It remains to be seen if a Harry Potter virtual world will ever see the light of day, but even without Mr. Potter and the Weasleys nothing says we can’t all be the wizard (or witch) of our dreams. Let’s face it, we all dream of it at some level or another. You can deny it but the sheer popularity of The Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia and countless other tales proves that a leetle part of you loves magic. KingsIsle’s Wizard101 delivers in grandiose style on those yearnings for the mage in all of us.

Set in the fictitious school of Ravenwood’s School of Magic, you begin your journey as a novice mage. There are seven schools to choose from: Storm, Fire, Life, Myth, Life, Death and Balance. A short questionnaire at the beginning to determine your personality type will help place you where you are best suited, but you can choose any school you wish. A bit of character customization including your initiate’s robe colors and you’re off! It’s into the world of magic for you.

From the beginning the most striking element of Wizard101 is the art direction. This isn’t just a bunch of images thrown together but a carefully planned design – a style unique unto itself. From the enormous tree, Barttleby (he has a name because he has a face and watches you!), to the detail in the flagstones on the sidewalk, everything has a feel I can only describe as Disneyland-like-magic. Colors are vibrant, detail is exaggerated and nothing feels out of place.

Though the mini-games – one of the mechanisms in the game for earning extra gold and regaining your health or mana – are drawn in a comic book 2D style, it is no less charming. Nor do the images feel as if they don’t fit within the world. Kudos to the art director for designing the look and feel of an entire world, not just an area or characters or monsters.

Using a very extensive series of quests, much of your first few days in Wizard101 will be spent learning about the combat system, the spell system, the quest system, the badges, the items and gathering hints about something rather nefarious having happened to the School of Death. In the beginning, you’ll interact with Headmaster Ambrose rather frequently but as time passes, other Professors and “characters” within the various parts of the world will ask for your help.

Though you begin by removing ghosts from Unicorn Way and Saving Private O’Ryan, by the time you reach Dragonspire the world becomes rather dark as you reach closer to the truth of what has happened to the instructor for the School of Death. (And ow! those monsters hurt!)

Combat is unique: Difficult to explain, easy to perform, but unique. Each Wizard has a wand that produces a spell based upon the school it is associated with. I tend to play Life Mages so we’ll use that as an example. My starter wand gives me six Cards, one from each of the seven Schools (less balance): Thundersnake, Frost Beetle, Firecat, Dark Sprite, Blood Bat and Imp. Keep that word “card” in mind. I also have a Starter Deck that contains the first spell in my school; it allows for 14 total cards (spells) used in combat from the deck but no more than three copies of each spell; and 5 Treasure Cards can be used.

I “build” my combat deck from these cards. The Cards (heretofore known as spells) attached to my wand are freebies. I must choose the 14 other spells I want to use from my deck using the limitations described above. If I have the spell Tempest (think of a Tsunami), I can place up to three copies in my 14 open slots. Treasure Cards are single-use spells; they are usually rewards or loot found from monsters and are exceptionally powerful so choosing to add them to your play deck will depend upon the situation you are entering.

Other spells are gained through your school trainer. Every four levels or so you’ll earn a Training Point; these can be spent at schools of magic other than your own. As a Life Wizard, most of my school spells are less offensive and more of the healing type. Also, I get them for free! By allowing a player to spend their training points as they see fit in any of the other six schools, players can specialize their wizards any way they see fit. If you want to be a Life and Death wizard, you can.

The spells for your own school you acquire by visiting your Professor (mine is a cow…) at levels 1, 5, 8, 10, 16, 22 and so on. If there’s a treasure card you need but can’t find, or a spell you haven’t earned yet (or never will), you can visit the Library where every spell is available – for a price. If you’re looking for something to use in a hurry you buy a card there for use like a treasure card. The final piece in building your deck is the items you wear. Some give you a free spell – one copy but free none the less.

So, you’ve got a plethora of spells to choose from. Your base six on your wand (until you buy a bigger wand!), a few you’ve earned from your school, a few you’ve trained in other schools, a treasure card or two and perhaps a piece of jewelry that gives you a spell. What does it all do for you?

When you fight monsters in Wizard101 it’s a turn-based affair. You take a turn, the monster takes a turn and so on. If your deck is limited to 14 cards (spells), you must choose what will work best for you in your situation. Each time my turn is up, I am show seven random cards from my deck of 20 (14 spells plus six from my wand). Some may require more power than I have stored; others may be only healing spells when what I need to do is attack. (As a Life Wizard, I often choose healing spells so I may keep my party at full strength while they attack.) Once I run through my deck – assuming I have mana and health left – it will shuffle and I begin again.

Battle can be a single player affair, but more often another player will run in to help you. If this throws the balance in favor of the players, another monster will also join. The largest battle possible is four against four. You don’t want them any larger because the spells you cast, even at the beginning are HUGE! Sand Beetles that crawl up from the ground and attack! Bats that spit green blood! Evil leprechauns! They’re all incredibly animated with wonderful sound. But larger battles would become tedious waiting for every animation to play out.

No wizarding world would be complete without robes and pointy hats and wands and staves and pets and all the cool wizard stuff! Wizard101 is no different. Many of your first upgrades will be acquired through questing but later you’ll want to purchase the cool stuff in the shops. Trying to decide which set of spells can drive a girl crazy. Items come in various colors and trim, though not all items in all colors. For that you’ll have to save up to dye a matching outfit.

Then there are the holidays. What wizard doesn’t love Halloween and its spooks and spoils? Or winter and its presents and frozen delights? Rare (very rare) outfits as well as some of the coolest pets I’ve ever seen in a game drop during each event. Just today I saw a Death Mage in black and white with his pet tarantula. Suddenly, my Valentine’s Cupig didn’t seem so cool anymore. Gotta get me a spider.

Building just the right outfit is half the fun of the game but who wants to carry around all that stuff? Every member gets their own room in the boys’ or girls’ dormitories at Ravenwood. There you place your favorites for safe keeping as well as the items you’re just not quite powerful enough to use yet. Or, when the weird dancing Holiday Elf pet starts to get on your nerves, you put him in a chest in favor of a nice purple Unicorn.

Beyond questing in the various worlds beyond Ravenwood (Marleybone is a little odd, I must say), there’s some delightful minigames that allow you to refill your mana potions, regenerate health, earn gold and simply play at a slower pace. Some are quite recognizable as games of yesteryear: Doodle Doug sure reminds me of Dig Dug; and I’m no better at Skull Riders than I was at Joust; but Conjuration is a wicked twist on the game, Memory; and though Sorcery Stones has much in common with nearly every match-3 game on the market it’s still it’s own game. Get good enough at any of them and you’ll not only gain the above mentioned goodies but perhaps a hat or pair of boots.

Oh, yes! And duels! Hah! Finally something I can beat my son at. Dueling is what experienced MMOG players would call “consensual PvP.” I call it fun. Practice dueling is no different than ranked dueling except that well… it’s not ranked. The actual mechanic of dueling works much like fighting monsters with a few twists thrown in to give a boost to using your school. You can play in single combat or in group combat. I’ll not go into detail here about how it differs from monster battles, but suffice to say it’s a unique system I’ve not encountered before and can give a purely defensive player a chance against one who is purely offensive.

The initial play in Wizard101 is free. About half of Wizard City, its quests, contests, items and players is completely open for you to set your inner wizard free. If you follow the quest progression, you will come to a point where you will need to choose whether to continue playing or not and if so, how you wish to play. There are a number of options to do so.

The first is your standard subscription. A single subscription is $9.95/month with discounts for six and 12-month purchases (at the time of this writing there is a particularly deep discount for a 12-month purchase.) A family account allows for more than one person on a single credit card at the reduced rate of $6.95/month. As a subscriber, you can access the forums, play on the test server, play ranked duels for free and receive special promotions.

If you’ve not yet decided if you want to make the commitment to a subscription when you reach this deciding point in Wizard City, but you would like to experience more of the game, you can use what is known as an Access Pass. Like many games today, Wizard101 uses a microcurrency that can be purchased outside of the game. This currency is known as Crowns. Though Crowns can be purchased by anyone to buy unique items such as the holiday clothing and pets, for the player who is not yet ready to commit they allow you to purchase a single area at a time.

Crowns are bought in lots varying from 2500 to 60,000 (with a generous discount the more you buy). Completing the entirety of Wizard city requires 3000 crowns to unlock the four locked areas of Sunken City, Firecat Alley, Cyclops Lane, and Colossus Blvd. As the areas are part of a related quest, you should be pretty sure if you’re going to stick around before you reach the end so an investment of $5 will tell all.

Wizard101 is not a game that was made with very young children in mind. If you should so choose, the deck building in concert with the gear can get pretty arcane. Then again, you can just choose the biggest number and do ok. But, it also wasn’t built to appeal only to the tween-set either. This is a game that not only Mom and Day but Grandma can enjoy with the kids. It’s exciting, it’s not particularly fast paced, it’s beautiful and it’s easy to “get.” Who doesn’t get wizards?