In a generation where Sony’s casual content has aimlessly followed the lead, Wonderbook serves as a stark reminder of the platform holder’s chops when it comes to capturing the attention of the mainstream market. Advancing the company’s ongoing obsession with augmented reality, the exciting educational endeavour is an original prospect akin to the likes of SingStar, EyeToy, and Buzz. For that reason alone, it’s easy to understand why the publisher has weathered an occasionally unfair backlash from its most faithful fans in order to promote the product at various tradeshows.
With original titles from media powerhouses such as the BBC and Disney in the pipeline, Wonderbook: Book of Spells represents the first outing for the innovative reading aide. Promising new writing from J.K. Rowling, the London Studio developed interactive novel provides a deeper insight into Harry Potter’s wizarding world. Unlike other associated tales, the augmented reality adventure resists the temptation to revisit the escapades of Hermione and crew, instead opting to elaborate upon the history of the spells from the epic series of stories.
This simple conceit makes the title a must-have for Hogwarts nuts. The game includes a slew of new writing from the franchise creator, providing context for a range of popular enchantments such as the Scourging and Summoning charms. If you’ve always been curious about the origins of the fiction’s hexes – did you know that a mild-mannered witch pioneered the art of Expelliarmus, for example? – you’ll approach the pages of Book of Spells with a wide-eyed eagerness. It’s just a shame that the entire experience is over before you’ve had time to properly pronounce the words Wingardium Leviosa.
Indeed, for all of the title’s enthralling inventiveness, it feels very much like a dress rehearsal for a far grander idea. It’s clear that much of Book of Spells’ development was spent overcoming technical hurdles, rather than creating truly compelling content. Outside of the J.K. Rowling connection, and the novelty of the concept itself, there’s not a whole lot to keep you invested in the game.
You’ll need a number of accessories in order to enjoy the title – though there are a variety of bundles available to ensure that you’re fully equipped. Alongside the obligatory PlayStation 3, you’ll need a PlayStation Eye camera, a PlayStation Move motion controller, a copy of the game, and the Wonderbook accessory itself. Despite the number of peripherals involved, the price is perfectly palatable – especially considering it’s a one-time investment with the promise of more content to come.
The book itself is solid and well made, with thick pages and a rubber exterior. Inside you’ll find twelve sides each decorated with a different pattern – think of the marker cards included with the PlayStation Vita and you should get a feel for what’s printed on each sheet. It’s these icons that the PlayStation Eye camera tracks in order to transform the physical novel into a window into another world.
A simple infomercial-esque video helps you to set up all of the equipment. It’s fairly intelligent, giving you real-time updates on the preparation process. If you’re doing something wrong, for example, the instructions are smart enough to explain why.
That said, it’s worth noting that there are some limitations to the technology. As with most augmented reality games, you’ll need a strong even light in order to ensure that the title works properly. It’s possible to play in relatively low-light conditions, but the quality of your experience will be lessened if you do so. Furthermore, you’ll need quite a bit of space in front of your television so that the PlayStation Eye camera can see you and the Wonderbook accessory in full. Whether or not you can feasibly play the title will depend entirely on your house’s layout, but the package does seem designed to accommodate as many potential pitfalls as possible.
Once you’re ready, you’ll be able to create a player profile, complete with a Daily Prophet-esque moving photograph, wand and preferred school faction. Much of this information can be imported from Sony’s online reading experiment Pottermore, which creates an interesting optional interaction between the two contrasting products.
The game’s overarching narrative relays that you’ve been given permission to peruse Miranda Goshawk’s spell book by the Hogwarts Library. Penned by the early 20th century witch as a response to the disappointing array of documentation on spell casting at the time, each of the novel’s five chapters introduce you to a slew of new spells culminating in a test and a conundrum which aims to explain the five key tenets required to becoming a magical maestro.
Physically turning the Wonderbook’s pages in order to thumb through the fiction is a refreshing but familiar action. There’s no doubt that the experience could be replicated using EyePet-esque marker cards, but actually interacting with the pages adds a profound uniqueness to the experience. It’s a simple but ingenious idea, and assuming you’ve followed the aforementioned set-up conditions properly, it works flawlessly.
The novel’s five chapters are divided into a variety of different elements, including background stories, spell practice and tests. The latter of which are one-off missions which examine your understanding of each section’s spells, and are closest the title gets to following a traditional video game structure. Meanwhile, background stories are presented through quirky little pop-up book scenes which jump out of the pages of the Wonderbook when selected. The entire title is narrated, but it encourages you to read along – an idea which is indicated most prominently by the inclusion of a karaoke-esque subtitles system, which adds additional detail to noteworthy words such as ‘fire’ and ‘gold’. The stories also ensure that you’re paying attention by including questions that carefully challenge your understanding. Cutely, you respond to these by pulling tabs that emerge from either side of the on-screen book.
There’s a real whimsical style to the overall presentation that’s both befitting of the content and the overarching Harry Potter universe. It really does feel like you’re interacting with a textbook lifted directly out of the stories, which is a testament to the outstanding work that London Studio’s done.
Spell practice pages not only teach you the background behind the charms but also encourage you to learn how to perform them. Predictably, the PlayStation Move motion controller represents your wand here – but it’s fairly limited in its implementation. While each spell is augmented with a unique selection gesture (such as tracing a circle or drawing a line), casting these charms relies on two very basic motions. Flicking your wand forward casts hexes such as Expelliarmus (disarming spell) and Duro (hardening spell), while pointing at objects and pulling the controller’s trigger prompts less exciting enchantments such as Accio (summoning spell) and Engorgio (growth spell). This overwhelming lack of variety results in the practice lessons all feeling mechanically similar. You’re either swatting your wand at highlighted objects, or selecting glittering goodies with a swift squeeze of the controller. As you close in on the title’s final chapters, you’ll know exactly what to expect.
There are the odd occasions where the game tries something different. For example, on one page you’ll need to tilt the novel towards the camera in order to look down a hole in the book, while another activity takes advantage of basic facial recognition technology in order to layer your typically handsome features with boils and spots. Chapter tests combine as many activities as possible – but while these are the best showcases of the game’s overarching technology, they fail to add much mechanical depth to the experience.
Considering that the title’s predominantly designed for children, it’s fine that there’s not an overwhelming array of inputs on offer. But we suspect that even youngsters will tire of the formulaic format, and will find their attention dwindling as they approach the latter half of the adventure.
And that’s perhaps the biggest disappointment with Book of Spells – there’s just not a lot to it. The matter-of-fact writing, original canon content, and impressive technological achievements simply aren’t enough to make up for the title’s shortcomings in the longevity department. Even if you tackle half a chapter a day, you’ll still see everything that the game has to offer in just over a week – and there’s really no reason to reinvest once you’ve read all of the pages.
Wonderbook: Book of Spells is magical – but it doesn’t have enough content to match its otherwise exemplary ideas. If you – or a family member – are hungry for more background on the history of Hogwarts, then this is a must-have package. But while it represents a rare sojourn in sorcery for unworthy Muggles, it casts an Imperio charm that’s disappointingly short-lived.