For the first official Harry Potter game, Harry Potter: Spells, the developers at Warner Bros. spared no expense in the graphics department. The visual quality is as good as anything Xbox or Wii has to offer and the sound effects are a festive bonus. Unfortunately, the game's atmosphere doesn't make up for the fact that it's just plain frustrating to play.
The game offers two modes of play: single player and multiplayer. The single player lacks any JK Rowling-inspired plot, instead merely allowing you to practice your spell-casting to increase your accuracy score. If you happen to be hanging out with another iPhone-wielding, Harry Potter-loving friend, you can use Bluetooth to duel each other. Or you can hop online with Wi-Fi and duel other players around the world. Your user profile is stored along with your worldwide stats, allowing you to drop and pick up the game at any time, as long as you don't mind strangers watching you flail in public.
The initial game setup takes you straight into Harry's world. First you receive an acceptance letter to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, signed by headmistress Minerva McGonagall. Once accepted, you receive a wand, just like Harry did: wands are presented to you, and you tap each until the game decides which one is right for you. Next, it's onto the famous sorting hat, where you are placed in your residence house (Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, and so on.)
From there, things start to get confusing. You can learn up to 14 spells, starting with Alohomora and culminating in the all-powerful Confringo. In order to cast a spell, you hold down your thumb on the screen, then wave the iPhone through the air like a wand to draw the pattern on the screen. These patterns can be as simple as a straight left-to-right arrow or as complicated as a Z shape. You can also record your own voice calling out the spell, which will play back to you with each successful cast.
All of this is great in theory and sure to thrill the avid Harry Potter fan. Unfortunately, the motions for casting are not at all intuitive. There are some diagrams in the tutorial to show you how to hold the phone, but the necessary rhythm, speed, and angles to accurately cast spells seem to be different every time. Perhaps a video demonstration would help, either built into the game or on the game's official Website.
I gave up at spell No. 6, Expecto Patronum, a seemingly impossible triangle. However, a more dedicated fan might have the patience to perfect his or her technique.
It's quite exciting when do you cast a spell accurately, but only in contrast to the desperation you feel after 10 minutes of wildly waving your iPhone around trying to get it just right. Try to keep a tight grip, lest you toss the phone across the room, or become so frustrated you chuck it on purpose.
As Harry Potter is primarily marketed to the tween and young adult set, it's unlikely that a huge number of them are sporting iPhones and iPod touches. And if they are, the $5 price tag might be prohibitively expensive. In any case, Harry Potter fanatics are sure to download the game in droves, and like myself, they will find out just how hard spell-casting really is.
[Meghann Myers is an editorial intern for Macworld magazine.]