Review: Book of Spells

When Pottermore was first announced, J. K. Rowling made fairly clear that this interactive experiment was of her own design. It was her brainchild. It was not about money, because, apart from the ebooks and audiobooks in the Pottermore Shop, there was no money to be made from Pottermore. Membership is entirely free. There is no advertising on the website anywhere. It is a gift from Jo Rowling to her numerous fans.

However, when I heard about Book of Spells, to be released exclusively for PlayStation 3 (a console made by Sony, which created and hosts Pottermore), with new and original content by J. K. Rowling, I was skeptical. Jo Rowling, content creator for a video game? Isn’t this going a bit far? I knew that Pottermore was her idea, but was Book of Spells her idea too? It seemed unlikely. Was Sony pressuring her into new venues to try to make money? I certainly hoped not. I didn’t want my beloved author signing her name on things that weren’t really hers in the first place.

Furthermore, I didn’t own a PlayStation. I’ve only ever owned consoles made by the Nintendo brand, and even then, just the original NES and the Wii. It seemed a tad bit ridiculous that I would have to shell out hundreds of dollars on a PS3, then even more on the Move, the Eye, the Wonderbook, and the game itself. I told myself I wouldn’t do it. But then, of course, I broke down and bought it. I wanted a Blu-ray player anyway.

And so, despite my skepticism, I sat down, like the seven-year-old I sometimes feel like I am on the inside, and played the “game”. It feels much less like a video game, really, and more like virtual reality. As if I am honestly checking out this book from the Restricted Section and learning spells on my own. Speaking of which, why the restricted section? None of the spells are particularly dangerous in the book. But then, perhaps it is an old book, a first edition maybe, and Irma Pince wanted to protect it from everyday common-use damage. Only special students are given permission to check it out. Only special students can take particular care of the book. You are that special student.

When you open the book, the magic happens directly in front of your eyes. Your Wonderbook becomes the Book of Spells. Your Move controller becomes your wand. You can choose your wand, and your Hogwarts house, if you wish, but if you are a member of Pottermore, you can also sign in from the Book of Spells main menu and import your information. I did that. I imported my Ravenclaw house and my unicorn wand made of pear. Doing that made my experience feel that much more official and authentic. I was using my own wand and earning points for my house, except not really.

The connection between Book of Spells and Pottermore ends after your information is imported. Even though, after every lesson, you earn points for your house, those points are not transferred over to your Pottermore points, as I really think they should. Sure, that wouldn’t seem fair to those who earn points the “free” way, by brewing potions and dueling other members, but then, looking from my own perspective, I just shelled out how much money for this console and accessories and this game? Shouldn’t I be able to make that worth something in points? Then again, Book of Spells awards points like they’re going out of style. 15 points for this lesson. 10 points for this one. Maybe if fewer points were awarded or less often, then maybe a points transfer to Pottermore would be more feasible.

Furthermore, the way spells are cast between Pottermore and Book of Spells is also different. That makes sense, because the peripherals are different. A mouse and keyboard can’t cast spells in the same way that a PlayStation Move controller can. Except that it does in a way. On Pottermore, you either click a letter or type a letter as it is being traced in a certain shape. On Book of Spells, you trace a shape on the screen using the Move controller. However, the shapes aren’t the same for the same spells between the seemingly related, or at least connected, “games”. And I don’t consider the shapes to be very intuitive. Or authentic. (That is, tracing shapes takes away from the virtual reality, rather than adding to it.) When I played Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince on the Wii, I actually liked the gestures needed to cast spells. Yes, those didn’t feel very authentic either, but it felt more authentic than tracing a shape on the screen. “Swishing and flicking” is more authentic or genuine canon than tracing shapes. But then, that’s also a difference in peripherals. Wii does gestures. Move does not.

However, while Wii has gestures, PlayStation has voice recognition. While learning spells in the Book of Spells, you have to take two steps: first pronouncing the spell, then learning to trace the shape to cast it. Well then, why not leave out the shape and instead learn the spell pronunciation only? You could simply say the spell and swish or flick your wand at the same time, which would feel much more real. However, it wouldn’t work to use voice as the only means of casting spells, because, unfortunately, I ran into a glitch in the game, where the microphone stopped working. The narrator mocked me several times, saying that “I must have been trying nonverbal spells”. I’m merely saying that, while Book of Spells does a great job at attempting virtual reality while learning spells from a seemingly real spell book, it doesn’t succeed in suspending reality completely.

Rowling’s new content makes it worthwhile, though. Book of Spells is almost like another “Tales of Beedle the Bard” within itself. Many spells come with a story about how the spell was invented or a famous incident or event where the spell was used. Rowling even explains what happens to a witch or wizard who is unworthy of casting a patronus tries to cast one (maggots erupt from the end of the wand and devour the caster alive). This is why Voldemort and his Death Eaters cannot cast patronuses. (And yet, somehow, Umbridge can? I hated her even more than Voldemort while reading the fifth book! How is she less evil than the Death Eaters!)

Regardless, the stories about the spells are incredible, and are truly Rowling-esque. At the end of every chapter, there is also a short fable-like poem, which hints at the sort of qualities one needs to have in order to become a truly great witch or wizard, by showing us a Hogwarts student from history who didn’t possess those qualities. It is fairly simple to guess by the end of each poem, but in case you’re not good at riddles (or poems) all of the qualities required of great witches and wizards are revealed at the end of the entire game. After every chapter is compete and every test is done. Speaking of which, the challenges are fun and the tests are challenging, almost as though I was truly within the walls of Hogwarts, learning new spells.