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VR Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ Virtual Reality Experience

With its ability to transport you into another world, virtual reality can feel magical. The same has long been true for books and movies that capture our imagination with detailed otherworlds. So what better way to promote a movie like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” that with virtual reality (VR)?

Warner Bros. has done just that with a new “Fantastic Beasts” VR experience, which was exclusively released for Google’s new Daydream VR headset earlier this month. The experience invites viewers to enter the study of Newt Scamander, the main character of the movie. Given that he had to leave for the U.S., he instructs the viewer to take care of three of the creatures he had to leave behind.

To do so, one has to trace a series of figures with a magic wand that is being controlled with the help of the Daydream controller as a way to visually draw spells in the air. There’s also a little bit of potion mixing involved, and one even has to grind down a few chubby roots with a mortar and pestle.

Newt Scamander’s study. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The experience was produced by Framestore, the same VFX studio that also worked on the visual effects of the actual “Fantastic Beasts” movie, which leads to a great level of visual detail throughout the entire experience. The study is crammed full with old books, scattered manuscripts and mysterious potions, and the beasts as well as their individual habitats themselves are truly impressive. Having a Thunderbird spread its wings right in front of you is quite a sight, to say the least.

But what the “Fantastic Beasts” VR experience offers in visual richness, it lacks in actual interactivity. The frequent spell-drawing quickly becomes old, and the individual beasts don’t actually react to anything but two or three pre-defined spells. Rapidly waving your wand at them for example has no effect at all, despite Scamander repeat warnings that they’re easy to startle. It soon feels like the experience may as well have been called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Do Very Little With Them.”

Scamander’s study itself also quickly gets boring. Most objects don’t offer any interaction at all. Some manuscripts fly in the air upon contact with the wand, but there’s nothing of consequence on them, nothing new to learn and no secrets to uncover.

One of the many spells you’ll have to draw with your wand. Courtesy of Warner Bros. / Screenshot: Janko Roettgers / Variety

To make matters worse, the experience is hamstrung by a few technical issues. Google’s Daydream system offers a handheld controller with an integrated gyroscope, meaning that it can track tilting and pointing similar to a Wii remote, which is great for the magic wand used in this experience. However, unlike higher-end systems, it doesn’t use positional tracking, so the device doesn’t actually know if and when the controller moves through the space in front of you. “Fantastic Beasts” tries to solve this by keeping the magic wand really close to your body, no matter where you are actually holding the controller. The result looks a bit like you have no arm at all, which is somewhat dissociating.

What’s more, the 3D effects of the experience seem a bit over the top at times. Just moving your head a little bit makes the whole world sway in a way that would under different circumstances be a good sign for letting someone else have the keys to your car.

To be fair, the “Fantastic Beasts” VR experience was never meant to be a full-fledged game or a cinematic VR experience on its own, but instead a promotion for the actual movie. As such, it definitely works, and better so than other experiences that simply show the viewer 360 videos with no ways to interact at all.

But for a world that promises magic, “Fantastic Beasts” VR still falls short.

VR Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts' Virtual Reality Experience

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