Niantic has been at the forefront of mobile gaming for a while now. Although Ingress had a more niche following, there’s no doubt about the success of Pokémon Go. Other companies might rank higher in revenue, but none beat the sheer number of players as the San Francisco-based company.
Building on their reputation, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is the latest entry from the company. Using the same location-based, augmented-reality framework, Niantic hopes to capitalize on the craze that shot them to fame three years ago.
Plenty of articles exist explaining the finer points of the game, but what I want to discuss is how this game compares to Pokémon Go. Despite Pokémon’s popularity and continuing player base, I am one of the few players left here at PCU who still plays it, albeit even I only participate on a casual level now.
Is Wizards Unite the game that will unseat Pokémon from its throne? Or this just a cheap attempt to cash in on a different geek fandom?
Let’s start with some necessary comparisons about the gameplay that show that Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is, at its core, a reskinned version of Pokémon Go.
Your avatar walks around the world, coming across Foundables to encounter and collect. You click on the icon and are taken to a screen, where you attempt to “capture” the item or person for your collection.
Some Foundables are more difficult to capture than others, mirroring levels and RNG of various Pokémon. Also, performing Spells more precisely can help (like curveballs or more precise throws) while you can help by using potions (in the same manner as berries).
The world also consists of Inns (Pokéstops), where you can recharge your Spell Energy (Pokéballs). You’ll also encounter Fortresses (Gyms) where you battle Enemies (a mix of Gym Pokémon and Raid Bosses), which is easier when you team with other players.
Along the way, you’ll find Portkey Portmanteaus, which you unlock with Keys through walking (like Eggs and Incubators) and can provide Foundables. Other similarities include Daily and Story Assignments (Quests and Research Tasks), Achievements (Medals), Registries (Collections), and of course the usual leveling up of your character through XP.
On its surface, Wizards Unite looks like Pokémon Go for Potterheads. Some significant differences, however, change the feel of the game and its worth in the mobile game world.
Some of the positive differences focus on the fact that Niantic learned a lot of lessons over the years from Pokémon Go, and they implemented them into Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.
It took them a year before Gyms were updated and Raids added, but Harry Potter begins with Fortresses, and the task of taking one on is significantly different. Instead of a group battling a single boss monster through button-mashing, entering the Chambers of these in-game towers feels more like a fantasy RPG.
For one, each player chooses a Profession for the game (Auror, Magizoologist, or Professor) that levels up; these Professions not only fulfill three classic roles (DPS, Support, and Tank) but also follow a typical effectiveness pattern (weak against one thing while strong against another).
When you enter a Chamber, you want a mixed team, as only one player can fight against an Enemy at a time. Not only are certain Professions better against specific Enemies, but also those not in battle can help, such as Magizoologists and their ability to heal.
Also, Fortresses differ from Pokémon Raids thanks to Runestones, items earned from leveling up Registry categories as well as other tasks. The Runestone used to start a Chamber will dictate how difficult it is as well as what the rewards will be, meaning each player (and team) can cater their “raiding” experience to their tastes or wants.
Another positive move in Wizards Unite is a change to what’s found in the world, from items to location types.
In addition to Foundables, players will find Ingredients, Seeds, and even the occasional Portmanteau laying around. Instead of relying on Pokéstops, many of the items you’ll need are easily discovered just by taking a walk and collecting them.
Part of the importance of these lays in the fact that Ingredients are necessary for creating Potions. Like Pokémon Berries, these items provide boosts both in capturing Foundables as well as during battles in Fortresses.
Wizards Unite moves beyond the mere two location types found in Pokémon Go. From Pokéstops and Gyms, the world of Harry Potter not only adds Greenhouses alongside their Inns and Fortresses but what you can do with them is different.
Greenhouses provide a place to find Ingredients as well as a place to plant Seeds (to grow specific Ingredients). A multiplayer experience, other players can pour Spells into whatever is growing to boost its yield; once the timer finishes, it will spawn that Ingredient everywhere for a while.
Inns come in multiple colors and designs, with each one having a different amount of possible Spell Energy. Like Greenhouses, they also have a secondary section that allows you to place Dark Detectors, the equivalent to Pokémon Lures.
These added levels to the in-game world and locations certainly make the game more complex than the simplicity of Pokémon Go.
Despite all these positives, there are certainly a lot of things that need to improve if Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is going to challenge its predecessor.
Let’s start with the fact that the concept of “collecting” things doesn’t mesh well with the Harry Potter fandom. Unlike Pokémon, which has been about “catching them all” since the very first game, Rowling’s world has never been about finding and gathering unique creatures (let alone objects or people).
Not only are you finding stuff for various Registries (which are far less intuitive than Pokémon generations), but each Foundable requires different amounts for a complete entry. One might only need a single capture whereas another requires a dozen, leading to frustration for the particularly rare ones.
Another annoying aspect is the casting of Spells, which you’d think would be positive. Despite how annoying throwing Pokéballs became, at least most players learned to throw Curveballs and Great Throws easily.
In Wizards Unite, players help Foundables through casting spells, which requires you to trace a pattern on your phone with precision and speed. Although exciting at first, after a while, the process grows frustrating and exhausting (compared to simply throwing Pokéballs); the system might need some tweaking if it wants to retain people frustrated at poor results (and failed attempts).
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite also has a significant complaint about how much its players must invest real money to enjoy the game.
When Pokémon Go came out, two of the biggest complaints involved inventory space and Pokéballs. Niantic appears to have not only not learned their lesson but taken a step backward.
For one, Spell Energy is notoriously harder to get than Pokéballs ever was, especially given that many locations that would have been Inns (Pokéstops) are instead Greenhouses. When combined with the fact that Fortresses do not provide the same services Gyms did (no Inn/Pokéstop ability), you’ll find about 60% of locations don’t give Spell Energy.
Our neighborhood only had a single nearby Pokéstop, but it was enough to get a few balls and continue playing. In Wizards Unite, it’s instead a Greenhouse which means no Spell Energy unless we go elsewhere or pay to play.
Also, the cap of 75 Spell Energy is notoriously low compared to the original Pokémon Go limit of 350 for all items. As noted in a Forbes article, players often burn through the energy for many reasons, and unless they’re somewhere with multiple Inns or wish to pay, they’re out-of-luck.
Inventory space is also a significant problem, especially since there are separate categories, including Potions, Ingredients, and Seeds, all with their own caps. To increase each one (as well as Spell Energy cap) costs multiple coins at a rate far more expensive than Pokémon Go’s backpack space.
Other areas make me question if Harry Potter: Wizards Unite will be a contender to Pokémon Go or just a niche fandom.
As cool as all these additions are to the games before, Wizards Unite is sometimes too complicated with all the different aspects. For example, Potion not only includes gathering Ingredients and learning to grow them in Greenhouses but also learning Master Notes (involving tracing a series of patterns in a cauldron) to brew them more efficiently.
By level 10, there are so many things to keep track of, from your Profession to the different types of Inns to Potion brewing, the game can be overwhelming. Sometimes simplicity is the best way, which may be why Pokémon Go maintains such a large, diverse player base – its core game is enough to keep a casual player base while having just enough additional stuff for the hardcore players.
Speaking of complexity, while Wizards Unite has a beautiful (and more interesting) in-game world, the map can become extremely cluttered in areas with multiple locations. A visit to one of our top hunting areas showed so many Inns, Greenhouses, and Fortresses you could barely click on anything without triggering something else.
The tall models of these locations, plus the fact that there are both Foundables as well as Ingredients laying around, made it hard to keep track (and keep up) with all the spawns and spots. What went from fascinating quickly turned to frustrating, and it would be nice if there were an option to 2D the map for more accessible visuals.
I’ll admit, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite has a lot of good things that set it apart from Pokémon Go. Niantic learned its lessons, included multiple aspects that took forever to implement before and found ways to add new and unique complexity to the game.
Unfortunately, there are significant issues in gameplay that make things far from perfect. Spell Energy caps and limited opportunities, complex levels, and discordant themes are just the start.
Even if we ignore those problems, however, there is one simple reason I don’t think this game will unseat its predecessor: limited fandom.
Let’s be clear – as popular as Harry Potter is and as massive as its fanbase, I find it hard to believe it’s on equal footing with the Pokémon franchise. While both fandoms began in the 1990s, I think the number of fans that started with Rowling’s books pales in comparison to those who started with the Pokémon game, anime, and/or manga; many Potterheads (including myself) began with the movies instead.
I hate to say it, but the number of people who know Pokémon far outweighs those familiar with Harry Potter. Even a cursory survey of geek circles showed far more cluelessness about Rowling’s world compared to the general public (who often can name many Pokémon).
In the end, whether Wizards Unite fixes its flaws and builds on the lessons learned from Pokémon Go, I think its most prominent obstacle is the ubiquitous nature of the Pokémon franchise. No amount of Harry Potter fans will make up for the number of casual players who don’t know what a muggle is but can sing the Pokémon theme song.
Do I have high hopes for Wizards Unite? Sure. Will it become the new Pokémon Go craze? I highly doubt it.
My own experiences, so far, seem to support my concerns, as I have run into very few Harry Potter players. While we could blame this on being new, when Pokémon Go came out, there were new players everywhere that opening week.
Either people are burned out on this sort of app or the interest of the general public isn’t there.
Let’s also not forget that Niantic may be cannibalizing its player base, as hardcore fans of both franchises often must make a choice. Maintaining two AR collection games will be tough, and I’m guessing most will continue with the game they’ve already invested in for years.
Wizards Unite has potential, but its flaws and uphill battle against its predecessor may not be enough to make it the hit Niantic hopes.
As of this article, I give Harry Potter: Wizards Unite a questionable 3.5 remembralls out of 5.