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Hogwarts Legacy struggles to balance authenticity against the acceleration of its action, though it does a fine job of concealing a tension between its overlapping role-playing, open-world, and action-adventure systems. Standing beside the Great Lake, gazing up at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is undeniably awe-inspiring. As is sweeping the valleys surrounding Hogsmeade by broomstick, catching but a glimpse of its many turrets and towers piercing a starry sky; or spotting the shadow of the vast castle on some distant horizon, as you battle beasts and dark wizards into the depths of the Forbidden Forest and beyond.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and the works that followed it, established a fascinating fantasy world full of magic, monsters, procedures, and politics. We explored this from the perspective of the Boy Who Lived, though it's really the School He Attended that attracted attention. Hogwarts became an avenue for adventure and weird homework assignments, where chosen children could master spellcraft and unravel mysteries woven through the fabric of the castle.
At a surface level, Hogwarts Legacy understands this entirely. It's why you can spend hours idly walking labyrinthian corridors. Why you're free to marvel at the grand old architecture. To chase apparitions, hunt for secrets, and listen to students bicker about House Points without interruption. Hogwarts Legacy nails this part of the fantasy with an ambitious recreation of the school grounds, but you have to go out in search of interaction eventually.
You're a wizard, [insert player name here]!
Developer Avalanche Software promised that Hogwarts Legacy would let us "experience life as a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry". There is truth to this, as you're able to attend a selection of wonderfully-scripted classes: Astronomy, Charms, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Herbology, History of Magic, Potions, and Transfiguration, and electives like Care of Magical Creatures and Divination. But these sessions are fleeting – rare opportunities to feel like an ordinary student of Hogwarts before a hidden truth of the wizarding world demands your full attention.
Try as you might, you aren't ordinary. You're a custom-created character with more clothing and hairstyle options than the average student, and the power to tap into an ancient form of magic. This long-dormant energy has the power to create or destroy, and your potential gets you shipped off to boarding school as a late-admission fifth-year. Save the wizarding world, and get your act together before the O.W.L. exams. It's a busy narrative premise even before you factor in the rising threat of corrupted beasts, dark wizard poachers, and rumors of a goblin rebellion.
It's a messy framing, even for an adventure that clearly learned a few lessons at the Assassin's Creed School of Open World Game Design. Avalanche built an aesthetically authentic recreation of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, and breathed life into the forgettable hamlets that surround these two main attractions. The attention to detail is often staggering, with the spaces falling somewhere between their vivid descriptions on paper and the way they were captured on film. This is a world you'll want to live in. It's a shame, then, that this attention to authenticity isn't applied with consistency – the established wizarding world is set-dressing to be shrouded in a Cloak of Invisibility where necessary.
Professors speak to the importance of studies, but there are few opportunities to engage with schoolwork outside of core questlines. Students will often speak about punishments that never come your way, regardless of whether you're farming resources in the Forbidden Forest or throwing Unforgivable Curses against anything with a health bar. Excursions to Hogsmeade aren't restricted to weekends, which diminishes magical fixtures like The One-Eyed Witch Passage. Hogwarts has a curfew, but it only comes into effect to support intolerable stealth missions. Hogwarts Legacy isn't a simulation.
At times you'll wish it was – I know I certainly did. Hogwarts Legacy cares little for the rules that underpin the wizarding world, and does a poor job of communicating what is and isn't allowed. For a school of 1,000, the hallways, classrooms, and common rooms are surprisingly sparse, and the students you do come across have infrequent points of dialogue and interaction. If ever a game was crying out for incidental minigames – Exploding Snap, Wizard's Chess, Gobstones – it's Hogwarts Legacy, although it offers few opportunities to simply exist outside of the adventure.
I was a background actor in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and I was hurry to use Hogwarts Legacy to explore some vivid memories. When the autumnal decorations went up, I rushed to the Great Hall and promptly located where I was seated when Professor Quirrell disrupted All Hallows' Evening celebrations with claims of a troll in the dungeon. It's here where I realized that there is no option to just sit down and spend a little while in the world, soaking in the ambiance beside my fellow Hufflepuff classmates. So I stood there awkwardly for a spell, opened up the map, and fast-traveled to some undefinable corner of Upper Hogsfield – a trader needs me to find his missing Mooncalf. That you aren't able to enjoy the atmosphere of these spaces in character - or even dip into a photo mode - is a missed opportunity.
So if Hogwarts Legacy isn't a simulation of life as a student of Hogwarts, what is it? It's an action role-playing game where you role-play as a witch or wizard with a strong propensity for action. Thankfully, combat is robust, and surprisingly challenging once the core mission-set settles into its rhythm: inquisitive exploration of environments, interspersed with high-energy action. Hogwarts Legacy sings in its most chaotic entanglements, where colorful offensive and defensive spells are traded with groups of dark wizards and energy-infused goblins – the screen a mess of sparkling particle effects that never fails to impress.
There are few third-person RPGs that let you wield magic at this scale, and Avalanche has done its best to wade through uncharted territory. In Harry Potter, spellcraft is based around careful gestures and instinctual incantations – a user-experience nightmare, with 26 learnable spells and few buttons to assign them to. Avalanche's solution is to have you unleash a quick strike (which builds to a combo) with R2, and then hold the trigger to map more impressive spells (which refresh on a cooldown) to the four face buttons of the DualSense. Eventually, you can cycle between four spell sets with the directional-pad. It's a little messy, but it works.
There's real magic in the quick combinations of spells. Disarming an enemy with Expelliarmus, launching them into the air with Levioso, and then setting them ablaze with Incendio is exhilarating – as is launching the flaming threat into a group of other enemies with Depulso, or slamming the group into the ground with Descendo. Some enemies throw up Protego shields which require specific spells to break; casting your own shield charm at the right moment will send a bolt of Stupefy back into the melee to help keep crowds controlled. It's invigorating. Maintaining combos and avoiding damage charges an ancient magic meter, allowing you to unleash a powerful attack – eviscerating whatever you are targeting; Avada Kedavra, without all the baggage.
Hogwarts Legacy doesn't contemplate your morality within the wizarding world. Everything I know about the Harry Potter franchise made me feel inclined to err on the side of caution, especially as talent trees let you dabble in the sort of magic that would get you thrown out of Hogwarts and into Azkaban; I didn't want a little dalliance with the Dark Arts to impact my candidacy for Hufflepuff Prefect. But Hogwarts Legacy doesn't really care what you do, or who you do it to. It's constantly presenting the illusion of choice, but never goes so far as to introduce any consequence. It isn't that the game is missing some kind of morality system, it's that the lack of any reasonable reaction to your actions further erodes any essence of role-playing.
Where Hogwarts Legacy is most like an "RPG" is in its tangled economy, underpinning progression and survivability. Increasing offensive and defensive capabilities isn't tied to your growing proficiency as a spellcaster, but an endless selection of throwaway hats, scarves, and cloaks. Talent Points aren't accrued through preparation for your O.W.L. exams but to your overall level, which rises gradually as you incapacitate enemies and tick off challenges: kill 60 spiders, pop balloons with your broom, hunt for hundreds of pages of world lore, chart constellations in the night sky, and so on. Gear that you do want to Excellerate can be upgraded, but the resources are largely tied up in the cumbersome grooming, feeding, and breeding of fantastic beasts – all set to timers, which aren't tracked in the web of menus.
Like a great many modern action role-playing games, Hogwarts Legacy suffers from bloat outside of its core (and often quite imaginative) mission-set. The deeper you get into the adventure the more vacuous sidequests become, the more monotonous the activities (magical lockpicking is not the one), and the more sparse the environments – Hogwarts Legacy introduces an entirely new area called Poidsear Coast, and it's as barren as it is beautiful.
Searching for the magic
Coming into Hogwarts Legacy, I was curious to see whether it could recapture the magic of Harry Potter. It's been over two decades since the release of the first book, and I've since graduated to other magical literature – the likes of The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, Lev Grossman's The Magicians, and Vertigo Comics' John Constantine: Hellblazer. My memories from being on set of the movies are fast fading, and the principal cast of those films are also all grown up – in the news for speaking out against author J.K. Rowling and her hurtful rhetoric against the transgender community. Perhaps the magic of Harry Potter has slowly eroded and, for a great many, can never be completely repaired.
Hogwarts Legacy at least attempts to build out a more representative depiction of the wizarding world. Of the four students who are given any sizable screen time through the adventure, one is a transfer student from Uagadou, an African wizarding school, and another is a blind student, guided around Hogwarts by his wand. A transgender witch is a trusted pillar of the Hogsmeade community, and professors bring experience from all corners of the globe. For a franchise with historically poor diversity, Hogwarts Legacy at least takes steps to more closely reflect the inclusivity at the heart of the Harry Potter community, and make a magical world feel as if it truly extends beyond the borders of the United Kingdom.
Hogwarts Legacy is a solid first attempt. If Avalanche can be accused of anything, it's that the studio has tried to do too much all at once. Something was always going to give – between the massive open world, the messy RPG economy, exciting action combat, and adventure story that wants to cast you as a hero with homework due on Monday. But you can see a world in which a sequel sands down some of the rougher edges, and settles into a finer balance between the demands of an interactive experience and the lore of the wizarding world.
Hogwarts Legacy was reviewed on PS5, with a code provided by the publisher.
Although she is not involved in the development of Hogwarts Legacy, GamesRadar+ acknowledges the role of J.K. Rowling in the creation of the Wizarding World, as well as her publicly-stated, harmful views regarding the rights of transgender people. If you’d like to offer your support to the communities affected by Rowling’s rhetoric, consider donating to the National Center for Transgender Equality in the US, or Mermaids in the UK.