'Hogwarts Legacy' Review: A treat for Potter fans shaded by Rowling controversy
Harry Potter may be to millennials what Star Wars was for Gen X: a surprise hit that sparked a generation-defining phenomenon. But unlike that tale from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Wizarding World hasn't boasted prolific video game adaptations until now.
There have been movie tie-ins and LEGO games but until Hogwarts Legacy, out Friday, no studio had attempted to make a big-budget, prestige experience based on the franchise. It was well worth the wait — developer Avalanche Software exceeded expectations.
Fans were anxious when Warner Bros. tasked the studio to develop the game back in 2018. The team previously worked on the Disney Infinity series and other Disney properties like Cars and Toy Story: projects that weren't anywhere near the scale that Avalanche claimed Hogwarts Legacy would reach. But after years of pandemic delays, the studio managed to deliver on the magical fantasy it promised (with one notable absence — you can fly a broomstick, but you can't play Quidditch!).
Unfortunately, this trip to Hogwarts comes with some heavy baggage. While Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was not directly involved in the game's production (though her creative agency was), the controversy over statements and actions she's made opposing trans rights has led to ongoing calls for a boycott. Hogwarts Legacy does feature the franchise's first trans character, but trans advocates and allies criticized her inclusion as a token attempt to stave off backlash.
The controversy has fueled deeply-divided reactions to the game, even as it broke pre-sale and Twitch viewership records. For this review, we'll focus on the merits of the game itself, but Rowling's stance and her financial ties to the Wizarding World (she'll stand to benefit from sales) remain.
Way back when
Hogwarts Legacy takes players back to 100 years before the core Harry Potter series began. So, there's no Grindelwald or Voldemort forcing a Wizarding World War, and you won't be seeing any familiar faces (but you might hear some names that ring a bell). However, that doesn't mean that everything is peaceful just because the big bads haven't entered the picture yet.
You begin your journey as a fifth-year student on the way to Hogwarts for the first time. Mere minutes into the game, a dragon attacks you and your mentor as you narrowly escape using a mysterious portkey. Soon you'll be uncovering the secrets behind a suppressed school of ancient magic and learn of a conspiracy by the goblin Ranrok to trigger a rebellion against wizardkind.
While you'll spend plenty of time trying to thwart Ranrok's schemes, you're also a new student at Hogwarts who happens to be five years behind your peers, who all began their education when they turned eleven years old. Your late-blooming doesn't get much explanation (except that you have an unusual aptitude that showed up as a teen), but thankfully, you're on an accelerated schedule to catch up. In addition to attending classes, you must complete side quests assigned by each teacher to gain new spells and abilities.
You've got to keep up a social life as well. No matter which house you're sorted into, you'll grow close to Hogsburrow native Sebastian Sallow, a Slytherin, and Natsai Onai, a Gryffindor that transferred from the Uagadou school in Uganda.
A world of wizardry
Developer Avalanche Software took tremendous care to render Hogwarts in stunning detail. The school is just as sprawling and eccentric as described in the books and depicted in the movies. Throughout the game, I continued to discover new nooks and crannies, and just when I thought I had seen everything it had to offer, I'd find a new door to yet another area.
It's not all empty space, either. I was amazed at how much stuff there is to do. There are myriad collectibles to find, puzzles to solve, and side missions to complete. At around the 8-10 hour mark, just when you might get a bit stir-crazy at Hogwarts, the world opens up, and you're let loose on a vast swath of the Scottish countryside.
That might sound overwhelming, but you're not compelled to do everything. You can run through the main story in about 20-25 hours. But if you attempt 100% completion, you could easily take triple that time.
It wouldn't be Harry Potter without the magic, and Avalanche did a great job with the combat system. Slinging spells from your wand could have been a tedious affair, but Hogwarts Legacy emphasizes combos and gives you a diverse array of spells that affect enemies differently.
Your basic spell is just a little bolt of magic you use to juggle opponents between more powerful attacks. You can hit an enemy with Levioso to fling them into the air, fire off a four-hit basic combo, use Accio to pull them to you, shoot off another combo, then finish them off by slamming them into the ground with Descendo.
That toolset makes you feel extremely powerful, and the game can feel overly easy because of it. Of course, you can turn up the difficulty, but with so many opportunities to render enemies defenseless (including eventually outright insta-killing them with Avada Kedavra!), it never gets that tough.
The biggest (and most controversial) game of the year
Hogwarts Legacy is a dream come true for Potter fans (even as the surrounding controversy very much isn't). Avalanche Software did a magnificent job giving the series its first truly AAA treatment. I was impressed by just how fun the whole experience was and how much I looked forward to finding the next little secret or unlocking a new gameplay feature. It's an early contender for Game of the Year, though the J.K. Rowling controversy looms large.
James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this review.