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When it comes to magic, Hogwarts Legacy could learn a spell from Forspoken

Hogwarts Legacy and Forspoken are the two most discussed games of 2023 — for entirely different reasons. Despite a slew of controversy surrounding it, Hogwarts Legacy saw a successful launch built on positive initial reviews, strong interest from streamers, and record-breaking sales for Warner Bros. The Harry Potter game has earned a significant wave of detractors too, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a phenomenon among a sizable swath of mainstream players.

Forspoken’s launch, on the other hand, didn’t go quite as well. Hampered by questionable marketing, Square Enix’s open-world game was the subject of ridicule before it even came out. It quickly became a social media laughing stock, as several “cringe-worthy” dialogue sequences went viral on Twitter. Middling reviews and underwhelming sales seemed to seal its fate as a big budget disappointment, while developer Luminous Productions has since been absorbed into Square Enix.

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The narrative behind those two releases couldn’t be more dissimilar, but the games themselves aren’t actually all that different. Both are story-heavy, fantasy open-world games built around magic-based combat and exploration. Each has different strengths and weaknesses, but the more I’ve had time to reflect on them, the more puzzled I am by the enormous gulf in public reception. For all its grating dialogue and scattered design decisions, Forspoken‘s creative approach to magic is miles ahead of Hogwarts Legacy. If the Harry Potter game is going to be lauded as a genre-defining work, then Forspoken deserves a cynicism-free revisit.

You’re a wizard?

When I played Hogwarts Legacy, I wasn’t coming at it as a Harry Potter fan. I’ve never read the books or seen the films, but that shouldn’t have influenced my thoughts on it much. Whether I’m personally connected to an IP or not, I come to every video game looking for a mechanically engaging experience. I was curious to see how developer Avalanche Software could reinvent the open-world genre by replacing guns and swords with spells. Strictly coming in from that perspective, I was left cold.

Magic in Hogwarts Legacy offers a bit of a mixed bag. The core combat system, for instance, revolves around a single-button magic strike that essentially fires like a peashooter pistol. Early on, battles simply had me pulling my right trigger over and over again with no strategy or nuance. Combat widens out as players learn new spells, some of which help to mask that thin core. Depulso pushes enemies back to help players from getting overrun, while a transformation spell can turn smaller enemies into exploding barrels. Abilities like that can create some exciting moments, though several of the game’s more fun spells don’t have any effect on larger foes and bosses — something that makes the back third of the game sag considerably. It’s a shooter with one gun.

A Hogwarts Leagcy player uses dark magic.

While I had fun levitating enemies up into the air and slamming them to the ground, I was surprised by how unmagical a lot of the magic feels. Several spells act as stand-ins for standard video game tropes, painting over basic mechanics with an extra flash of color. There’s a spell that allows players to instantly kill an enemy when sneaking up on them, a la backstabs in Wolfenstein, while Crucio may as well just be your typical poison attack. Each one adheres more to the rules of action games than the Wizarding World.

Magic outside of combat is even more disappointing. Revelio winds up being a catch-all for a lot of generic tropes — I laughed out loud when I used it for a generic “follow the footstep trail” mission as the established logic of the spell seemingly went out the window. Alohomora is the worst offender, though, as it’s simply a way to trigger a lockpicking minigame. Why I have to physically pick a lock after casting a spell that magically unlocks doors is still beyond me.

Little decisions like that stacked up by the end of my playthrough. I usually felt like I was going through the motions of a video game rather than experimenting with an arsenal of spells. Hogwarts wouldn’t train me to feel like a powerful wizard as I’d hoped; for that, I’d need to visit the world of Athia.

Sorcerer supreme

Though much of the discourse surrounding Forspoken has zoomed in on its Marvel-like dialogue, its excellent combat and traversal systems haven’t gotten nearly as much attention. In Square Enix’s action epic, Frey battles waves of corrupted creatures using a wide array of offensive and defensive spells. Like Hogwarts Legacy, the game opens on its weakest foot. The first spell set revolves around Earth magic and largely involves Frey peppering enemies from afar with pebbles.

That one starting ability pack, though, features more versatility than we see by the end of Hogwarts Legacy. In that set alone, Frey can call up a shield of rocks to defend herself from attacks before blasting it apart into enemies, fire a stony burst shot that can be charged up, and a rapid-fire spray that ends in a finishing explosion. Each one has specific strengths, both when it comes to which enemies they’re effective against and what range they function best at.

Frey using magic in Forspoken.

That’s only a small piece of the puzzle, though. Frey gets several other magic sets by the end of the game, each of which is entirely distinct from one another. Red magic turns combat on its head by giving Frey the power to slash enemies with a fiery sword. That’s cracked open further with water-based blue spells and green air magic. By the end of the game, I could chuck a flaming spear at an enemy, rain icy arrows down on a wide area, and toss an electric dart out that ping-ponged between foes.

All of that is before digging into Frey’s much wider array of defensive skills, which is where Forspoken really excels at making her feel like a powerful sorceress. The developers’ creativity is on full display here, as I get to play around with a massive collection of inventive abilities. Bind ties enemies up in weeds, Oubliette traps them in a floating water ball, and Tempest summons a lightning storm.

Like Hogwarts Legacy, some of these spells also tend to reskin basic tropes with magic. Distortion, for instance, functions the same way as Imperio, tricking an enemy into fighting its allies. The difference is that Forspoken generally does a much better job at making those powers feel like the product of magic. Each spell is linked to an element, which brings a visual identity to each. When I fire my stone shield, I can see it split off into individual rocks that pelt my enemies. Similarly, activating the Surge ability triggers a detailed animation of Frey smashing her fist onto the ground and sharp rocks shooting up in front of her. With each attack, I get the feeling that she’s connected to the Earth in some way and calling upon an unexplainable connection to bend it to her will.

Frey uses magic to travel across the landscape in Forspoken.

That level of interaction with the world also ties into Forspoken’s approach to traversal. A major piece of Frey’s skill set is her magical parkour, which allows her to bounce around Athia at lightning speed. Traversal is one of Forspoken’s best qualities, as the open world transforms into a jungle gym to test Frey’s powers. I can grapple up mountains in an instant, smoothly hop over any obstacle in my way, and eventually glide across water. Even outside of battle, I can feel the full extent of Frey’s magic in every movement; she’s able to master Athia because it flows through her veins. The source of her magic is clear and I’m never left questioning its logic.

Contrasting spells

All of this stands in stark contrast to Hogwarts Legacy. The magic there is more mechanical; I press a button and something happens. It doesn’t matter what the world’s internal logic is and it certainly doesn’t matter if the effects of any given spell are consistent. They do what they need to do at any given moment to move the plot or solve a puzzle.

The logical failings of Hogwarts’ magic are most apparent in its Unforgivable Curses, which fully toss out any established rules in preexisting lore to just add a few more attacks into the mix. In the source material, Unforgivable Curses aren’t spells that can be just casually fired out. It requires that the person casting them feel an immense hatred towards the target, really wanting them to suffer. In Hogwarts Legacy, I simply learn spells like Crucio on the fly and cast it on a friend to open a door. Later, I’m out in the open world blasting random wolves with those spells. Unless my character is meant to be a sociopath, Unforgivable Curses never feel like the evil thing they’re cracked up to be in the story. It’s just another thing on my spell wheel that I can use without consequence.

Two students lean over a cauldron in Hogwarts Legacy.

The more I’ve compared the two, the more I’ve come to appreciate the little details that make Forspoken’s magic system stand out. It doesn’t just use magic as a thin veil to disguise typical video game gimmicks. It puts extra thought into where Frey’s powers come from, what they look like, and how they enable players to interact with an open world in special ways. A Hogwarts Legacy sequel could stand to learn a thing or two from that.

Forspoken’s ridicule isn’t unearned. In all honesty, I like it about as much as Hogwarts Legacy, which is to say that I feel they’re both dull and messy overall. Rough dialogue and terrible pacing constantly get in the way of Forspoken‘s shiny gameplay, which makes it hard to fully connect with unless you’re bought into its story. The lows are much lower in Forspoken, but the highs have been overlooked in some of the more surface-level social media debates about it. Give it a chance and you’ll find that it has a genuinely creative approach to magic-based gameplay that makes it stand out as an open-world game, even if it’s middling as a whole. Perhaps if it had a beloved IP and lots of childhood nostalgia attached to it, it would have been received with the same generosity Hogwarts Legacy has been granted.

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I’m sold on Forspoken’s dazzling spellcasting, but the jury’s out on story
Frey using magic in Forspoken.

When I first went hands-on with Forspoken earlier this year, I didn’t get a sense of its world. I don’t mean its open-world -- I saw plenty of that as I zipped around its rolling hills like Sonic the Hedgehog. Rather, I didn’t learn much about Athia beyond its gorgeous landscapes. All I got to see was a promising playground that gave me plenty of excuses to sling spells at wandering monsters. It was dazzling, but what was I doing here?

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