Review: Wonderbook: Book of Spells
By Paul Hunter
J.K. Rowling's latest wizardly creation is here with Wonderbook: Book of Spells, a game that takes advantage of Sony's PlayStation Move technology. Using the new Wonderbook peripheral, Book of Spells is the closest a Harry Potter fan can get to experiencing first-hand the excitement and wonder that comes with learning some of the most popular spells taught at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Instead of starring Harry Potter or his familiar band of friends, Wonderbook: Book of Spells casts the player in the role of a brand new student at Hogwarts who happens to come across the Book of Spells, a 200-year-old magical tome written by Miranda Goshawk, the fictional author of The Standard Book of Spells series in the Potter universe. Having been kept in the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts library, the Book of Spells is a powerful, secret textbook meant to give students step-by-step instructions on how to practice 20 of the easiest to learn, yet most valuable spells in a wizard's or witch's repertoire.
Wonderbook: Book of Spells is an augmented reality experience brought to life with the Wonderbook, a 12-page physical book that comes packaged with the game. Inside the blue-coloured book are patterns that resemble QR codes, and when placed in front of the PlayStation Eye camera, transforms the book into an ancient spell book on your TV screen. It's an amazing visual experience to witness your plain-looking Wonderbook morph into a full-fledged book of wizardry, which quite convincingly makes you believe it was taken straight from the Hogwarts' library shelves.
If you already have a PlayStation Move, set-up is a breeze, and requires as little effort as adjusting your PlayStation Eye camera so it faces down towards the floor as you sit cross-legged with your Wonderbook in front of you. For new PlayStation Move owners, expect about 5 minutes to set-up the camera, plus the charging time for your PlayStation Move controller. Upon starting the game, the in-game instructor asks you to select your preferred magic wand, from three available choices which vary in appearance and length, and then you choose a Hogwarts' House from Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin. Once your selections are made, on-screen your stubby PlayStation Move controller will magically extend and transform into wizard's wand, bent-tip and all.
After completing the set-up, you're whisked away to the main menu screen where you learn the Book of Spells is divided up into five, two-part chapters, with each whole chapter teaching you four spells (for a total of twenty spells to practice and master). In an interesting use of the Wonderbook, before opening the Book of Spells you're asked to brush off the dust that's been collecting over the centuries, which is accomplished by waving your hand across the surface of your Wonderbook.
Each chapter in Book of Spells is formulaic, running through the same basic exercises until finally culminating in a chapter test where you must employ the skills learned throughout the two-part chapter. You'll begin with a brief overview of each new spell, followed by an animated anecdotal history lesson describing the creator and first uses of the particular spell. The humour-filled, interactive lessons are presented via some visually impressive cartoon dioramas which have you pull tabs with your PlayStation Move controller to answer simple questions or add effects to the story. The characters are pretty comical, having such funny names as Eldon Elsrickle and Elizabeth Smudgling, and the stories are as zany as any that J.K. Rowlings has created.
Over the course of the five chapters, you'll learn many of the most popular spells from the Harry Potter books, such as Wingardium Leviosa (Levitation Charm), Incendio (Fire-Making Spell), and Expelliarmus (Disarming Spell). The first step to learning a spell is mastering the incantation, which the game enthusiastically asks you to repeat. It's fun, for example, to yell out "Alohomora!" to enact the Unlocking Charm, but once you realize the game is only detecting that you speak, and doesn't care what words you utter, part of the magic is lost. Following this is the wand gesture, which has you trace a simple shape, be it a wavy line or sharp flick of the wrist, to initiate the spell. Disappointingly, when you actually start employing the spells you're only required to perform the wand gesture, so it feels a bit useless to learn the incantations.
Once you've practiced the spell hand gesture, it's time to practice in mini-games that take place in various areas around Hogwarts such as the herbology greenhouse, and the library. The practice sessions are very basic, such as levitating a jar and placing it back on the Wonderbook, or foiling coin-stealing Nifflers by hardening the ground as they try to bury their stolen treasure. Even the practice sessions in latter chapters, which have you summon supposedly more advanced spells, rarely evolves beyond simply wand waves to ward off enemies with predictable attack patterns. Then again, this is a game that seems intended for ages 6-12, so perhaps I'm being too fickle.
While the mechanics are rather simple, seeing your wand motions result in magic spells is surely the highlight of this game. I was amazed the first time I cast Aguamenti, the Water-Making Spell, and splashed water all over my TV screen, and most other spells initially delighted me equally as much. Also fun was using hand gestures to brush off dust or feathers that occassionally would cloud some text on the Wonderbook, and it was visually impressive to tip my Wonderbook forward to peer straight down a well that appeared in the middle of my book. Without a doubt, Wonderbook: Book of Spells was the best augmented reality I've seen yet for PlayStation Move, and on more than a few occassions the effects mesmerized me.
My biggest gripe with Wonderbook: Book of Spells is how little content there is in the game. Each of the chapters can be completed in forty minutes or less, and there's little incentive to go back and replay them. I would have thought that after spending four hours learning spells there would have been a rich castle to explore and practice your spells, or perhaps a mini battle campaign which has you combat dementors or evil wizards, but nothing of the sort exists. After you finish practicing the twenty spells the game simply ends and you're encouraged to go back and practice the spells some more. There are collectibles found throughout the lessons, and at the end of each chapter you're presented with a "Conundrum", which is a poetic cutscene, spoken by Miranda, providing insight into the qualities of a successful wizard or witch, but both are fillers at best.
Wonderbook: Book of Spells is short-lived experience, but it kept my interest throughout. Certainly the game shows the potential of augment reality games using the Wonderbook, making it a great first attempt and proof-of-concept. Young Harry Potter fans will surely derive lots of fun with this being the most immersive spell-casting experience yet, and you get a real sense of what being a first-year student at Hogwarts must be like. This is original J.K. Rowling writing at its best, and the witty history lessons and charming poems will delight Harry Potter fans interested in the story's lore. The PlayStation Move controller is extremely accurate and casting spells will quickly and effortlessly become second nature. It's a shame there's not more depth to Wonderbook: Book of Spells, but what's included retains the magic and wonder that Harry Potter fans have come to expect.
[This article originally appeared on the Future Shop Tech Blog]