The outrage and controversy caused by Wonderbook: Book of Spells’ elongated E3 showing has made it difficult to discuss the augmented reality experience objectively. And yet here we have one of the most unique and commercially viable casual gaming products Sony has produced since the Eye Toy. The Harry Potter spin-off doesn’t have you washing windows – but it does invoke a similar novelty that’s hard to disregard.
The act of sitting cross-legged on the ground with the Wonderbook peripheral at your feet is essential to the experience Sony’s trying to create. From an adult’s perspective, it really taps into the nostalgia of carefree school days; for children, it will be an instantly recognisable exercise. But what’s exciting about Book of Spells is that it pulls such a timeless activity into the modern age. Ultimately, you're still relaxing with a fantastic fairy tale on the floor – only this time the words are brought to life courtesy of the PS3 and PlayStation Eye.
The Wonderbook peripheral itself is well made and is pivotal to the experience. In essence, it’s little more than a hardbound book with several icons printed on its pages – but it’s amazing how much the tome’s inclusion actually adds to the experience. Sony could have made the same game with basic marker cards like the ones included with the PlayStation Vita, but that would remove the profoundly satisfying act of actually turning the novel’s pages.
Everyone that’s read a good book will be able to empathise with the feeling that occurs when you’re desperate to get to the next page – and a similar emotion persists in Book of Spells. The feeling is changed slightly because of the game’s interactive nature, but that familiar hook of anticipating the novel’s upcoming contents is as strong as ever. And the game’s clearly aware of that, evidenced by the manner it gradually collapses old scenes and builds out new ones as you turn over the pages.
We only got to sample a few of the chapters from Book of Spells, but the intention is for the game to recreate the experience of studying at Hogwarts. It’s a perfect fit, as the living novel really does feel like a prop straight out of the Harry Potter series. Sony’s claiming new writing and fiction will be included from author J.K. Rowling, but we didn’t get a sense from our time with the game that it’s going to feature a whole lot of plot development.
However, what we did get to experience was fun if basic. Grasping the PlayStation Move controller in our hand (which is transformed into a wand on screen), we had to perform various flicks and swishes in order to prompt mini-games. The game has an excellent effect in which it zooms in and out of key scenes on the screen, and while this emphasises the flaws of the PlayStation Eye’s image quality, it also highlights some of the impressive visual effects occurring on screen.
Sadly, both of the mini-games we got to sample resulted in us performing the same actions – striking either cardboard insects or wizards with an offensive spell. Upon completing each mini-game we were rewarded with house points and a highlight reel of our actions.
Naturally, we expect the full game will have much more variety, but we would have liked to have seen it evidenced in our demo. It wasn’t clear how the game will be structured, or how much incentive there’ll be to play through the story multiple times. Hopefully, the complete experience will be a lot meatier than it seemed.
Our other concern revolves around the set up process. If it’s anything like Eye Pet, playing Wonderbook will probably demand optimal conditions – and that accounts for things like space, camera height and light. In theory, the game should be played close to the floor, but that’s going to be a challenge for people who keep their televisions on a quite a high surface.
Assuming it can skirt those pesky issues though, it’s easy to see why Wonderbook is such a big focus for Sony. Hardcore gamers might feel wronged by the company’s slight change of focus, but Book of Spells is easily the most attractive casual product it’s made in a while. It’s a simple idea, but Studio London’s made the magic of reading feel modern – and, based on the evidence of our hands-on, it’s picked the perfect brand to launch the experience alongside.