Wonderbook. Aptly named really as it accurately portrays both spectrums of thought and emotion surrounding the title. Could Sony build upon the reasonably successful Augmented Reality titles that have released over the past few years to publish a real winner, an explosive title that will fly off the shelves? Attaching a name like J.K. Rowling is a good start, as is a Harry Potter spin-off in the form of Book of Spells. Yet, my wonder was reserved for the execution of both the technology and the appropriateness of the content. Thankfully, it was wonderful.
There are two distinct aspects to Book of Spells: the content and the technology. Now this is obviously the case for most videogames, but for an interactive story based around a first of it’s kind AR book it’s all there is. There’s little doubt that this is set firmly in the Harry Potter universe, and other than a distinct lack of mention of the boy wizard, it has everything you’d want and expect for a magical tale. You’ll spend your time learning spells whilst at Hogwarts, completing challenges, picking your own wizarding house – which goes against the Potter universe whilst also never actually counting for anything – and also encounter multiple creatures akin to the school and the surrounding areas.
The book itself, titled the Book of Spells, was fictitiously written by Miranda Goshawk, a celebrated author who specialised in Charms spellbooks. Split into five chapters (each split into two parts for bite-sized learning) you’ll get to learn a vast number of popular and recognised spells – for those that have read or seen anything Harry Potter related at least.
Chapter one is the obligatory opener, yet once that’s out of the way you can progress with chapters two through four in any order you wish providing a semblance of freedom from the otherwise very linear and direct approach. Once the first four chapters are all complete, the final and more challenging chapter is opened. Blitzing through all five chapters is not the best way to tackle it though; jumping in and out in small sessions seems the ideal way to play and each section is matched to a child’s average attention span pretty closely.
With the target audience primarily of those unable to buy a Lottery ticket it’s cleverly tailored to that market. Text appears on-screen to accompany the spoken narration – great for helping those younger players with their reading, whilst interaction during the charmingly told stories ensures a higher level of engagement and the constant rewarding nature of tasks is a perfect incentive to continue.
As for the technology, other than some initial lighting quarrels it worked flawlessly. The PlayStation Eye picks up the sturdily built book on whatever surface you have laid it and replaces it with the Book of Spells on-screen. If you pick up the book and feverishly shake it around it’ll have a hard time keeping up, but moving, or tilting the book as you’ll be required to do, doesn’t cause any issues as it maintains the tracking expertly.
Your PlayStation Move controller appears as a wand and will act as your primary interaction with the book. You’ll be pulling words from pages, casting spells with specific wand movements and interacting with objects in the many tests in front of you. The spells are well ranged and, with a heavy helping of aim-assist, are easy and enjoyable to cast.
A fair few of the spells have specific challenges to complete, such as gouging up Mandrakes with Defodio or defending yourself against witches and wizards with Expelliarmus, all of which take place in different parts of Hogwarts and it’s grounds. The environments are rendered to a satisfactory level, neither underwhelming or producing something of real class.
There’s a small amount of “voice control” although it doesn’t work at all and is surely there just to try to trick kids rather than providing any real purpose or use. It’s also a grand shame that only one player can play at a time, as it would be great for a parent to playthrough with their child, or indeed siblings or friends together. Also, from an adult’s perspective, there’s little replay value, though this may not be the case when you’re at an age where you re-watch the same movie a dozen times in a week.
Book of Spells manages to do something that few augmented reality titles manage: hold your attention. Gentle interactions such as dusting off the book, tilting it to look down holes and even the action of turning a page all help to keep your interest garnered. With next to no technological issues, Book of Spells falls a little bit short on content quantity and variety. Feeling very much like the first iteration in a potentially improving scene it does at least bode very well for Wonderbook.
It’s almost a must-have for Potter fans but those less than enthused by the global hero will find the content tires towards the end. The use of 3D objects in the real-world is still marvelous, yet it does now ache for a far improved camera. Augmented Reality has come a long way thanks to Sony’s implementation in recent years and Wonderbook could well be the crowning glory.