It’s greatest trick is making your money disappear.
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is a trap disguised as a free-to-play RPG, seemingly designed to prey on your sense of nostalgia and childlike wonder to squeeze as much money out of you as possible. Some Wizarding World-inspired window dressing and familiar music are used as a thin veil to mask what is an otherwise offensive collection of rampant microtransactions.
As a lifelong fan of Harry Potter (I was in elementary school when the books debuted and was exactly 11 years old – the same age as Harry – when the first movie came out) all I wanted was a simple game that let me make a character and attend Hogwarts. But it seemed like immediately after making my witch or wizard, getting a wand from Ollivanders in Diagon Alley, and going to be sorted into one of the four houses, Hogwarts Mystery was actively trying to keep me from enjoying myself.
Joining a house was, to put it mildly, a letdown.
Joining a house was, to put it mildly, a letdown. There are roughly one billion quizzes out there on the internet – and even an official one on Pottermore itself – designed to tell you which house you’d be sorted into. Now that we finally have an official Harry Potter roleplaying game that lets you make your own character, all it does is just ask you to pick the house you want, with no actual sorting? I felt robbed of a crucial first step in any young wizard’s life.
From then on, things pick up about how you’d expect. You’ll be whisked off to attend your first class, which involves simply tapping highlighted objects and people and swiping the screen to cast spells. That’s really the extent of the gameplay in Hogwarts Mystery, which is more appropriately defined as a point-and-click adventure game with a lot of heavy story elements more than anything action-packed.
As you progress through the original (and surprisingly engaging) Harry Potter tale you’ll reach branching moments that let you make mostly meaningless decisions that influence your character and your one-dimensional plot device sidekick, Rowan.
The story is a refreshing change of pace from the tired ‘chosen one’ trope.
In addition to attending Hogwarts as a new student, you’ll fill out your character’s backstory in dialogue. Specifically, there’s an entire subplot of your expelled sibling that came before you and put your chosen house to shame, which adds an extra layer of familial drama. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the tired “chosen one” trope that most Harry Potter tales choose to employ. The originality of the story, combined with the small choices you’re allowed to make, do help the story stand out a bit more than the rest of your romp through Hogwarts. Becoming a part of the Wizarding World, seeing your avatar attend class, and visiting iconic locations while talking with recognizable faces is almost enough to save this otherwise-lackluster adventure. Almost.
You’ll also earn attributes that further influence your witch or wizard’s development over the course of their Hogwarts career by unlocking new dialogue choices here and there to fit your evolving personality. For example, you’ll need to complete lessons and perform tasks that reward you with more Courage in order to perform the “Courageous” actions in scenes and dialog that are otherwise locked off as a choice. This might lead your character to be more bold or forthcoming, which could net you more House Points towards winning the House Cup at the end of the year. None of that really has any meaningful impact on the story at all, though, so it tends to just feel like busywork.
After the first half hour of setup for what had potential to be a charming story, you’re hit with tasks that can only be solved by spending the two currencies – energy and crystals – and naturally you’ll never have enough to do them when you want to because they replenish in real-time at an agonizingly slow rate. So if you encounter a situation where your avatar is being choked to death, you have the option of either buying gems with real money or closing the app and coming back several hours later after you’ve recharged for free. And there’s nothing else to do to kill the time – I’m used to ignoring in-app purchases in most games, but I can’t even recall the last time I played one that actively prevented me from doing anything unless I either paid money frequently or stopped playing altogether. Each time I was forced to close the app and come back in a few hours I was discouraged from even turning it back on at all.
It’s the worst example of free-to-play game design in recent memory.
But, if you miss the real-time eight-hour deadline you’ll have to start that task all over again. The idea is to create this relationship with your phone where you’re checking it and clicking into the app frequently (gotta get those ad impressions!) to see if you’re charged up enough before returning, but it’s incredibly irritating that there’s absolutely nothing else to do while you wait. It’s the worst example of stereotypical, exploitative free-to-play mobile game design I’ve encountered in recent memory.
To make matters even more confusing, the price for gems is in flux.
In my experience, the bare-minimum gems I’d need to buy to complete most tasks that I hit the paywall for could be as low as $0.99 for 25 gems, which I could trade in 20 of to get 10 energy crystals. From there the prices scale with 130 gems costing $4.99, whereas 30 crystals cost 55 gems. Since a paywall could hit during almost every activity, this adds up very fast.
To make matters even more confusing, the price for gems (which are used to buy more energy) is in flux. Some users in certain regions are getting different prices and deep discounts, while others aren’t. Warner Bros. appears to be testing which price ranges are most effective, but experimenting with prices amidst massive fan backlash against the system seems like a bad move.
Obviously Hogwarts Mystery is designed to be played in short bursts, but those bursts seem to end at the most frustrating possible time, interrupting you in the middle of intense story moments or halfway through learning a spell, and forcing you to repeat tasks if you didn’t have enough energy the first time.
I can’t help but feel that developer Jam City would have been better off giving us an alternative progression path to earn our way forward. At the very least you should be able to stockpile crystals and save up lots of energy or be able to easily earn gems (the microtransaction currency) without real money. Or just sell us the whole thing for an up-front price.