Wonderbook: Book of Spells (PS3)
Wonderbook: Book of Spells is the first in a new line of exclusive IP from Sony using the AR features of the Playstation Eye in a novel new way (see what I did there?). It is Sony’s brave attempt to get all the bookworms away from their Kindles while at the same time dragging all the gamers away from their controllers and read books. It remains to be seen if this literary gateway drug has been successful, however. In this review I played the game with my three year old daughter, who acted as co-reviewer. It is important to note that she is younger than the recommended age to play this game, but she was a worthy critic.
Created in partnership, and with much fanfare at E3, with Public Schoolboy fantasy No 1, J. K. Rowling, Wonderbook is an interactive augmented reality experience centred around a Witch’s catalogue of spells and links to the newly created Pottermore franchise. You play as a newly initiated trainee Witch or Warlock discovering and learning spells as you progress through the tome. The game comes with the eponymous peripheral, the Wonderbook, which has a series of black and white AR codes with which the Playstation eye attaches graphics. It is a very clever use of a fairly old and established technology and it is clear London Studio have learnt a lot from their experience with ‘Monkey-em-up’ AR game, Eyepet. The calibration process is simple to set up and much less laborious and cringeworthy than the dotty professor from Eyepet.
Once the game starts, the first chapter introduces the concept well, and also acts as a tutorial to teach you how to appropriately use the book. I remember trialling Wonderbook at Eurogamer and asked the Sony rep what happened when you reached the end of the rather meagre 12 pages of AR codes in the peripheral. She was rather tight lipped and mysterious about how the game would deal with this (I suspect she hadn’t actually been told, to be fair). It is actually dealt with competently as the pages can be reused with different content over time, but, as you will later find out, this is a fairly wasted opportunity.
The first spell is taught to you, and also conjures up a mini game to practice using this spell, all narrated well in a twee scottish accent, which sounds suspiciously like David tennant (Potter purists would obviously find this grating, given Tennant’s involvement in the Potter canon). Woven into each spell lesson are novelettes. Short whimsical origin stories which chart the history of the spell in a clever pop-up theatre. These also have hidden extras which the player can control and become involved in the story. These in particular my daughter loved, enough for her to revisit and play again, just to see how the story panned out with the different options and are the highlight of the game.
My daughter had many problems with the move controller. Especially with the spell incantations which involved waving the controller in the air to ‘write’ a pre-ordained pattern. Being three, she can just about manage to write her name, so copying a series of different symbols was beyond her. This is no reflection on the game – the recommended age is seven, but it occurs to me there may be some seven year olds who may still find this a challenge. Fortunately the game is very forgiving and gives many prompts to remind you of the shape. Additionally she was quite perplexed about which buttons to use when, but in general the control scheme is simple enough and works well with larger hands.
Having never read the Harry Potter books, the Potter Lore was beyond her, but she enjoyed the magical ethos of the game and the style and presentation was good, from the way the pages in the book ‘drew themselves’ and messages appeared by flying Owl. The clever way the image on the screen of the player zooms in and out and fits into the niches and elements of the game landscape is initially exciting in the way it involves the player while playing the game and showed good promise. Each chapter has a series of collectibles, but I struggle to see how these would appeal to an eight year old who may be disappointed to collect mere 3D picture assets. My co-reviewer is happy to re-watch episodes of Dora the Explorer until my ears bleed, so this game may have some replayability in her eyes but I suspect she will tire of it fairly quickly.
Will Wonderbook replace traditional books? No. The book doesn’t have an especially strong narrative, in fact you can navigate the chapters in any order you want, once you have unlocked the first one, and this is what worries me. Every chapter does pretty much exactly the same thing. Learn a spell, practice it with a mini-game and unlock a collectible, finish with an end of chapter test which rounds up all the spells. It is a shame more was not made of the Magical author of the Book of Spells. She leaves cryptic notes on the pages, but these turn out to be remarkably un-cryptic and no evidence of her character or back story is ever revealed so you have no cathartic reaction. This is a book with no soul. Ironic when you think about it.
The AR technology is polished and well implemented, the design charming and authentic, but I just can’t quite see the long-lasting appeal. This is a shame, as it seems like a missed opportunity, as well as a shameful cash-in by Jo Rowling. It upsets me as I had high hopes for this concept. If you’re a fan of the Harry Potter books and also own a Playstation, you probably already own this and have become bored of it. The price of the game has plummeted too, so isn’t too much of a risk-buy. If you don’t have any children to share this game with the only appeal would be the novelty of the technology. It will be interesting to see the subsequent games that come out for Wonderbook but I’m still wondering where those next games are…
Verdict – one for the bargain bins.