Hogwarts Legacy is here. Does it manage to leave a legacy of its own that isn't just steeped in controversy? Find out in our review.
In many ways, Hogwarts Legacy is a challenging game to talk about. Because a lot of the discussion around it will be dominated by your attachment to the Harry Potter IP and your opinion on its controversial creator J.K. Rowlings. In the past, the author has made a few unsavory comments about the members of the transgender community on her Twitter account.
Trying to make sense of this controversy as someone who isn't dialed into the Harry Potter fandom, Rowling's Twitter rants, and the transgender community can be rather tricky. And it is by no means the place for some video game review writer to make sweeping statements about the morality of this situation.
For a relatively neutral brief on all of this, we highly encourage you to read these articles by The New York Times and Forbes to get a perspective. We here at ESTNN will, however, refrain from making any comments, but highly encourage you to educate yourself on the situation before making a purchase and casting any judgment.
This is a middle of the road kinda perspective to feign professionalism, but I (the writer) believe that Avalance Software deserves to be judged fairly, even with the controversy in mind. And no, that doesn't mean Harry Potter's other unsavory influences will be ignored either.
***Reviewed on PlayStation 5***
The Burden of (Hogwarts) Legacy
Hogwarts Legacy is selling itself as the fantasy of every fan of Harry Potter and the Wizarding World. You get to be a student at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, explore the iconic castle ground, and forge lifelong friendships. So from the go, your enjoyment of this game will heavily depend on your attachment to the Harry Potter books and movies.
The player character is starting out at Hogwarts as a fifth-year in the 1890s. And with the game being set before both movie franchises, the story gets cheeky and liberal with its fanservice.
It is Hogwarts Legacy's biggest strength and biggest weakness, not only does it set out to be a Harry Potter game, it tries to be the Harry Potter game. To a degree in which the game is overly indulgent with its reference game. Some of it is charming and some of it feels like it was just included for the sake of fanservice.
You're not just a student at Hogwarts either; large parts of the story concern itself with a special gift that the player character possesses. And over your school year, you and your mentor, Professor Figs, try to uncover its secrets and how it ties into the history of Hogwarts and the land surrounding it.
Attend classes, make friends and foes with students and the people living in the greater Hogwarts area, solve a riddle or two, and have a good time. And if you just want a Harry Potter game, you're more than likely to come away satisfied with the experience.
And for a game that has the expansive history and lore of the Wizarding World backing it up, you'd expect the game to show some restraint. The game often shoves as many references and lore tidbits into its world as it feels exhausting. And instead of trying to be its own thing, Hogwarts Legacy crutches on the legacy of its IP instead of creating its own.
Magical Hogwarts and The Themepark
There are two things about Hogwarts Legacy that deserve high praise, the outstanding realization of Hogwarts Castle and its stellar art direction. The game borrows heavily from the visual identity of the movies but adds a more whimsical touch to it.
Being able to walk through a fully explorable rendition of Hogwarts is amazing, especially since the game covers aspects of it that haven't been in the movies. The charming corridors or the underground maze that makes up the dungeons are incredibly complex and overwhelming the first time around.
The castle is also densely populated with students, ghosts, talking portraits, and all sorts of curiosities. And at first, the castle seems alive. You walk past students having casual conversations, doing homework, or being scolded by teachers. But then the cracks start to appear, not that there is a lack of variety either. It's just that it all feels very staged.
You can't really interact with many of the other students, and they won't even react to you sprinting past them at Mach speeds or solving one of the elaborate puzzles.
This also extends to the village of Hogsmeade and the little hamlets you'll discover on your journeys. These never feel dead, but sooner or later, they all start to feel animations desperately trying to keep the illusion alive. It works for a while, but since you're going to revisit the castle and Hogsmeade often, these vistas slowly start to fall apart.
The Hogwarts Castle is infamous for its many mysteries, secret passages, and abundance of history. And in the game, it can often feel like an elaborate puzzle box you're slowly getting the hang of. There is always some door to open, some lock to crack, or a small spell to cast. The rewards are not always worth it and it can become very tedious if you're obsessively trying to solve every little thing you come across.
And then, there are the field guide pages. By casting Revelio, this game's version of the Witcher Sense, you can reveal these pages at various points of interest. These feed you with little lore tidbits as well as experience points.
In theory, they are a fun idea but in reality, you'll sprint through the castle and every other place, spamming Revelio in the desperate hope of finding anything of interest. Now Hogwarts Legacy is not the only game that is guilty of this, but it is the most egregious version of this feature in recent memory.
Hogwarts castle and Hogsmeade are fun-looking locations brimming with personality that ironically are brought down by the fact that they're included in an open world. The game quickly becomes a collectathon that turns players into wand-swinging Nifflers, rummaging through everyone's stuff in the hope of a scarf that's slightly better than what they're currently wearing.
The Open World
At first glance, the world of Hogwarts Legacy seems to be very busy. When you first zoom out of that map screen and get punched in the face with the sheer size of it, it is very awe-inspiring. But then you start exploring it and… well, after about an hour, you've already seen everything the world has to offer.
Visually, the setting of Scotland's highlands and coastline are not exactly varied. You won't see an active volcano and other fantasy staples, but I will admit that it has a comfortable beauty to it. The little candlelit hamlets here and there, and the foggy woods and bogs littering the landscape are beautiful, no doubt. It's a harsh landscape that can even be cozy at times.
There is just barely anything interesting to find if you want to explore. Instead, there is just an endless checklist of things to tick off. There are the Merlin trials, little riddles similar to Breath of the Wilds Korok Seeds, enemy camps to clear out, and the usual assortment of ingredients and animals to capture.
Taken on their own, all of these tasks are inoffensive at worst, but it is the sheer amount of them spread across the map makes it tedious. I would blame no one for skipping half, if not most of them while flying around on your broom. Because most of the rewards just don't end up being worth getting off your broom, when you're on your way to someplace.
This might sound like complaining over everything every other game does, but Hogwarts Legacy's content often feels like it just exists to fill out the map. Probably because besides the enormous scale of the map, outside of the castle of Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, and the bigger castle ruins, there is not really much to see. The forbidden forest is cool because it's in the books, but it's not much different from any other forest on the map.
The saving grace of this enormous map is your ability to fly on a broom and, later, even flying mounts. Flying on your broom is amazing; the sense of speed and mobility is fantastic. Especially when you start upgrading it with a sidequest that has you compete in various time trials, it's great, maybe too great. The broom makes it really easy to get around, and you'll tend to just zoom past everything on the way to a quest marker.
There are also flying mounts, that… exist? And there is a later story beat about acquiring one but they are just worse than the boom in every aspect. It feels like they were just included to get your reference for the 3rd and 5th book/movie in because after that cool story beat, nothing happens with them unless you plan to breed and sell them.
Another thing that I would like to spotlight here a little is just how samey most of the dungeons get. The main story ones are visually impressive, as well as some of the ones tied to major side quests. But the rest? Caves, mines, and tombs. Sometimes you're lucky and it's castle ruins. But they all just look the same and feel cheap, especially when the reward is often just more stuff to clutter your inventory.
Magic With Ups And Downs
Magic in video games has always been lackluster whenever we made the transition to action combat, maybe because the thought of summoning tornadoes or meteors sounds cool visually but doesn't make for heart-pumping combat.
Forspoken, which was released last month (read our review here), tried and somewhat succeeded in building fast-paced action combat entirely based on powerful spells. And the unsung hero of the specific subsection of ‘good magical combat' is Dragons Dogma, a game that allowed you to summon city-razing tornados and meteors.
So now you have a game set in the Wizarding World with a bunch of fun, interesting spells that allow for creative problem-solving and cool combat. And in that context, Hogwarts Legacy's combat also falls a little flat and feels uncreative. It's inoffensive and perfectly functional, but I can't believe that in the year 2023, we still haven't moved past Batman Arkham combat.
The combat in Hogwarts Legacy is mostly built around the concept of juggling and managing groups of enemies. For the nonfighting game readers, juggling is the practice of keeping an enemy in the air, leaving them defenseless. It's basically stun locking with extra steps.
For that, you have a variety of tools, which boil down to several flavors of making enemies float, as well as several flavors of attack spells that also boil down to ‘does damage and sometimes has an area of effect aspect'. And you have the normal attack spell that you use to bridge the cooldown windows between bigger spells.
Combat is at its best when you're up against multiple enemies of different types; it shines in the chaos. But more often, you're up against relatively small groups of enemies and it just becomes a boring affair of damaging down one enemy while avoiding the attacks of others.
Functional, yes, but the fact that you later on just get two instant kill spells with Transfiguration and Avada Kadavar kind of tells me that the developers themselves didn't really know what to do with it.
There are also potions and plants you can employ in combat. The plants are excellent visually but are normally short in supply and a bit of a hassle to grow. And honestly, their use in combat seems very tacked on, at least on the normal difficulty. I assume on the higher difficulty they might be more helpful, but who'd want to rush back to the room of requirement after every encounter to stock up on them?
Potions are also a mixed bag. In concept, the idea of brewing your own potions to get an advantage is cool. But similar to the Witcher 3, making them and keeping a steady supply on you feels like work than it's worth. Since most of them only last you about 20 seconds, you'll burn through their way too quickly.
What is it with modern games that are too afraid of letting the player be powerful and using their tools? People would probably enjoy nuking entire camps of enemies as a newly crowned death god way more than feeling stifled by a game's various systems. Luckily for the PC players, Unreal Engine 4 is very quickly moddable, so.. you know, just throwing some ideas out there.
A Lack of Variety
It's very obvious by now that I'm really cross with Hogwarts Legacy. The aesthetic is cool, but once you strip away the colorful wallpaper, it is just the same old drywall. The lack of variety in all its content but the sheer number of it falls into the category of ‘well-meant, but why?'
This especially extends into the lack of enemy variety on display here. The game boasts that there are 67 different enemies for you to find and discover, but it turns out that the number is closer to 8 with just different variations with some colors tweaked. Even with some of these 8 enemy types, some share traits.
There are beasts like spiders and wolfs, which aren't that interesting, to begin with, and dark wizards and goblins who employ shields that you can break by casting the correct type of spell. Usually, all of this would be fine, but since you're wandering through Scotland, bringing death to all that is displayed as a red dot on the map, the variety wears off fast.
By the time to hit the 10-hour mark, you've seen everything the game will ever throw at you. There are not even cool out-of-nowhere boss fights outside of two towards the very tail end of your adventure. And even they don't feel special to fight against, since fighting anything big in this game just removes your ability to juggle them.
And all of this wouldn't be so bad if combat and simple puzzle-solving were not the things you do. The spells in concept are cool but the novelty wears off quickly, the enemy design starts out bland and only gets tiresome the more you get into it. Especially in that aspect, less is always more and these ‘glaring issues' wouldn't be that offensive if it wasn't in your face all the damn time.
Failure in the Execution of its Fantasy
First of all, for a game that calls itself Hogwarts Legacy, you spend an awful amount of time not being at Hogwarts. Most of your time is spent out there in some hamlet doing tasks for people who think it's perfectly reasonable for a 15-year-old student to vanquish the local troll threat.
If you come in here, thinking you'll get the Harry Potter experience of making friends at a magical school, attending classes, and getting into some teenage drama on top of that. You'll be disappointed. To me, it seems like the game is barely interested in the teenage characters, probably because writing isn't as exciting as edgy dark wizards with complicated relationships to their bloodline.
An excellent example of this is the various teachers. They are all visually interesting, with fun personalities and quirky writing. They really leave an impression on you. The problem is only that outside of Professor Fig, who goes on this adventure with you, all of them barely have any screen time.
The potion's teacher Professor Sharp is an ex-wizard cop with a cool backstory, but he has about 10 minutes of screen time and that's when you decide to hunt him down for optional conversations. Later on, you get to sneak into their personal quarters and find out that most of their character development has been outsourced to optional letters you can skim through.
It's a damn shame for a game that is all about learning how to master the magical arts at a magical school. You attend every class once, maybe twice, for a quick tutorial before the game shoes you to break into yet another tomb to retrieve the next MacGuffin to progress a quest.
The students aren't better either. Your relationship with them is outsourced to sidequests and the occasional adventure as part of the main quest. And your character is so bland that you aren't even afforded a backstory. There are some fantastic character bits here, don't get me wrong but it never feels like you're building a relationship with these people.
Is it so hard to make minigames centered around studying in the library together or just having the option to go out drinking butterbeer with one of the many students? If any game should have a Personalike relationship system, it should be this one, right? Instead, your relationship with these students always feels very artificial, which, well, kind of speaks to the whole experience.
Problematic Story with Serious Tonal Issues
Remember how we had this conversation about lousy writing in video games? With a bunch of essays floating around about how modern dialog is bad because it's written for the audience that likes those quirky, bland superhero movies?
And do you also remember back in the late 2000s when video games went through this phase of ludonarrative dissonance? This resulted in the current wave of titles trying way too hard to say something meaningful while also being a fun, violent good time that has you slaughter things of EXP?
Hogwarts Legacy is wild in how it flip-flops between the whimsy of the Wizarding World and applying its handwaved logic to a living, breathing world. To the degree that even its source material didn't mention it.
There is the obvious example, of the game telling you all about how bad the three unforgivable curses are. With a questline, that, to its credit, presents some interesting struggles. But ultimately fails to commit to the message, it tries to send by virtue of this being a video game desperate to let the player have a good time.
It's not even that I want this game to cast moral judgment on anyone who wants to indulge in some good old video game violence. But constantly making reference to how evil people are in dialog before and after you mercilessly explode them kind of misses the point.
The thing is, it's hard to point the blame at the developers or the source material itself because Harry Potter and the Wizarding World have always handwaved evil people as being evil for reasons. The worst offense game makes is trying to investigate these things just enough to make you realize how evil the people you're fighting really are.
As the game progresses, you are introduced to Ranrok, the primary antagonist of the story and the leader of the goblin rebellion. Why are the goblins rebelling against the wizards? Because they don't like them because the wizards are mean to them. You'd think the game would at least try to make their cause a bit more sympathetic or at least investigate that rebellion and what causes other goblins and even wizards to join Ranrok.
That never really happens. Ranrok's motivation is just explained halfheartedly in the optional dialog of a sidequest and never gets brought up again. Yes, you could technically blame this on a rather surprising PEGI-12 rating.
To me, it often feels like the story has no real sense of what it wants to be. It wants to be this fun love letter to the IP and tell a mature tale of responsibility and the dangers of dark powers. But often, the game just ends up helplessly flip-flopping in tone between the two, often to such an extreme degree that I'm baffled that this is still the game.
The more problematic elements of the source material, however? That also ends up feeling all over the place. For starters, the goblins are a rather hamfisted reference that can be a bit uncomfortable when you start reading more into their context. And the whole house-elf thing is also just handwaved with a reluctance to engage with another dicey element of the lore.
All of this is kind of up to you and your personal politics. I'll at least want to give credit to the effort that was made to present Hogwarts as a multicultural place, even if at times it just feels like an excuse to just lore dump and expand on the Wizarding World at large and some of these characters feel less like characters and just talking Potter wiki entries.
7/10 Hogwarts Legacy is a decent Game without any Identity of its Own
It's interesting how Hogwarts Legacy as a game ended up being a microcosm for the controversy surrounding it. And your opinion on the game will be driven by similar thoughts to your decision to buy it or not.
If you like Harry Potter and just want to play the funny wizard game without thinking about it too hard, I think you're going to have a decent time. It's a bland open-world game that's all over the place, but that's more of a symptom of the gaming landscape of today than just bad design choices.
At times Hogwarts Legacy feels like it's way too concerned with delivering fanservice than being its own thing. And if you would strip all the Harry Potter stuff away from it, you'd just end up with a well-made title that fails to establish its own identity.
That's a little upsetting because I imagine many people want to jump into this title to live out their Hogwarts fantasy. But instead, they're mostly getting the best-off compilation of all the iconic moments without any satisfying payoff in any regard.
It's a game with a whole lot of stuff in it, stuff that is well made and clearly had a lot of effort and love put into it. But the way things come together just doesn't click with me or anyone who wants to get more out of it. If there is ever a sequel or a spiritual sequel to it, I'd hope Avalance Software finds aspects to focus on and really commit to instead of just throwing it all out there.