Just what Sony needs: something that doesn’t make the PlayStation Move a complete waste of time and money. During this year’s E3 press conference the company unveiled Wonderbook, a bound book made up of AR pages that would turn into an interactive storybook in front of your very eyes. Well, in front of the PlayStation Eye more like. Spearheading the new accessory is Book of Spells, a collection of Harry Potter-themed mini-games featuring new content by J. K. Rowling. While the technology is sound and Book of Spells does some pretty cool things with augmented reality, Wonderbook has to work hard to maintain an audience and avoid the slow death inherent to Sony’s gaming peripherals.
Written by Miranda Goshawk, Book of Spells serves as an introductory lesson to all sorts of familiar spells from the Harry Potterverse. The “book” is divided into five chapters, each containing four individual spell lessons that cover incantations, wand gestures and practical applications. The game (and Wonderbook itself) is clearly aimed at a younger audience as the narrator’s instructional pace is deliberately slow so impatient adults might taking issue with the extensive hand holding. Thankfully, the action picks up a bit once the instructor gets out of the way. Individual activities allow for the chance to play wizard in order to complete a series of trials designed to develop magical mastery. There’s no need to worry about memorizing wand movements as the narrator will chime in if it detects inactivity or incorrect gestures. Each chapter ends with a final exam that requires the use of each spell to accomplish a specific goal. House points are awarded at the end of each activity and are used to denote how well you’ve performed. More points are awarded if lessons are completed quickly and without error.
When not flicking and swishing, young wizards will sit through a number of history lessons that go over the origins of each spell. These are presented through a two dimensional puppet play and by pulling a series of tabs the player is invited to interact with the story either by filling in narrative blanks or activating theatrical effects. At the end of a chapter, you’ll earn a piece of a Conundrum written by Goshawk herself. While they function as part of a larger riddle each piece functions as a sort of a parable, telling the story of a young witch or wizard who suffered from self imposed magical maladies.
The game assets generated by the AR pages are lovely and well defined. After turning a page, the image slowly bleeds out from the middle of the yellowed parchment paper and at certain times, objects will be conjured on the page from a swirl of golden letters and words. From time to time, the player will be called upon to brush off dirt, leaves, sand, ashes and other debris left by their magical creations which scatter as they would in real life. Players will also be called upon to physically lift and angle the book in order to peer down holes that magically appear on a page which makes for a really neat effect.
As great as the effects are, its a shame that the quality of the video being fed into the television via the PlayStation Eye continues to look absolutely terrible. I’m using the launch version of the camera so hopefully Sony has made the technology a little better but I find it disappointing to see crystal clear assets rest atop an ugly, grainy and noisy video feed.
Book of Spells is clearly marketed to fans of Harry Potter. Not only does it allow you to play in Harry’s world, it allows those who registered with the Pottermore website (the official home of the Harry Potter novels) to link their account with the game. Doing so will assign your House to the game profile and the wand chosen from Ollivander’s shop will be superimposed over the PlayStation Move controller. That, to me at least, is pretty darn cool. It’s a shame that the House points earned don’t transfer to my Pottermore account but hopefully that’ll be included in a future game update.
For those who count themselves as not being Harry Potter followers, Book of Spells will not hold too much appeal. As fun as it is to wave a wand about, the reality is that magical bolts cast from a wand will often automatically reach their target as long as the movement is made in the general direction of the object. In other words, the game is hardly challenging. Those enchanted by the world of Harry Potter will forgive the game’s simplicity while the core crowd will angrily demand more.
Let’s be honest, there are a great many people who are more than ready to write off Wonderbook as a children’s toy that has no place in video games (especially if Sony doesn’t market the hell out of it). Without that, it’ll be doomed to die just as the PlayStation Move has and honestly, that’d be a downright shame. The nice thing about Wonderbook is the potential to be a fun activity for young gamers that doesn’t dumb things down with mindless digital pablum. That said, this Book of Spells is the only Wonderbook software available at the moment. Who can say that additional titles will have the same level of quality?
The best thing that can be said about Wonderbook is that the technology works incredibly well. Although Microsoft has been considerably more active with supporting their own peripheral, one can’t ignore the number of missteps the Kinect has had. During play, I never experienced the same awkward “this isn’t working” feeling as witnessed during the E3 demo. There’s very little load time between flipping pages and should the camera’s line of sight be broken (say from a cat or person walking in front of it), the time it takes to rescan the AR page and display the image is negligible.
Book of Spells’ biggest draw is the new Harry Potter content written by Rowling herself. Other than that, it is nothing more than a mini-game collection that benefits from being based on one of the world’s most popular and beloved literary works. As for Wonderbook, it’s a nifty little product that faces an uphill battle to win over gamers. Sony mentioned at E3 that a few developers were working on Wonderbook content but will they be of the same quality as Book of Spells? No one knows for now. That said, how fantastically awesome would it be if Double Fine created software for Wonderbook?
Pretty fantastically awesome is the correct answer.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.