The power of suggestion is a powerful thing, especially to the mind of a child. With an innocence that has yet to be corrupted by the twin powers of age and cynicism, there's something special that comes with being young. Being able to look at something and not sit trying to figure out how it works, but just letting yourself be amazed. Being able to believe in things, no matter how fantastical, without needing any proof it they're real, like fairies, the tooth fairy and magic. And Sony's latest game for the Playstation 3, Wonderbook, is a game that captures that kind of magic.
Before we start, it's probably best to explain what Wonderbook is, as there's a lot here to take in. In order to play the game, you'll need three things: a Playstation Eye camera, a Playstation Move controller, the Wonderbook itself, and a copy of Wonderbook: Book of Spells. Luckily, there are two bundles you can buy - one that only includes the Wonderbook, and Book of Spells, and one that comes with everything (camera, controller, book, game) you need to get started.
The Wonderbook itself is somewhat unassuming. A blue, hardbound, padded book that somewhat resembles a pop-up book (and with good reason), it has twelve thick, sturdy pages, each of which contains no words, no pictures, and certainly no pop-ups, but instead features a large, blue logo. And it's this logo that makes the magic happen. Fire up the game, and on screen, you'll be presented with an image of your living room, through the eyes of the camera. The only difference is, where the Wonderbook is in real life, there's now a mysterious tome, known only as the Book of Spells, that's dying to be opened.
The first game to use Wonderbook, Book of Spells is designed to turn your living room into a class straight out of Hogwarts. With writing from the pen of J.K. Rowling herself (although we're not entirely sure how much of it she wrote, seeing as several writers are listed in the credits), the story here is that you've come into the possession of the real Book of Spells, written by Miranda Goshawk, which contains everything you need to know to become a wizard. Move the book around on the floor, and the book on the screen moves with it, almost perfectly. Pick it up, and hold it up to the camera, and you can examine every angle of it. It’s enough to make a fully grown adult wonder how they’ve done it – and is pure magic in the hands of a child. What’s more, where your move controller once was in your hand, there’s now a wand of your own, and the book’s just waiting for you to use it.
It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that Wonderbook isn’t really much in terms of a game. In fact, if you’re looking for the action packed explosions that some children look for in a game, then this probably isn’t for you. What it is, is a collection of interactive stories, tales, and minigames that’ll have children – especially the younger ones – enchanted (if you’ll excuse the pun).
The game itself is divided into six sections, each of which has two parts. You progress through each section, as you may imagine, by turning the pages of the book in real life when prompted – once you’ve completed the activities on all twelve pages, you’ll have completed each section. Open the book, and, while in front of you you have a blue, somewhat unassuming book, on the TV, you’ll see the book come to life, with words pouring onto the page, drawings appearing from out of nowhere, and sparkles showing you where you can interact. Using your Move controller, all you have to do is point the controller at a sparkling spot on the book, squeeze the trigger, and pull your arm backwards in order to pull words, pictures, and activities up from the book, triggering all sorts of magical things to come out of your book.
This being a Book of Spells, each chapter follows a similar sort of format, as it takes you through the basics of some of the most well known spells from the world of Potter. First, you’ll have a description of the spell, which tells you what to expect, and if you’re lucky, a “wizarding story”. Causing an impressive papercraft, finger-puppet style stage to pop-up out of the Wonderbook, the stories relay a tale about the spell’s history with often humourous results – like the Fireball spell, which caused a bored stage technician to accidentally set fire to the entire set. As interactive as you'd imagine, you won’t just have to sit back and watch as the story unfolds either, as you’ll regularly be able to effect a scene by pulling out a tab on either side of the book to trigger an event, whether it’s causing a pig to fly, or pelting one of the characters with rotten food. In the same way, as the story progresses, you’ll occasionally be asked to fill in the missing words in order to continue, as the book “tests” you to see if you’re paying attention. With two choices, a right and wrong, you’ll have to choose your answer by pulling a tab out on either the left, or right hand side of the book. Luckily, you don’t get penalised for getting your answer wrong, as most of the wrong answers are so obviously wrong, you end up pulling the tab just to see what happens.
After a brief introduction, and a story if you’re lucky, it’s on to learning how to perform the spell for yourself. First, you’ll have to learn to say the name – which, as with most voice recognition things, can be a bit finicky, especially if you’re not loud enough, although the game will quickly move on if it can’t recognise what you’re saying. Next, you’ll have to learn the gesture for the spell, which, impressively, are in line with what’s said in the books and films. Wingardium Leviosa, for example, is a swish with a flick at the end – and the gestures all work pretty well, too. All you have to do is hold a button on the controller, and perform the gesture to “cast” the spell – from then on, if you want to use it, all it takes is a flick of the wrist, or a press of the trigger (depending on the spell), to start making magic.
With the incantation and gestures memories, it’s time to put your spells to good use in one of the game’s many tests. Less of a minigame, as there’s next to no replay value, and little in the way of a high score, and more of a challenge, the tests put your spells to good use – whether you’re plucking mandrakes out of the ground and planting them in the right sized pots, or fending off a dragon’s snare’s tendrils using Lumos, with you being awarded a number of house points depending on how well you do.
In the first chapter alone, you’ll learn how to conjure water, turn your wand into a torch, make objects levitate and unlock doors, chests, and padlocks with a flick of your wrist – and when you come to the end, you’ll get the chance to put them all together in the chapter’s ‘final test’. A series of puzzles that ask you to put the spells you’ve learnt to good use, you’ll need to remember the gestures you’ve learnt, and switch back and forth between spells as you try to overcome the challenge, and tame a mythical beastie. Possibly the most “game like” section of the book, it’s also the most demanding, and one of the few times where the technology doesn’t seem to quite keep the pace – trying to fend of a dragon’s snare in the first end of chapter test, try as we might, we couldn’t get our wand to touch the tendril, and struggled to pick up some cogs towards the start of the level – but we muddled (muggled?) through.
But for all the fancy technology and big name licenses, it’s the little touches that make the Wonderbook so appealing. At one point, a paper dragon flew out of our book, bellowing fire, which set to fire to our book. Thinking fast, we had to conjure the water spell we’d learnt in the previous chapter to put the fire out, leaving a blackened, grey layer of soot on the book’s once pristine pages. Of course, we needed to clean the book to carry on, and with a quick brush of our hand across the pages, the Books of Spells looked as good as new. On another page, you’ll have to brush away the leaves that are covering a tardis-style hole in your book – which, if you lift the book up to the camera, you’ll be able to see all the way down, to the spell that’s lurking at the bottom. It’s crazy how well it all works – keeping track of the book, even at extreme angles, with hands in front of it, the camera and game do an incredibly good job of keeping everything together, with only momentary stumbles, before the book magics itself back into view. Unlike other motion cameras, with Wonderbook, everything seems to just work – and it doesn’t require you to live in a converted barn in order to run it. That said, Wonderbook is more space hungry than other move games. It’s a game that likes to be able to see your face and body at any one time, meaning the amount of space you need in between you and your TV will be proportional to your height. We just about got away with the book four feet away from the TV, but it certainly wanted more at times.
However, as much as we may like it, Wonderbook: Book of Spells does seem to have missed a few key opportunities. First is that too much of the game is spent having the book read to you, with only text on the screen. With the ability to conjure anything it wanted into your living room, far too often the game instead chooses the easy way out, leaving you to look at a nearly black screen and some fancy writing as the story unfolds - although you can always drag the text with your wand to skip forwards. But perhaps more importantly, as an interactive storybook based in the world of Harry Potter, Wonderbook feels a little bit confused with who it’s aiming for. Seasoned Potter fans may find themselves yearning for a more active experience (although we enjoyed ourselves, and we’re certainly a lot older than those who grew up with Harry), while the younger audience the interactive format is perfect for may not be all that familiar with the world, and the spells, in order to get the most out of it (for more, see the Parental Perspective).
As an intro to Harry Potter for younger players, a present for the more patient Harry Potter fans, or an entertaining distraction for those who don’t mind an occasionally patronising tone, Wonderbook: Book of Spells is well worth a look. While it may not be much of a game, if you go into it knowing what to expect, you shouldn’t be disappointed.