Given how merciless modern pop culture is in its exploitation of childhood nostalgia, it’s remarkable there’s been no credible attempt at a big-budget Harry Potter video game before now. Hogwarts Legacy has so much to work with: it is the product of millions of childhood dreams. Donning the Sorting Hat and setting foot inside the Gryffindor common room, manipulating the world effortlessly with a wand and fighting dark wizards are all fantasies that it can easily fulfil.

However, among a significant percentage of the millennial contingent that form Potter’s original and most passionate fanbase, JK Rowling’s interventions into the debate about transgender rights – she is against self-ID, or admitting trans women to some single-sex spaces such as women’s prisons or rape crisis centres – have caused outrage, and this game is the subject of a boycott.

It is a shame that the game can’t escape this context, because tremendous effort has clearly gone into diversifying Potter’s magical world for a 2023 audience. Aside from the baffling decision to use one of the books’ most uncomfortable tropes, the goblins, as the central antagonists, Hogwarts Legacy is studiously inclusive. Hogwarts’ students and staff hail from Uganda, India, Korea; it is heavily implied, if never outright stated, that at least one character is trans; a female quest-giver casually refers to her wife within the first five hours. It might be set in the 1800s, but this is a thoroughly modern take.

Game still from Hogwarts Legacy showing interior of Hogwarts castle
The castle itself is the game’s main character … Hogwarts Legacy. Photograph: Warner Bros

As a kind of interactive Harry Potter museum, Hogwarts Legacy is spectacular. The castle itself is majestic, impossible to navigate, a stone warren of mysteries, disappearing staircases and moving paintings, full of secrets and details from the books and the films. Somehow I managed to avoid the Great Hall, with its enchanted ceiling and chattering crowds of students, until about 15 hours in, and when I found it I was awestruck. The first time you mount a broom, a treat that the game holds back for a good while, you are taken on an aerial tour, swooping between turrets and over courtyards, skimming the Great Lake. It’s a cunning move – is there a more perfect distillation of the freedom of possibility that we found in Harry Potter, as kids? – and it certainly got an emotional rise out of me, despite all the reservations I’ve developed about Potter and its creator as an adult. When Hogwarts Legacy leans into its role as a wizarding wish-fulfilment simulator, it is – forgive me – enchanting.

I had a very enjoyable time inside Hogwarts, attending lessons and exploring at night with the help of a Disillusionment charm and the Alohomora lockpicking spell, but this game is easily 40 hours long, and a lot of it takes place outside the castle. Down the road, the magical village of Hogsmeade is another hub for nostalgia-tickling fan service and wizarding quests, but you’re also given license to explore the entirety of the Scottish Highlands (evidently Hogwarts did not keep a very close rein on its students in previous centuries). Most unexpectedly, out in the wilds, Hogwarts Legacy reminded me strongly of 2012’s cult Japanese role-playing game Dragon’s Dogma, in the sense of freedom and danger in its open world. The wild countryside is full of trolls, poachers, goblins, creatures and mysterious, potentially dangerous ruins and artefacts. I found it unnerving out there, at night, alone in the forested dark.

But outside Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, the game doesn’t have nearly so much personality. The story, which revolves around a goblin uprising, is thin and uninteresting, and interrogates nothing about the Dark Arts or the sources of conflict between wizard-kind and other magical denizens. The player character, whose appearance and nature is left up to you, is too blank (and posh) to be memorable; the friendships they develop are not meaningful or believable, and even the most likable characters just feel like quest-givers. Some of the set-dressing is very twee, an American’s idea of British charm, such as the cups of tea sitting around on tables for your character to sip. There are some appalling Scottish accents, too, alongside the good ones; did Portkey Games run out of money halfway through casting?

Trolls, dragons and other creatures provide the most challenging duelling opponents … Hogwarts Legacy.
Trolls, dragons and other creatures provide the most challenging duelling opponents … Hogwarts Legacy. Photograph: Warner Bros

The open-world scope is impressive. Seeing the outline of Hogwarts’ battlements against the mountains never lost its wonder, for me. But I longed for a more intimate, character-driven Potter fantasy: conversations in the dorm room, rivalries and feuds between teachers and students, friends to get to know. In place of that, we have hundreds of things to collect and dark wizards and magical wildlife to battle, and like most open-world games it starts to feel repetitive and meaningless after a while.

Hogwarts Legacy derives its magic from its setting, not from its game design, which is competent but unspectacular. Battling with spells is thrilling for the first few hours, then increasingly fiddly to control, as you accumulate more enchantments to slot into swappable skill-wheels. It has a bunch of weird quirks that are straight out of the 2010s: when you arrive at the wrong time of day for a quest, your young witch/wizard simply lies down on the floor to pass the time; you collect new, marginally better cloaks and scarves and glasses all the time, that must constantly be swapped in inventory screens and make your character look ridiculous; every time you find a new hamlet or building, the first thing you do is steal everything in it; there are elaborate crafting and enhancement features that I barely used.

Hogwarts Legacy starts to feel like countless open-world games of the past decade once you’ve been playing it for more than 15 hours. However, you get to ride a Hippogriff. It’s those magical moments and the setting that rescue it from mediocrity, but only if the Wizarding World still has you under its spell.


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