Version Reviewed: 1.0
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A few days ago, I wrote about the first official Harry Potter app's appearance in the App Store. Instead of trying to make an epic game, the folks at Warner Bros. decided to go for something sweet and simple: real-time, multiplayer dueling. The resulting app, Harry Potter: Spells, focuses solely on these duels, and while it isn't perfect, it's still fun. Whether it's worth the price tag or not will probably be determined by your love of all things Potter.
Open the app for the first time, and you'll see a letter inviting you to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy. You soon arrive at Hogwarts, where the Sorting Hat awaits in all of its animated glory. The Hat will quickly determine which house you belong in, though you can dispute its choice until you're satisfied. After that, you're whisked off to Olivander's wand shop, where you have to tap a few wands until one responds to your touch. This introductory bit feels slightly rushed, but soon you're casting spells and it doesn't really matter.
To cast a spell, you hold your iPhone horizontally in front of you, parallel to the floor. You then tap and hold your thumb to the screen and move your iPod in the pattern shown in the app. For example, Lumos requires moving your iPhone up and down in two motions, while Protego requires drawing a "V" in the air. I wish that the tutorial had included a video, but I figured it out eventually. The app does a good job of detecting your movements, and once you master a few spells, the rest comes easily. This is probably as close to realistic magic-casting as you're going to get! The phone-waving is less of a gimmick than a natural decision, and it feels almost like waving a wand, even if it's a bit slower than the dramatic motions seen in the movies.
Spells must be mastered before you can use them in a duel. This is accomplished through the "Lessons" menu. In each lesson, you're shown a diagram of how to cast the spell, and then you have to cast it properly at least three times out of six in order to master it. I heard a lot of dry, British-accented intonations of "Incorrect" and "You failed" before I figured out that you're not supposed to move the iPhone towards you and away from you, but up and down. The spells include novelty ones like Lumos and Alohomora as well as offense favorites like Stupefy. My favorite by far? Oppugno, which summons a flock of birds to attack your opponent!
But, of course, you guys want to hear about dueling. Connecting to a friend's iPod or iPhone is easy—when I was testing it out, my friend and I used Bluetooth, but WiFi is also an option for folks without iPhone firmware 3.0. (Just make sure that you turn Bluetooth on.) From there, you use whatever spells you want—but without any guides, so you'll need to memorize a few spells if you want to play strategically! There's more than just being first to cast, too; a water spell can counter Incendio; Episkey will heal you; Petrificus Totalis will temporarily render your opponent motionless. Choose carefully! When you use a spell, it's sent straight to the other player's screen. Dueling my friend was surprisingly fun, and even if we raised some eyebrows for waving our iPods around, it was worth it!
There are a few other features as well: posting scores to Facebook, House and global leaderboards, the ability to record yourself shouting the incantations. These are all nice and well done, and add a sense of completeness to an app that's so narrowly focused. The graphics and sound effects are exactly what you'd expect from a branded Harry Potter app—that is to say, they're excellent. Performance on my second-gen iPod Touch was good, despite the occasional bit of lag.
You won't get much satisfaction out of Harry Potter: Spells unless you're a strong Harry Potter fan, and you need a friend who's also willing to get the app in order to really enjoy it. Even then, the fun doesn't last forever; this app is a one-trick pony. Still, it's Harry Potter, and even if there isn't much content, the stuff that's there is good. This is no piece of shovelware, and if you like the idea of live duels with your friends, you should be satisfied with Harry Potter: Spells.