Nov. 16, 2012 at 4:06 PM ET
Thanks to J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, there are legions of children (and adults) around the world who fervently wish they weren't the Muggles that they are.
You know what I mean: Read the Harry Potter books and you're whisked away to a thrilling world filled with magical adventures and wizardly intrigue. But set these books down and, there you are in the real world, left wishing that you too were one of the witchy kind. Blast your boring Muggle blood!
Enter video games. A number of Harry Potter video game spin-offs have tried to do what the Harry Potter books can not: Turn us boring magic-free humans into powerful student sorcerers (at least in our living rooms and on our TVs). Alas, most of the Harry Potter games have been mediocre, putting players into the shoes of Harry, Hermione and Ron so we can try to relive adventures we already know.
But now J.K. Rowling herself has gotten involved in a new kind of ... well ... perhaps game isn't quite the right word for the "Book of Spells."
The "Book of Spells" — written in part by Rowling — is the first augmented reality book/game hybrid to arrive for the new Wonderbook from Sony, which launched this week. Wonderbook is, as the name suggests, a book — a real-world book that you use in conjunction with your PlayStation 3 game machine, a PlayStation Eye camera and a PlayStation Move motion controller.
Unlike the Harry Potter video games out there, the "Book of Spells" has nary a single appearance by Mr. Potter and his gang. After all, this is your story — a fresh interactive tale set in Rowling's delightful universe. As this story goes, you are a student at Hogwarts and you have stumbled upon the "Book of Spells" in the restricted section of the library.
The thing that works extremely well about the "Book of Spells" is that it does a good job behaving like one might actually expect a magical book from the Harry Potter universe to behave. Thanks to the PlayStation Eye camera, you see yourself and the Wonderbook there on your TV screen. But look at yourself on the TV and you'll see that it suddenly looks as if you're holding a magic wand in your hand, rather than the Move motion controller you're really holding. Meanwhile, on the TV screen, the Wonderbook seems to have transformed into a living thing with moving pictures and characters that spring right out of the pages and into your living room.
This is the power of augmented reality — moving digital images laid over and appearing to interact with the real world.
The "Book of Spells" — supposedly written by Miranda Goshawk (a fictional author from the Harry Potter books) — is just that: a book that is supposed to teach a young wizard like yourself how to cast spells. A professor walks you through five chapters with four spells in each chapter. First, you learn the incantation you need to say for the spell ("Incendio," "Wingardium Leviosa" and "Expelliarmus" for example) as well as the gesture you'll need to make with your wand/Move controller.
Make the correct gesture and you can use your wand to spray water, levitate objects, freeze magical creatures, and disarm enemies, etc. And you can put these powers to practice in a magical space (i.e. a mini-game) that is summoned on the TV for you. The chapters also include stories about the history of the spells and how they came to be told in these delightfully interactive paper-made puppet theater performances.
Rowling penned a conundrum — a poetic story about five wayward young witches and wizards — that acts as a kind of thematic guide through the experience, as well as some of the other stories and spells in the book. And you can see her touch here — the writing throughout is just lovely and the book does a great job bringing to life Rowling's lively, humorous tone.
On the downside, the "Book of Spells" does get rather repetitive. By the time you've hit the third chapter, you're totally familiar with what's going to happen because, essentially, each chapter plays out the same — you discover which spell you'll be learning, you watch a story about that spell, you learn the incantation, you learn the gesture, a practice environment pops up and you practice taking out magical creatures using the spell. At the end of each chapter, you're put to the test to see how well you can use all four of the spells you've just learned.
There are a few little surprises along the way, but the "Book of Spells" seems to call for something ... more. As I played through the book with my own young would-be wizard, he kept waiting for the action to really kick in, or at least ramp up — perhaps because it's difficult not to place gaming expectations on this interactive book.
Still, for young Harry Potter enthusiasts, the "Book of Spells" really is a wonderful addition for their collection. It acts as a delightful historical and educational romp through the spells you've come to know and love in the Harry Potter books. And it brings the universe to digital life in a way the games haven't.
Meanwhile, the "Book of Spells" is just the first augmented story for the Wonderbook. If you invest in this page-turning peripheral, you can know that additional interactive stories are forthcoming — the film-noir detective tale "Diggs Nightcrawler" from the Academy Award-winning studio Moonbot and a "Walking with Dinosaurs" book from the BBC among them.
But this magic doesn't come cheap. The Wonderbook peripheral with the "Book of Spells" disc will run you $40. Meanwhile, if you don't already have a Move motion controller and PlayStation Eye camera, then you'll need to pick up the $80 bundle that adds these required devices to the package.
Now, what was that spell that makes money fall from the sky?
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.