Sony’s Move controller might look like a big icecream cone to some people, but with SCE London’s Wonderbook: Book of Spells, it shows that there’s a lot of magic left in the technology for young and adult fans of the Harry Potter series and fantasy in general.
Become a master of magic and learn to cast the spells with a book which sits comfortably between the fiction of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series and the reality of your living room.
A book with a superficial story or lack thereof
Despite Rowling’s obvious influences, there isn’t much of a story and any crossovers with known characters are also non-existent. Plot and protagonist are in general unimportant, because the emphasis lies on the use and backgrounds of the different spells. This is obviously something of a missed opportunity: As much fun as it is to learn these, the chapters of the books don’t tell a coherent story and the game therefore loses some of the potential that the player can feel as if he/she were in Rowling’s world, because there’s no goal other than completing all chapters and becoming master of the spells. Granted, this is what a book of spell is about, but it would have been much more motivating to have a bit more suspense and a story to follow.
It’s too bad that the main goal of the game isn’t reflected in an engaging storyline, because if one looks at the background stories of the individual spells, it becomes obvious that there’s a lot of storytelling potential. These are usually presented in a fairy-tale like short story with some rhyming and moralizing, although there’s also quite a fair bit of humor as well. Even if the outcome of the stories can’t be influenced, certain parts of them can be interacted with, e.g. when the narrator asks the player what sorts of creatures were summoned or what certain people did in a specific situation. Choosing the wrong answer also results in some funny scenes, so it’s not only an education process. Of course one can argue that becoming a magician is the main story, and with some reward system which gives more points if one is faster or more accurate with spellcasting, the illusion of being part of the Hogwarts School is definitely there. But as these only unlock certain special features, one can’t really call this an elaborate plot.
Wielding the magic
The way the spells are performed is reminiscent of the system used in Black and White or Okami, i.e. drawing certain characters in the air, this time by waving the Motion controller around, activates them and they can be aimed and thrown at objects (like fireballs or water). Usually these are quite simple to draw, but with time, more and more have to be remembered, so it’s always a good thing to write them down somewhere, because there’s no notebook one can consult (even though the instructor gives some hints after a while). Usually these are introduced in an accessible way, but sometimes there are also cases when one simply doesn’t know what to do. This becomes apparent in the final test segments. In theory, one has to apply all the knowledge of the learned spells in these levels in order to close the chapter, and for the most part, this works quite well, but when one has to quickly decide which spells to use in a limited time frame in some sort of boss battles, this can become quite frustrating.
Inside the magic
Each section of the book consists of mini games which vary in quality. While some require the player to defend him-or herself against attacking monsters with the appropriate spell or let some plants, creatures etc. grow, others are much more puzzle-heavy, even though the solutions are never far away from the obvious and the difficulty is on a low level. Even if not all of these mini exercises offer the same amount of fun, most of the time, it’s an involving and overall immersive experience waving the magic wand or Motion controller around and figuring out how to best approach the current problem.
This is mainly because of the way the camera captures the player and its real-world environment and puts him or her into the fantasy world. The special effects might not always be the most impressive, but it’s still a lot of fun seeing how a stream of water shoots out of the wand or a flock of crows flies around the player’s head. What’s even more interesting is how the book itself is handled. In some instances one has to dust it off or hold it up and down in order to let something out or look through it, making the illusion nearly perfect to hold a real magic book, especially when one has to say the spells out loud.
Outside the magic
The only problems which break the illusion arise out of the nature of the augmented reality idea and the Move controls. If one decides to turn a page too quickly or is simply lost which page to turn to next, the inherent logic of a structured narrative is destroyed. Of course this can usually be avoided by listening carefully to the instructor, but taking a break and continuing with some sections can be a bit confusing. Unfortunately the Move controller isn’t always up to the task of performing accurate movements. In the aforementioned boss battles, it is extremely annoying if the camera doesn’t translate all the player’s movements into the game.
It’s a kind of magic presentation
The presentation itself ranges from very good to an okay level of quality. Professional voice acting helps to keep the learning process engaging, although there aren’t any more characters except for the narrator. The music isn’t the most memorable, but it adds to the enchanting atmosphere. Background and character designs could be a bit better and even if the combination of real-life camera snapshots and moving images of the fantasy world usually works, it’s certainly not a world one would necessarily dive right into, although the design of the creatures is sometimes pretty good. This is a shame, because the background stories of the individual spells are presented with a very appealing cardboard theatre look which features some lovingly-drawn pictures which strangely brings the world of wizardry and witchcraft much better to life than the main graphics do.
Augmented reality in its infancy
Sony’s Wonderbook: Book of Spells is an interesting experiment in augmented reality gaming. Although it’s disappointing in terms of gameplay and storytelling, there’s no doubt that it succeeds in what it sets out to do: creating the illusion of spellcasting. A more involving storyline with characters would have made the experience more tangible and motivating, but as it stands, the immersion of reading a magic book is still there and with some especially enticing cardboard theatre visuals it only hints at the potential of what other Wonderbooks can do if they tell a real story and make the player part of it.
As a stand-alone product, there’s no denying that it’s a book for Harry Potter fans, for a younger audience who wants quick sessions of play with some child-friendly presentation. Even for adult players, there’s a lot of fun the Book of Spells offers despite some technical problems, average graphics and the repetitive gameplay.
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