Augmented reality is not a new concept even though many people may have only really been exposed to the terminology - and the applications - in the recent past. This is thanks in a large part to the availability and quality of portable smartphones with cameras and capable processors, but also the Nintendo 3DS and Sony PlayStation Vita which have combined their cameras with the system’s gaming focus to delivered augmented reality games which are enjoyable to play. However, until now, with the launch of Wonderbook and the first story it will help tell - Book of Spells - we haven’t seen it really hit the mainstream. What Wonderbook: Book of Spells delivers is a wonderful and magical family experience whereby children and adults alike can share in actually doing what they’ve previously only read about or seen on the big screen, i.e. witchcraft and wizardry, specifically spellcraft.
The Wonderbook is a new peripheral designed for use with your PlayStation 3 console, PlayStation Eye camera and the Move controller. It is a book but one that until combined with the Book of Spells game and all the aforementioned trickery is just full of a load of blue squares and squiggles. Power on the console though, connect everything up and you’re helped through a handy setup and calibration procedure to ensure you and the book are all good to go. Once you’re sitting down then you can begin and that’s when the fun starts. You see yourself, all cross-legged reflected in the TV screen with the Wonderbook also in view, although looking slightly different to the physical book in front of you. You get to choose your wand at this point! You then get to choose which house you want to represent! Whilst some kind of sorting hat segment would have been appreciated here it’s likely this was sidestepped so that various seven year olds up and down the country didn’t immediately switch the game off in disgust at being asked to join Hufflepuff, or Slytherin. Despite that little nod to the Harry Potter stories the beginning is still absolutely wonderful. It’s fascinating as an adult who’s aware of Harry Potter’s story. Imagine your children, or nieces and nephews are the ones who are playing it. The possibility for joy at this point is boundless.
In Book of Spells, as a non-muggle you somehow have made your way to the restricted section of Hogwart’s library and stumbled upon the Book of Spells. You learn it was written by a past student named Miranda Goshawk around two-hundred years ago and after magically being granted permission to remain in this area and read the book, you embark upon your first spelling bee (after wiping the dust off of the very old book). That’s initially how the game is structured - read about a spell, practice it and then move onto another. The key is in how this all comes to life. On screen you’ll see yourself and your wand (which actually does look like the wand you’ve chosen rather than the Move controller) and in front of you is a sparkling, animated spellbook. Using your wand you can pick up rolling words from the pages of the book and read them in the air in front of you - or just play with them by passing your wand this way and that to make the words move in reaction whilst listening to the narration. Once understood you make the correct motion for a particular spell - a capital Omega perhaps, or more simply just a number, whilst correctly enunciating the incantation. Each part allows for a significant level of flexibility on behalf of the user meaning you don’t need the steadiest hand or the clearest voice but given it asks for it, it may even help learning and communication, ensuring some cheeky learning in amongst the fun. It’s an excellent interaction between technology and player, ensuring you are involved in various ways as you become entangled and engrossed in the secrets the book hides away. You’ll want to learn all the secrets too as the book’s been written in some extent by J. K. Rowling and really is an extension of the world she created. It feels it too.
As you progress things get more varied. Once you’ve learnt a spell you might be asked to take a test whereby you use it in a real example, so if you’ve learnt how to unlock locks then you might stumble into a room in Hogwarts and open the various chests, or use your illuminated wand to force back the ravaging plant life. It’s all very inventive as you’d expect from the creator of Harry Potter. As you get better and better and learn more and more the tasks become that much larger and harder. Putting together multiple skills in one larger level at the end of a chapter is good fun and enlarges the scope of the book by taking you to bigger and better locations other than simply a darkened classroom in the depths of Hogwarts. For trophy lovers this should be a game that can be easily platinumed as you get them for learning spells, passing tests and so on. There are collectibles throughout the game and an overall conundrum to solve (once you have clues from each of the five chapters, each of which is split into two sessions) as well as scores in tests (in the form of five to fifteen house points) which means some things need to be repeated, but bear in mind it’s designed for young children first and foremost.
Importantly, whether adult or child, teenager or pensioner, playing this title will be fun. The setting helps in that there’s a ready-made audience but even despite that it’s so intuitive and well presented that it will catch the eye of most. The book comes to life in itself with the sparkles and the animations but often those animations are made three-dimensional when text is being read or a story told. You read and work through the Book of Spells to learn what you can from its author, but also get to read what other students have scribbled in it over time as they’ve learnt the magic within. If toads or goblets or anything else is written about it’s likely they will come to life. When you have a water-spraying spell the screen will look like a waterfall if you spray it enough. Whatever is being mentioned, whatever is happening in-game, you’ll see it come to life. It’s true that the augmented reality is limited in terms of visual fidelity by the PS Eye and the base technology - often it seems darker than you’d hope and clearly not up to HD resolution standards, but the art and variety on display more than makes up for it. People’s experience here with the overall look will depends on the light levels in their home - we at The Digital Fix were constantly berated on startup for not having a bright enough room, but in winter, at night and the lights all on full blast there’s not much else you can do. The audio is also excellent, with crystal-clear narration, fitting sound effects and nothing more than absolutely needed ensuring no one would be put off with constant thumping background noise.
Book of Spells is set to be the first in a series of titles that can sit in a home’s Wonderbook library. Kicking things off with something Harry Potterish is a brilliant coup and is sure to jump-start the peripheral’s life, especially coming out so close to Christmas. In time there’ll be many more titles involving dinosaurs in one instance and possibly some Disney related stories in the future. Given an engaging world and with care taken in any storytelling this concept can succeed for many episodes to come. Each needs to be given the care and attention seen here to make sure the augmented world reflects that already known and envisaged in the writing. All that’s read and seen here fits fabulously with what you’d hope it to be and this contributes to the overall success of the game.
What we’ve got here is an exciting concept in the Wonderbook which is impressively realised by the software and writing teams, supported from a position of strength thanks to the wizarding franchise. Whether anything which comes after this will succeed will become relevant in time given the overall price to get going here - game, book, Move and PS Eye in total requires a decent outlay (the game and book themselves are otherwise reasonably priced) - but for now what is evident is that any fan of Harry Potter or any child under the age of twelve, and quite a few teenagers, adults (and definitely pets) will love Book of Spells both for the fun it brings to the table for the player, but also the joy and laughter experienced by those around them watching everything play out onscreen and off.