There’s some whimsical alternate universe in which author J.K. Rowling had not dedicated years of her time, energy, and considerable resources to waging a rhetorical and practical war on the rights of trans people, where Warner Bros. Games’ new Harry Potter game Hogwarts Legacy would be a fascinating curiosity. What happens, the game asks (underneath all the other questions that it screams, simply by existing, with this kind of massive corporate support, in 2023) when you run one of most iconic pop culture franchises of the 21st century through the shredder of big-budget video game design? How much charm can survive the apparently inevitable procession of open world map icons, endless “loot” management, repetitive chores, mandatory combat, an infinity of little puzzles that serve more as roadbumps than brainteasers? Can the sheer weight of the Harry Potter brand overcome a hundred little irritations apparently endemic to this particularly lifeless brand of game design?
The answer, as it turns out, is “yes, a bit more than you might expect.” Hogwarts Legacy has clearly been created by people who love Rowling’s franchise—people desperate to give players a full version of not just its titular Scottish castle (recreated in elaborate, and sometimes confounding, detail here), but the villages and Wizarding World it exists within. For a franchise whose previous best recreations in gaming were rendered, improbably, in Lego, it’s a genuinely impressive labor of love. Sprinting down Hogwarts’ corridors, candles dance in the air, ghosts chase each other down hallways, and all the characters are rendered with a thick-but-on-brand patina of befuddled Britishness that you’re either kind of sick of at this point, or not.
The game’s plot settles on, what else, a Chosen One, as you come to Hogwarts as a fifth-year student mysteriously gifted to be able to see “ancient magic”—which we can’t help but think of as “Double Magic,” a mysterious form of even-more supernatural power that turns your player-created character into a wizard even more special than all the other wizards. Obviously, there are various conspiracies—including a rebellion from the goblins, sick as always of being treated as permanent second-class citizens by wizardkind—centered on the use of this new-old power, all playing out as you attend classes, fly brooms, and, blessedly, do not play Quidditch. (The headmaster has canceled it for the year, presumably as a personal favor to developer Avalanche Software.)
All of which ties into Hogwarts’ Legacy’s open-world structure, which steadily expands out from the castle during the game’s first 10 hours. First, you’re making your way up and down enchanted staircases, solving chores for fellow students and attending classes. Then, you’re free-roaming the whole castle, teasing out riddles that range from rote button-pressing to “clever if you squint.” Then, you’re let loose on the wider world, racing off on a broom or a hippogriff. The sense of growing scale can be exhilarating—even if those flight controls are some of the most irritating we’ve faced in a modern game. (Why, in the name of god, would you put lateral movement on one stick, and up-and-down movement on the other? Who uses their thumbs like that?!)
But we digress. The actual play of Hogwarts Legacy will be familiar to anyone who’s spent much time with the latter-day Assassins Creed games, with a hint of The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild thrown in: A big map full of ostensible incident or little upgrades that will improve your stats or expand your painfully tiny inventory. (More on which, in a second.) The goal is a steady trickle of stuff to do—fights to wage, puzzles to solve, loot to schlorp up—with a little more always glimmering over the next horizon, ensuring you stay trapped in its world for pleasant (if slightly numb) hours.
Much of this, of course, devolves into combat. And it’s here that Hogwarts Legacy gets its most interesting mechanical flourishes. Avalanche has tried to build something moderately robust out of Rowling’s library of pidgin Latin spells, tasking the player with dipping, dodging, and Diffindo-ing their way through waves of dark wizards and hostile fauna (a veritable menagerie of fantastic beasts and where you murder them). Managed through a somewhat cumbersome spell wheel, you build your library of abilities from different categories of spells designed to attack or lock down enemies, creating a genuine sense of chaos as fireballs fly and lightning bolts slam down. And while the early game mostly resolves down to you firing your “Basic Blast” spell (a.k.a, “gun”) at enemies until they drop dead, the frenzy of the more robust fights can be legitimately thrilling. It’s also the best encouragement the game has for engaging with its sidequests, since completing requests for Hogwarts’ typically eclectic cast of professors is what unlocks new powers.
The intriguing nature of the combat is hampered, though, by the single worst design decision in the entire game: The inclusion of a loot system, in the form of various pieces of equipment that you’re constantly gruffling out of Hogwarts’ various chests or off the corpses of all the bad people you’ve killed. Each piece, of course, will typically have slightly better numbers than what you’re currently wearing, but lower than whatever you’ll find an hour from now. The purpose behind that decision is pretty clearly what it always is with leveled loot in these kinds of games: To give Avalanche something to use as a reward for exploration or traveling off the beaten path. And, as always, the reveal of a scarf with 5 more points of offensive power than the one you’re currently wearing is cheap candy where something more robust or meaningful could have existed. The only real consolation is that everything you’re likely to shove onto your body in pursuit of Bigger Numbers is rendered in-game, and it all looks incredibly stupid; there’s a certain pleasure in seeing ancient wizards wax poetic while talking to a guy in a Guy Fawkes mask, a newsboy cap, and pajamas.
The real frustration, though, is the inventory into which all that stuff goes, which starts out incredibly limited, and can only be expanded through doing lots of little puzzles scattered around the game world. Nothing captures the awe-inspiring magic of the Wizarding World like having to teleport out of a cave so you can sell your garbage gloves to a vendor so you can pick up more gloves. (And oh, if you need to identify the equipment first? Now we’re talking two steps, in wholly different areas; enjoy your load screens.) It’s the sort of problem people so frequently decry in games like this: An irritation imposed by the game, which it then offers to lighten in return for investment and effort. Other systems in Hogwarts Legacy sometimes ease up with familiarity, but its approach to items never rounds down to anything less than profoundly irritating.
And yet, despite all of the above, Hogwarts Legacy sometimes accomplishes its goal: To embed the player, more than any other game ever has, in Rowling’s universe of magic and mandatory whimsy. Clever touches abound—like a moment in the opening cutscene when a dragon devours a man right in front of your character, causing the death-sensitive thestrals pulling your carriage to suddenly pop into visibility—as does a rock-solid dedication to the series’ tone. This is, bar none, the most faithful Harry Potter game ever made. Stripped of the context in which the series now grimily floats, and even accepting the many flaws enumerated above, it’s what fans have spent years hoping for.
But, of course, Hogwarts Legacy does not exist in the context-less paradise we conjured up above. Rowling will profit from the game immensely, both directly, and through the continued expansion and spread of the Wizarding World brand—no matter how many statements that the game’s developers at Avalanche have given about how she’s not actually involved. To extend some measure of fairness to those devs, they have attempted to reckon with some of the issues inherent in playing in the author’s sandbox: This is easily the most diverse Hogwarts has ever looked, including, as many outlets have pointed out, the existence of a canonically trans character named Sirona Ryan who appears periodically in the game’s story. The game’s script, in the time we spent with it, neither tries to obscure the fact that Sirona is trans, or draw unwarranted attention to it; it’s simply presented as a fact about her, the same as any other.
Legacy struggles with less grace with Rowling’s treatment of non-human races; the game’s approach to one of its primary antagonists, the goblin race, is less blatantly one-note and antisemitic than the source material, but that’s a very low bar to clear. We will note that the game at least acknowledges that a decent chunk of Wizarding Britain—and not just the Slytherins—is blatantly racist against non-humans and Muggles alike, rather than just blithely ignoring it, or mocking efforts for change.
The question we’re ultimately forced to ask, then, is this: Is Hogwarts Legacy a good video game that will enrich a vocal opponent of trans rights, or a bad video game that will enrich a vocal opponent of trans rights? And here’s the best we can do with that ugly query: If you’re the kind of person bound and determined to ignore, or even celebrate, “vocal opponent of trans rights” parts of those descriptors, then you’ll probably receive exactly what you were hoping to get from it.