November 30, 2023

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The RPG Elements In Hogwarts Legacy Undermine Its Magic

Lumos in Hogwarts Legacy

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Games / Kotaku

I’m walking the hallowed halls of Hogwarts, accompanied by twinkling classical piano music and random, startling interjections from a raucous moving painting or Peeves the Poltergeist. A student materializes in front of my eyes, shimmering into existence as their Disillusionment Charm fades; the mirrors in the bathroom snidely comment on my appearance when I duck in there in search of treasure.

But I’m not really paying any attention to the meticulous details etched into stone or floating over my head—I’m relentlessly spamming the triangle button so my character will cast Revelio, a kind of Witcher sense in Hogwarts Legacy that signifies something important is nearby with the maddening ding of a bell. I’m searching for yet another Field Guide page to add to my collection, for no reason other than that I want to complete a collection challenge.

This is Hogwarts Legacy, a game that takes your childhood dreams of attending the wizard school and shoves them full of open-world RPG mechanics that, in many ways, break the allure that so many J.K. Rowling defenders fight so doggedly to protect. In an ironic twist of fate, the game that is serving as Ground Zero of a culture war manages to undermine the wizarding world by being just that: a game.

The Revelio mechanic

An early scene in Hogwarts Legacy

You can spam Revelio to find Cressida, Garreth, and Nellie, just in case.
Screenshot: Warner Bros. Games / Kotaku

If you’re on Hogwarts Legacy TikTok you’ll find dozens of videos making fun of Revelio spams. Revlio, while previously referenced sparingly in the books and known as the spell Newt Scamander utters in 2017’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to reveal the true identity of Gellert Grindelwald, is one you can always access in Hogwarts Legacy—and one you’ll use so much that the sound of it and its accompanying bell may drive you to the brink.

Revelio, in the world of Hogwarts Legacy, doesn’t unmask evil wizards or reveal invisible students hiding in the restricted section of the library, but highlights treasure chests and other interactable objects. If you’re trying to collect the aforementioned Field Guide pages, unearth new cosmetics, or even get a sneak peek at enemies around a corner, you’ll use this charm. So, naturally, it’s useful at every moment in the game, whether you’re just doing completionist things or looking to battle spiders in the Forbidden Forest.

But it’s also a bit tough to parse out—the chime that alerts you that something is, indeed, nearby, has a range that you can upgrade via your skill tree. About six hours in, the damn chime is so finnicky I find myself roaming in circles in tiny rooms or corridors, desperate to discover the source of that god-damned bell. I don’t feel very magical in these moments. I feel obsessive.

Funnily enough, Revelio would be a crucial charm for any student in Hogwarts to use—especially if it’s just highlighting objects of interest. Would Neville Longbottom need a Remembrall to tell him he forgot something if he could just use a wizard AirTag to locate it? Would Harry need to nearly drown during the Triwizard Tournament if he could just Revelio-locate wherever Ron was in the Great Lake? Or, ya know, use it to find any one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes instead of hunting them down one by one?

Not-so-magic magic spells

The Hogwarts Legacy lockpicking mechanic.

Ah, the magical allure of a lockpicking mini-game.
Screenshot: Warner Bros. Games / Kotaku

The more you play Hogwarts Legacy, the more the boundaries of Rowling’s lore burst at the seams. As Gita Jackson notes, there’s more people of color at Hogwarts in the late 1800s than there were in the 1990s, and there’s also a seemingly out lesbian who makes Dumbledore’s decision to remain closeted until Rowling outed him IRL even more bizarre. It seems, as Jackson suggests, like the developers want to try and stretch beyond the rigid boundaries set by Rowling all those years ago, but can’t elevate the story and its characters beyond them because so much of it is entrenched in the ideologies the wizarding world was founded on. While the efforts are noble, you can’t help but feel like the snippets of equality are trying to act as chasers to the sour shot that is Rowling’s legacy.

A long-suffering house-elf head, a decor option in your Hogwarts Legacy Room of Requirement.

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Games / Kotaku

Stepping outside the bounds of the story, which opts to uphold the status quo when it comes to goblin inequality and house elf enslavement, there are myriad Hogwarts Legacy mechanics that feel at-odds with the universe upon which it’s based. Like Basic Cast, a spell you learn right away that lets you fire reddish sparks at enemies, interactable objects, and farmable items. It’s a spell you can rely on during intense firefights, as it never runs out or needs to recharge, but it’s also one that does not exist in the world of Harry Potter—and one that, if the titular character had access to it, would have offered quite a few advantages in the myriad fights he’s forced to face as a preteen. But Basic Cast exists to, as Jackson suggests, “turn your wand into a gun,” in an attempt to make the game’s combat more snappy and similar to third-person shooters. It’s no coincidence that people have already modded a Glock into the game in place of your 11-inch-long red oak and dragon heartstring wand.

Then there’s Alohomora, the lockpicking spell, which you can only get in Hogwarts Legacy after helping the caretaker, Gladwin Moon, find statues that have been placed all around Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, and the surrounding Scottish Highlands. You’ll encounter three levels of locks throughout your travels in Hogwarts Legacy, and to unlock them all you’ll need to find and return 13 of those statues. It’s a straightforward fetch quest with some nice in-game pay-out, but it’s the act of unlocking these locks that feels so decidedly unmagical: it’s a fucking lockpicking mechanic.

Infamous in the RPG world (how many lockpicks did you break in Skyrim, be honest), lockpicking mechanics in Hogwarts Legacy feel about as magical as unceremoniously kicking down the door like that Big Bird meme. When happening upon a locked door, you’ll cast Alohomora with a button press, then twist and turn two different parts of the lock with your joysticks until a red and a green spark align with their proper channels, and then *poof*! The door is open and you can loot the chest/rob the Hogsmeade villager. Couldn’t I have just done that with a hairpin?

Forgivable curses

A character performing the killing curse in Hogwarts Legacy

Those curses are forgivable now, guys.
Image: Warner Bros. Games

And then, of course, there are the Unforgivable curses, which I’ve yet to learn in my 20 or so hours with Hogwarts Legacy. When it was confirmed that your character could learn and use the three curses, known in the universe’s lore as The Worst Shit You Can Possibly Do, people were rather perturbed. After all, simply uttering one of the spells (Crucio, Imperio, or Avada Kedavra) in the books or films would get you a one-way ticket to the prison where they do mind torture on prisoners—one of them inflicts immense pain, one turns people into puppets, one kills on impact. But in Hogwarts Legacy, you can not only learn those three curses, but use them with reckless abandon, hucking the most evil spells in the franchise at goblins, spiders, and trolls alike. And not once do the Aurors come knocking at your door without a warrant; you’re left to continue on your spree unbothered by the law.

Hilariously, thanks to yet another lore-breaking mechanic called Ancient Magic (a magical power the protagonist has that’s never been mentioned in any Harry Potter works before, which you can access by pulling off magic Glock combos), I’ve already brutally murdered my fair share of NPCs in a variety of shockingly graphic ways: shrinking and squishing a huge spider under my boot, repeatedly smashing a poacher into the ground with a flick of the wrist, or exploding a goblin into a million glowing purple pieces.

I am currently an incredibly effective killing machine, so the buildup of eventually getting a curse that will also one-hit-kill enemies seems unnecessary—especially when those curses are so demonstrably terrible in the universe’s lore. Remember when Harry tried to use the Cruciatus curse against Bellatrix Lestrange? Remember how she gleefully cackled at the momentary bit of pain that he induced, and it was explained away by lore lovers that he couldn’t possibly pull off an Unforgivable curse because he was so pure of heart? Now, however, a protagonist who is imbued with ancient magic, ostensibly chosen because of their valor, can cast those curses with ease? Make it make sense!

An Ancient Magic spell in Hogwarts Legacy

Those bits of purple paper was once a troll.
Screenshot: Warner Bros. Games / Kotaku

Sure, picking apart the mechanics of an RPG game can be a bit nitpicky. But when those who still loudly support the Harry Potter franchise turn to the magic of its world as an excuse for supporting J.K. Rowling either socially or financially, when they dredge up nostalgia for the feeling of fluttery magical excitement you’d get as a child cracking the spine on one of the tomes, when they romanticize characters who themselves are harmful stereotypes, pointing out how Hogwarts Legacy’s RPG-isms break that world’s lore seems like an apt counterpoint.

The world of Hogwarts Legacy does not exist in a vacuum, it is not above critique, nor is it without its flaws. While there are parts of this game that are, genuinely, enjoyable, Hogwarts Legacy is not as magical as it wants you to believe.

There’s nothing fantastical about a lockpicking mini-game, no matter what Hogwarts house you have in your Twitter profile.

Update 02/22/23 4:26 p.m. ET: This post was updated to include details about the Revelio spell as referenced in the Harry Potter novels.