Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, a mobile game developed by Jam City, boasts some pretty high production values for a mobile title. But don’t let any of it fool you, because the iconic setting and characters are all just bait to lure you into yet another mobile pay-to-play cycle. Hogwarts Mystery plays similar to Telltale Games’ choose-your-own-story titles. Unfortunately, it’s a game where your choices really don’t matter, the story railroads you down one direction, and every action costs you some form of limited currency. Hogwarts Mystery offers nothing, yet expects your patronage. This title goes out of its way to nickel-and-dime you, pestering you with mechanics designed to either force you to wait or pony up.
There are three forms of in-game currency; energy to perform tasks, coins to buy extra story missions and character customization options, and gems to refill your energy meter and unlock more of the main story missions. I’m not kidding when I say nearly every action, save for wandering the halls of Hogwarts, costs you some form of payment. You’re always spending energy, used mostly through finger taps and the occasional “trace the outline” mini-game, to learn spells and potions, engage in wizard duels, and generally move the plot along. But while you’ll earn currency just by playing, later missions will require a greater demand for everything–more than you can earn through gameplay–meaning you could either wait a long time before your energy meter refills or you could purchase varying amounts of gems just to play. There are parts designed to drain your energy, and patience, as you’re forced to wait. This is the dark truth to Hogwarts Mystery: despite all the pageantry, it’s just another pay-to-play “free” game.
Set as a prequel to the original J.K. Rowling books, your custom-made character begins as a first year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The story plays out like a CliffsNotes version of Potter’s adventure; you’ll immediately get your wand, make friends, get sorted into a house (i.e. pick your house), get a rival, and be told about your family’s mysterious history in the span of a few minutes. Really, it’s an excuse to have the player run around the classic version of Hogwarts, complete with the original faculty.
Something interesting about Hogwarts Mystery is its assembled star power. It’s not enough that the title reproduces the look from the original Warner Bros. produced films, which is impressive in its own right–they also went and reassembled much of the film cast for voice talent. Jam City got actors like Michael Gambon, Gemma Jones, Zoe Wanamaker, and Warwick Davis to reprise their roles of Dumbledore, Pomfrey, Hooch, and Flitwick, respectively. They even got Dame Maggie Smith to reprise her role of Professor McGonagall to voice the intro to the game.
This infuriates me, because they brought back all this talent, only to waste it such a miserable little cash grab of a title. In terms of wasted talent, this is the Hobbit Trilogy of mobile games. It takes all the good will earned from a series of films that were made, by and large, by artists with a lot of talent and a lot of heart, only to have it turned into a cynical spin-off with token appearances of beloved characters. I’m not saying they needed to blow our socks off, but they honestly could have done better than what we got.
At a time where console games are being critically raked over the coals, and the government of Belgium declared loot boxes a form of gambling, the mobile game market continues to get away with similar predatory practices with impunity. While I wouldn’t call Hogwarts Mystery the nadir of everything wrong with mobile games (anyone remember EA’s Dungeon Keeper Mobile?) this title is certainly one of the most egregious. Hogwarts Mystery is a cash-in on the Harry Potter books and films, and even previous games, for fast short-term profits, tarnishing the brand business-wise, and probably putting a sour taste in the mouths of fans.