Not so magical
I was raised to believe that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. This concludes my review of Wonderbook: Book of Spells.
Alright, that’s a little on the harsh side. The truth is, Book of Spells isn’t a complete insult towards everything both books and video games have come to represent—just mostly one. The core concept of using augmented reality and motion controls to turn a story into an interactive, visually engrossing experience isn’t half-bad, but it seems like no one every really figured out how to execute on that. Seeing your living room come to life is actually pretty impressive for the first ten minutes or so. After you realize, however, that the game just repeats the same handful of tricks for the 3 or 4 hours it lasts, it’s hard to get quite as excited.
It doesn’t help that Book of Spells‘ pacing is formulaic to a fault. Since the game takes on the form of a magical textbook from the world of the Harry Potter books, everything is broken down into chapters and lessons. You get an introduction to a spell, sometimes you watch a short animated pop-up book present a story about the spell, you learn how to say the spell’s incantation (which you’ll never need to use again), you learn how to cast the spell with a gesture of the Move wand, you practice the spell with a minigame, and then you repeat the entire procedure over and over until you finally break down crying.
I mean, I’m ecstatic to see that J.K. Rowling writing in the Harry Potter universe once again, and I’m sure longtime fans of the franchise will be too, but it’s positively shameful how little of the text here is actually worth reading. There’s some generic textbook-style writing on the spells and what they do, there are short anecdotes about the people who invented or infamously used said spells, and there are “conundrum” poems that preach about the virtues it takes to be a great witch or wizard. That’s it. It’s vibrantly written, sure, but it’s just fluff.
The pitiful attempts at interactivity are just as forgettable. Nearly everything you do consists of following simple directions from the narrator, like tracing a shape in the air with the Move wand or brushing off imaginary dirt from the pages. The practice session minigames are all as simple as it gets, requiring you to either flick the wand in a given direction or point the wand at something while squeezing the trigger.
The only really compelling segments are the chapter tests, where you’re forced to resolve a conflict by using the most recent batch of spells you’ve learned. You’re actually forced to decide what spell applies to a given scenario and remember how to cast it and use it successfully like you did in the earlier minigames. Compared to the rest of the experience, it’s pretty much rocket science. I’m still not entirely sure whether they’re genuinely fun or whether my brain was just overjoyed to finally be put to use, but either way, they’re undoubtedly the highlight of the game.
By now, you’re probably thinking to yourself that I’m not giving the game a fair shake. After all, it clearly sounds as though it were intended for small children, and it might be great for keeping them entertained. It’s a solid line of reasoning, one that I considered constantly as I played through Book of Spells.
The trouble is, any child who’s young enough to be entertained by the overly simplistic minigames and bland Simon Says interactive filler is going to be far too young to appreciate the actual reading side of the experience. Not only does the text seem to assume you’ve already read and understood enough of the Harry Potter books to have a solid grasp on the special invented terminology, it’s also written at a high enough reading level that small children probably won’t grasp half of what’s being said.
And I’m not just being condescending, either. Here’s a list of a few of the words that appear in the game: cunning, spectral, substantial, irresponsible, ill-fated, undeterred, unidentifiable, concealment, atrocious, paranoia, tussle, microscopic, rampage, imprudent, persevere, inanimate, gobbets, and sinuous. Good luck with those, kids!
In the end, that’s the biggest problem I have with Book of Spells. I can’t imagine a single age group who can benefit from everything it has to offer. Something will either be too simple to keep them interested or too complex for them to follow. It’s like Curious George Learns Economics. If Sony really wants the Wonderbook to succeed as a platform, they desperately need to refine the concept and settle on a single target audience.
SUMMARY: Book of Spells is a decent proof of concept for the Wonderbook’s augmented reality technology, but the rest of the experience fails to deliver anything memorable or worthwhile, quickly collapsing into an endless parade of gimmicks and dull, overly simplistic minigames.
- THE GOOD: The, uh… Wonderbook itself feels pretty substantial.
- THE BAD: Everything else about the experience is as insubstantial as it gets.
- THE UGLY: The grimace on my face as I brushed imaginary dirt off the book for the 500th time.
Wonderbook: Book of Spells is a PlayStation 3 exclusive.