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A satisfying off-brand Hogwarts adventure, January 9, 2023
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. I also beta-tested this game, but didn't do a full replay before writing this review).
The question of generic knock-offs is deceptively complex. Sure, some of it comes down to dollars and cents: you can save some money by getting store-brand Coke, and it all tastes like malted battery acid anyway, so might as well save a buck rather than pay for the label. But when it comes to an experience rather than a product the label, isn’t just an afterthought, but can be an inherent and important part of the texture – in some sense it shouldn’t matter whether or not we think Pericles, Prince of Tyre is an authentic Shakespeare play, but given its clear status as a lesser work, in a larger sense that’s the only question that matters.
All this is well-trod ground, but the Lazy Wizard’s Guide poses the issue in a curiously inverted form – in offering up an off-label Hogwarts, the game loses much of the richness of detail, and the positive associations some players might have lingering from their first encounters with the books and movies. But it also cleanses this Brand X Wizarding World of the lingering stench of Rowling’s loud transphobia, clearing space for more players to enjoy it in good conscience.
And what’s here is enjoyable, even leaving aside all questions of authenticity. The parser-based magic test is a study formula, and tends to live and die by the strength of its magic system, so the choice to de-emphasize setting and characters by invoking direct Harry Potter tropes with their serial numbers filed off is entirely defensible. Admittedly, said system is also not going to win any awards for novelty, since it uses a traditional mix of spellbooks – to permanently learn new spells – and material components – which can be consumed, putting a limit on the number of times you can spam certain enchantments. Similarly, the hoops your fledgling wizard needs to jump through in order to graduate can feel a bit arbitrary – some are clearly ridiculously dangerous, like summoning a vampire, while others, like finding a lost magic rock, are a tad underwhelming.
These authorial choices mean that the overall framework of the game isn’t especially compelling; you’re solving a test because you’ve been told to solve the test. Fortunately, the actual gameplay and puzzles themselves are pleasantly moreish. There’s a canny mix of difficulties, with a gently-sloping curve that successfully builds familiarity with the system and gives the player some early wins while introducing some more challenging obstacles. Alternate solutions are implemented for many puzzles, some of which work around resource constraints in fairly clever ways. And the custom parser is up to the challenge – it doesn’t recognize “it”, but it does have a well-integrated menu-based conversation system for when you want to talk to not-McGonagall, not-Dobby, and not-Ron, so that feels like a fair trade.
As I played the Lazy Wizard’s Guide, I wound up unconsciously comparing it to an entry in 2019’s Comp, Winter Break at Hogwarts. That game really leaned into a recreation of Hogwarts, boasting a sprawling map that largely coincided with the official plan of the school, with book-appropriate set dressing everywhere you looked. But between some iffy puzzle design and the authenticity generating some bad Rowling vibes, I didn’t wind up enjoying it that much. Lazy Wizard’s Guide flips both those elements and comes up with a much more successful formula – sometimes it’s good that you’d never confuse the generic brand for the real thing.