We do not live in a world rich with great Harry Potter games. Nobody harbors warm feelings for the horde of chintzy, cynical movie tie-ins that plagued the PS2 and Xbox during the mid-2000s. So, when Portkey Games unveiled the big-budget Hogwarts Legacy in 2020, it was clear that the studio was aiming spectacularly high with its interpretation of Harry Potter. After a two-hour hands-on, I can say with confidence that the Wizarding World has rarely looked better. The lilting charm, cockeyed whimsy, and high-fantasy hijinks of Hogwarts Legacy is rendered with dogmatic servitude to the books, while the combat and exploration — the game part of this video game — is robust enough to rope in more casual fans of the fiction. Unfortunately, it’s all happening at the exact moment the world is reconsidering their lifelong ties to one of the greatest stories ever told.
If you haven’t been keeping up with the information drip, Hogwarts Legacy takes place in the late 19th century — and therefore it operates independently from some of the more familiar touchstones of Potter lore. (No Voldemort, no Dumbledore, no multitude of Weasley surnames.) You play as a fifth-year transfer student that will be built with a potent character creator; denoting complexion, hair color, eyebrow shading, and yes, body types, vocal tenor, and the choice to be referred to as either a “witch” or a “wizard.” Afterwards, you’ll quickly be implanted directly into the day-to-day scholastic rhythms of Hogwarts. My time with the game was brokered into two major sections: a treacherous story chapter where I was asked to both infiltrate and destabilize a nefarious dragon cockfighting ring, and a dulcet afternoon on the castle grounds, where I solved sidequests, played minigames, and soaked in the Persona-like splendor of simply hanging out at school.
The combat was the highlight for me, which I was not expecting. In previous Potter games, the quicksilver wizard clashes of the books are reduced to dull, rote third-person shooting galleries — Harry, Ron, and Hermione taking on an endless series of identical death eaters, who all seem to brandish magical facsimiles of shotguns and sniper rifles. Hogwarts Legacy changes the formula considerably. Despite the projectiles ricocheting back and forth across the arenas, the game functions more like a Ninja Gaiden-esque combo masher. Your character automatically locks onto wherever they’re facing, and the hocus-pocus that comes cascading out of your wand can be chained together like a screen-filling, health bar-obliterating Marvel Vs. Capcom tsunami. Game director Alan Tew compares the system to a sort-of “long-range dueling.”
Your arsenal is mapped to the face buttons, and after messing around with the controls for a few minutes, I was able to come up with some wild, improvis-ed concoctions. I’d leviosa my enemy into the air, tag them with some basic filler casts, pull them in close with an accio, before setting them aflame with the incendio. The physics engine absolutely revels in your chaos — bodies fly across the map like they’ve become weightless and boneless at the mercy of your command. Harry Potter video games have tried, and failed, to replicate the fiction’s unique take on spellcasting for decades. Portkey seems to have established a structure that will likely be aped for years to come.
My stint wandering around Hogwarts itself wasn’t quite as exciting as my trip to the dragon’s den. My character enjoyed a peaceful free-roam back at home on the back of their flying broom, (the Roach of Hogwarts Legacy,) where they poked around nooks and crannies of the castle; soaking up collectibles, deciphering basic puzzles, and completing the menial tasks assigned to me by my classmates. (One of them accidentally put a charm on her books that caused them to flutter around in the air. I Accio’d them back into her possession.) Outside, in a courtyard, I joined a round of what can only be described as “Wizard’s Curling.” My adversary and I used our wands to usher a set of leather balls down a wooden platform. The closer they got to the edge, without falling off, the more points we’d score. These distractions were pretty lightweight — Portkey didn’t allow us to delve into, say, potions class, or a meaty sidequest digression — which left me hoping that Hogwarts Legacy will include some finer character moments outside of the core campaign. Let us broker a genuine camaraderie with the other denizens of the school. A Harry Potter game can only hit its marks if, by the end of the runtime, we’re willing to lay down our lives for a kindly groundskeeper or an eccentric headmaster.
It should also be said that Hogwarts Legacy appears to be swimming in the darker edges of the canon. It was shocking to see that one of the spells on my combat hotbar was Crucio — better known to layman as the torture spell — which inflicts searing, white-hot pain in its target. (In the Harry Potter universe, Crucio is one of the three “unforgivable curses.” A huge no-no!) Perhaps these are the themes Hogwarts Legacy intends to deal with; how did Crucio become unforgivable, anyways? Some of the finishing moves equipped to my character were similarly macabre. After charging up a meter and tapping the two shoulder buttons, my avatar could reduce a rival wizard into a pile of sooty Looney Tunes dust. The Harry Potter books are centered around the purity of teenaged friendship, so it is weird to watch a fifth-year take a life. Again, maybe Hogwarts Legacy intends to explore some of those questions. On first brush though, it’s pretty jarring.
Of course, anyone who chooses to play Hogwarts Legacy must contend with all sorts of contradictions — most of which are far more important than the usual dissonance we tend to find in video games. J.K. Rowling has established herself as one of the most prominent anti-trans mouthpieces on the planet. The character creator in Hogwarts Legacy offers a huge amount of gender diversity, but that cannot change the fact that the author of these books remains the proprietor of the Harry Potter intellectual property. If purchasing this video game feels like a tacit endorsement of Rowling’s retrograde worldview, nobody can say you’re wrong. I spoke with Alan Tew about these questions during my visit, and you can read the results of our conversation here — but you are not likely to find a clean answer to those concerns. It looks like we’re finally getting a good Harry Potter game. Shouldn’t it feel better than this?