It's the question that's been rattling around my head since the first hour of interacting (terming it 'playing' seems awkwardly forced in this instance) with Book of Spells. Wonder Book, under which Book of Spells and numerous future titles are umbrellaed, offers a range of interactive story books; the word of pop-up children's tales transposed to augmented reality by way of PS Move technology and the Wonder Book itself - a sturdy twelve page hardback tomb in which contain scannable symbols that allow virtual pages to spring to life. Book of Spells is just one (complete) story that grows out of Wonder Book's pages.
Scalable scores seem out of place. Asking whether it offers better playability than Halo, or more equipment upgrades than Borderlands 2 isn't the point (though it does have better story pacing than some games out there). It is a wonderfully made child's plaything that within five minutes of trying crumbles any cynicism over its creation.
Similarly to Microsoft's Kinect, it's family-friendly entertainment that requires the purchase of peripherals to enjoy. The disc plus Wonder Book edition Book of Spells is retailing at twenty-five quid, a great indicator for scaled-down pricing for the 'books' to come (which include Walking With Dinosaurs, and the already excellent looking detective yarn Diggs Nightcrawler), but you need a PS Move controller and Eye Camera for the PS3 as well to conjure up augmented reality fiction.
All that (plus Book of Spells) is offered as a one-off bundle for a penny shy of fifty quid.
Once set up (while the opening tutorial, and marketing ads, suggest sitting on the floor with book in front, that's a good few feet of space needed, depending on how you set up the camera. Seated with book on lap allows for a much closer positioning to the camera - avoiding the need to rearrange furniture), the Eye Camera maps the novel cover onto the Wonder Book. Flick the first page open and way you go.
The Book of Spells process, that sees pages pencilled, inked and painted in a matter of seconds after the book's opened, has a Disney quality to it you can't help but admire.
The Wonder Book holds twelve pages, each double page spread containing unique symbols. Each twelve-page run through covers one part of a two-part chapter. Five chapters in all (plus supplementary material) make up the Book of Spells.
The Book's based within J.K Rowling's Harry Potter universe (you can link to an existing Pottermore account if you have one) detailing the history of various spells in great pop-up stage sequences, their casting by way of Move controller movements, interactive tests to practice each in, and a final chapter test that utilises all the spells of that section. (Those hoping for guest appearances should know there's none - other than creatures that inhabit the Potter universe.)
There's a narrator reading each of the entries and guiding you through the tests (entries appearing as text on screen, each word glowing as it's spoken), playing mentor, guide and teacher all at once. Reassurances come often, positive feedback on accomplishments as much so, and the little scolding there is light and punishment, in keeping with Hogwarts tradition, is by way of deducting points from your chosen house.
It's a balance that works given the context, and the sufferance in accepting wand-casting generalities to initiate spells rather than staunchly accurate symbols is definitely the right call given the audience expected to be using this - though we did find once or twice a symbol not registering (and funnily enough these were of the straight line variety).
Each half chapter follows the same structure, and once completed, you're free to skip back and forth between sections. And notably you're never forced off a page after its completion - you're free to re-read the stories, try out the spells over and over, and likewise (spell-casting aside) you're not pushed to read everything on each page.
The interaction is fairly limited and formulaic, although the learning by rote works without being boring. An initial symbol is drawn on screen for the reader to watch and imitate, before being asked to cast it themselves without guidance. Then again during the start of that spell's practice (covering tickling pixies, levitating dragon eggs, and casting shields to protect from attacking wizards), and once more at the chapter's end test. A press of the Triangle button will re-draw the symbol needed if forgotten, and the ever-present narrator will hint as well.
There's occasional issue with the Eye camera not registering the Move's (represented as a wand on screen) smaller movements when in practice or tests. For these you're pulled into one part of a much larger level (studies, greenhouses, even villages) and have to cast at enemies or objects around you. Those distant are easily struck, but for those that are circling the very edges of your corner of the screen, precision shots are much harder - and in one practice that has you casting shields in timely fashion against close-by foes, there's not enough distance, and therefore time, to register incoming shots and cast against them.
As such though, spells fired have a generous targeting function (downing paper insects is a breeze), and for those that require fixating on a specific object, there's a coloured targeting system, paired with a Move rumble to indicate you're on the right spot.
It's the same with the book's story points; the wand will 'snap' onto the nearest spot of the page highlighted so precision's a non-issue (just hold the trigger button and lift the wand up to 'pull' the words off the page) - same with the pop-up stories, offering two tabs at specific points in each tale to let you choose which word to use in filling in story blanks.
While the book's pages pass close inspection (holding the pages closer to the camera, or moving the book left or right, lets you look at scenes, words and objects in much more detail), its surroundings - you and the room you're reading in - remain fuzzy. Likely the ever-present problem of extreme lightning conditions, and while for the most ignorable (concentration is on the pages after all), it means those times when you're asked to touch the book (wiping away leaves, soot), the pixelated pickup of your paws is jarring against the sharpness of the pages. Equally, records of your accomplishments rapidly become disappointments - the ten second video loops recorded mid-test are tiny, and their sepia tones wash over any notion of identifying yourself.
Stories don't need to be gruesome or heavy hitting to be told well. And the Book of Spells has moments that'll make you smile - and while the coda come the book's completion might be too heavy-handed, there's a surprisingly sweet epilogue in asking you to visit the book, and its narrator, again some day.
How do you score Book of Spells? You can't. There isn't a score at the end of this. Because this isn't a review, rather an article on a piece of kit that'd be of interest to parents, or gamers with much younger relatives. I've a eight year old nephew who asked for a Harry Potter wand last Christmas. I can imagine he'd love this. I was certainly charmed by what I saw - though a couple of the end-of-chapter tests may frustrate at the deftness required in switching spells in short order. This is something his parents could read through with him, as a bed-time story (though given each chapter takes over half hour to complete, that may be a few consecutive evenings).
It's a lovely invention, and credit to Sony for introducing something that's wholeheartedly not conceived with the traditional game space in mind. However, Wonder Book could have done with having more than just a single book to release on - even if the author name on that book can easily put it into stockings this Christmas. With Walking With Dinosaurs and Diggs Nightcrawler due months from release, and future books only conjecture by way of the names of those in partnership with Sony on this, it's fair enough to expect some will wait to see a proper library appear before they buy the bookcase to house them in first.