero stories be told and retold a thousand times. You’ve seen how games like Witcher 3 and Skyrim handle quests. You know what you are getting. If that’s all you want, then it’s great. It is a high-quality, polished, wizard-themed version of all those. If you’re hungry for something more, look elsewhere.
Hogwarts Legacy is not a bad game. It’s just a game that came too late. If it had come out in the late 2000s or early 2010s, when all the other games I’ve been mentioning came out, it would be a contender for that year’s game-of-the-year. The combat feels great, the gameplay is polished and well thought-out, the characters are memorable, and the story is simple but enjoyable. It is technically well put-together, and enjoyable.
But it didn’t come out then. It came out in 2023. Countless games that match that description have come and gone. I remember in 2015 when the Mad Max game came out, and reviews nearly unanimously said that it was derivative and samey. That was 8 years ago. Now, we see Hogwarts Legacy trying to do the same thing — take an old, nostalgic property and give it the ol’ “Action RPG” treatment. It got a massive budget, some people absolutely adore the genre and the world, and lots of time. And that last bit, the time, is what ended up spoiling it for me.
Because Hogwarts Legacy took too long. It came too late. It is nostalgic for a property I’ve grown past, the wonder I once had for it having been replaced by wonder for other, better fantastical tales. It is nostalgic for a game genre that I’ve grown bored of, which is already seeing the innovation that leaves Hogwarts Legacy in the dust. It is nostalgic, and it is asking me to share that nostalgia, but all I feel for it is a wistful disappointment. Can’t the Wizarding World change? Can’t the third-person RPG be improved? Why couldn’t Hogwarts Legacy manage to do what so many other nostalgic properties — from God of War to Dead Space to Puss in freakin‘ Boots — have done.
Well, because it’s the Wizarding World. It’s afraid of change. It’s the same reason why Hermoine is mocked for wanting to free the house elves, why no one questions the Statute of Secrecy, and why the solution at the very end of the last book isn’t to dismantle the Ministry of Magic to start again, it’s just to have Harry and Ron and Hermoine go into the Ministry to clean up the bad apples. The Wizarding World is one where the status quo is god, where nothing can change and everything must stagnate, forever. The whimsy must be kept in stasis because if it can move, it might vanish.
That’s what Hogwarts Legacy is. Whimsy in stasis. A dream, frozen. Not a bad thing, but not brilliant, either.
Hogwarts Legacy is a good game. It’s a good addition to the Wizarding World. I can’t see myself giving any game so polished and so solid a bad score, not by any means. But, oh, how I wish it could’ve looked more forward. After all, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”