By Steffan PowellGaming reporter
Hogwarts Legacy, a major video game adaptation of the wizarding world created by JK Rowling, has arrived, following a fierce online debate.
An open world adventure title like this has been at the top of some Harry Potter fans' wish lists for some time.
But others are calling for a boycott because of Rowling's public comments on issues about transgender people.
Despite the controversy, it is predicted by some to be the biggest-selling premium release of 2023.
The title has already broken records for the number of people watching streamers playing preview copies. At one point, it's reported that 1.3 million people were watching content related to the game on Twitch.
Some have pushed back against the boycott, arguing that choosing to play the game doesn't automatically mean they support the author's statements.
The title sees players attend the school made famous by Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger – but before their time, back in the 1800s.
You can zoom around on a broomstick, learn to cast spells, explore the castle, fight giant spiders and collect a variety of hats and scarves to wear as you go.
Critical reaction to the game itself has been largely positive, with review aggregator Metacritic scoring the PlayStation 5 version at 86%.
The Guardian's games editor Keza MacDonald wasn't as enthusiastic as some, writing: "Hogwarts Legacy derives its magic from its setting, not from its game design, which is competent but unspectacular."
She said the game feels too familiar to others in the genre to really stand out, but concluded that its "magical moments and the setting rescue it from mediocrity, but only if the Wizarding World still has you under its spell".
Travis Northup, reviewing for IGN, wrote: "Its open-world adventure captures all the excitement and wonder of the Wizarding World with its memorable new characters, challenging and nuanced combat, and a wonderfully executed Hogwarts student fantasy that kept me glued to my controller for dozens of hours."
He scored it nine out of 10 but did comment on some technical issues, a lacklustre main story and some poor enemy variety as drawbacks.
Having spent roughly a third of the estimated 35 hours it would take to finish the main game playing myself, I think the attention to detail is impressive and it comes into its own as a simulation of life in Hogwarts – but elements of the gameplay are a little repetitive.
It's clear that the developers have made a significant attempt to modernise the setting. The character customisation options are thorough for all ethnic backgrounds, there is global representation in the non-playable-characters, as well as gay and trans representation.
That effort has not won over some gamers, who see it as too close to the wizarding world's divisive creator.
Rowling herself has previously suggested her income is a sign that her opinions don't alienate audiences.
She has spoken against the erasure of women and allowing transgender people access to single-sex spaces. Critics have argued that "diminishes the identity" of trans people. However, she has said she supports trans rights and wants trans people to be free from discrimination and abuse.
In 2020, she said: "My life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it's hateful to say so.
"I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn't hate to speak the truth."
Boycott 'sends clear message'
But just weeks before launch, one of the performers in the game, Heartstopper actor Sebastian Croft, distanced himself from the title – and most of discussion around the release has, until now, been to do with the calls for a boycott.
Trans activist Eva Echo feels it's important for people to understand the strength of feeling in the LGBTQ+ community. "By buying the game you're sending a clear message that it's taking priority over the lives of trans people," she said.
Boycotting it "will allow us to send a very clear message that we won't stand by this and allow JK Rowling to have an even bigger platform", she added.
One of those refusing to play the game is Twitch streamer and YouTube creator Zannah.
She said trans friends started talking about the game and asked for support. "They want their friends, their allies, to not play the game because it will support JK Rowling both monetarily and also by uplifting her in social regard, because obviously people are playing in the world she created.
"The more I listened to the people who were affected and what they had to say, the more it was really not important enough for me to play when my friends were talking about how harmful it was to them."
But, as the Twitch viewing statistics suggest, the appetite to plunge into life in a digital Hogwarts is high.
One of those who has already been playing a preview copy is content creator, streamer and role-playing game fan Mirandalorian from Ohio.
She grew up with Harry Potter and said that universe "was her escape", so has been excited about the game for some time because "nostalgia is such a powerful emotion".
Despite that, she admits being fearful and hesitant about playing the game publicly. "I don't ever want to isolate people or hurt anyone's feelings ever," she said.
The streamer thinks the debate around the game, and whether playing it is a show of support for Rowling's public comments, has "overshadowed what is an amazing experience for so many".
"I think, 20 years after the books came out, the world is in a different paradigm now – where it's not really JK Rowling's any more. It's the community's instead.
"Even though she might have had some stake in it, the game is the vision of the director, the actors and developers – they brought it to life. It's a living, breathing world at this point. We do have to acknowledge that."
Hogwarts Legacy is available on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S and PC, it will be released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch later in the year.
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- JK Rowling
- Harry Potter