Next to movies and TV shows, games were one of the things I enjoyed most about Disney growing up. I have so many fond memories of playing Hercules, Tarzan and Toy Story 2 with my sister; we struggled with both The Lion King, Aladdin and The Jungle Book like everyone else; and eventually I would also fall head over heels in love with the strange Kingdom Hearts universe.
With the exception of the latter, however, there has been a lack of major Disney games in the last ten to fifteen years. This is partly because movie games are mostly not made anymore, but also because Disney has invested heavily in the mobile market.
Exactly this will probably not change anytime soon, but lately a number of exciting and more comprehensive ones have started to appear – also on console and PC!
For example, my download finger itches a bit every time I see something new from the Mirrorverse; Speedstorm seems like a fun Mario Kart competitor; the recently announced Illusion Island can easily be associated with the phenomenal Rayman games; and recently Dreamlight Valley was released in Early Access on both console and Windows.
The latter is an Animal Crossing-like game where you move to an enchanted valley and have to help Merlin, Mickey and a number of other Disney characters break the curse and get life back on its feet. Now we have spent a large part of the week playing gardener, magician and cook, and we have fallen flat on our faces.
Once upon a time
The adventure begins quite similarly to most such games, with the main character getting tired of the hustle and bustle of the big city and returning home to rural areas. Dreamlight Valley stands out a bit in that it apparently only takes place in the dreams of the character we play as, but has many of the same tropes as both Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley.
This continues as you arrive at the village, which instead of just being a bit run down like in other games, this time is subject to a curse. The curse has plunged the titular valley into all-consuming darkness; Fierce thorn thickets have swallowed up parts of the village; and many of the residents have disappeared without a trace.
The few who are still left have, in return, suffered amnesia, so that you are relatively on bare ground when you arrive in Disney’s dreamland. Fortunately, it soon turns out that you are the chosen one, and with a little help from Merlin, you begin to solve the many tangles in Dreamlight Valley.
Disney is the key
Like most others, I also got excited about Animal Crossing: New Horizons when we were on a pandemic fast in 2020. Admittedly, I didn’t spend nearly as much time on the game as many others, and after just over 30 hours it became too much repetition and irritation for me.
I have currently played Disney’s “life sim” for just under 20 hours, and I have not encountered the same problems yet.
An important part of this is the fact that Dreamlight Valley has a far greater focus on characters, story and actual missions. Here, your neighbors are not just (seemingly) randomly selected animal creatures, but they are personalities you know well from before.
At first you trudge around with Mickey, Goofy, Merlin and Uncle Skrue, but as you play, you keep finding new characters you can invite to your valley. I don’t want to reveal too many of these, but I can mention that they quickly settle in when you first help them a little along the way.
For example, Wall-E wants you to pick up some trash and plant some trees in his home kingdom before he moves into your village, while the rat from Rattatouille requires you to help him cook and set up a real restaurant in your valley.
But there is more!
Then you build a home for these oddities, and then they are suddenly part of your daily life.
It doesn’t stop there though, as each figure also has ten friendship levels you can unlock. This works by spending time with them, giving them gifts, cooking for them, completing quests they give you and talking to them
Fortunately, the well-known and beloved Disney characters not only talk about you and your problems, but also interact with each other and react to things happening in the world around them.
It’s by no means very deep – no conversation lasts more than a handful of text boxes – but it’s consistently charming and full of references. The dialogue is also surprisingly well written, with a lot of wit, personality and understanding of what makes these characters so appealing.
Seeing Merlin ask Wall-E what drives the little robot, hearing Uncle Skrew comment with skepticism on Urusula’s plans, and sympathizing with Mickey missing Minnie is extremely rewarding for an old Disney heart.
The graphic style is lovely and colourful, and makes the various characters fit like a glove in this universe; while the music, which is mainly new interpretations of notes from the films, is unbearably cozy.
Basic game core
Beneath the Disney joy is also a surprisingly competent “life simulation” game. One of the first things you get is a house you can live in and renovate, while after a couple of simple missions you also get four essential tools: hoe, spade, watering can and fishing rod. And that’s really all you need to get started properly.
The basic mechanics of the game consist of running around the valley and doing small and large errands for the creatures you meet along the way. As part of the renovation process, one has to plant vegetables, cook in the kitchen, dig for precious stones and fish in the sea.
You can also dress up, upgrade your equipment, open completely new parts of the valley and decorate both outdoors and indoors. These are fairly basic issues, and technically it rarely gets more involved than this.
The core of the game instead lies in a rather quirky mission system, where each of the characters in the game has specific challenges and corresponding rewards for the player. This too is mainly based on the basic systems, whether you find equipment for a fleet Goofy works with, help in Mickey’s garden or explore a cave down by the water’s edge in search of the sea witch.
Here, too, the Disney characters are the extra motivator, and I’m constantly looking forward to seeing what the various characters have to offer next, whether it’s a new item of clothing, brand new dialogue or a way to unlock the next character in the row.
Early Access after all
Of course, everything is not all joy and fun in dreamland, and it is noticeable in several places that this is, after all, an Early Access game. Figures get stuck, the camera sometimes takes on a life of its own, buildings can’t always be moved where you want, and until now there has been quite a bit of trouble with “dreamshards”.
Especially the latter, which prevented players from completing main quests because dream crystals didn’t appear as they should, spoiled my enjoyment of the game after the first 15 hours. Fortunately, it has now been fixed, so that it is much easier to get hold of what you need.
Other points of irritation are probably not as easily fixed, such as slightly clumsy cooking and the fact that “inventory management” is currently a blissful mess.
The former comes from the fact that you often have to try your hand at knowing what you can make of the things you have. You often get dozens of versions of the same dish, and instead I’m left with far too many ingredients that I can’t bear to throw away. At the same time, it’s really a godsend that you don’t have to carry ingredients and coal back and forth to your kitchen when you’re cooking, but it’s still a bit too unintuitive.
On the opposite side you have your inventory, where in particular the rucksack you carry things around in is far too small – you can certainly upgrade it, but it keeps getting full of all sorts of mission items, vegetables and flowers.
Only after 20 hours have I gone in to upgrade my house further, and then you also get more chest space. This helps a long way, but I would like to avoid having to move so many things back and forth all the time.
A preliminary conclusion
Already in Early Access, Dreamlight Valley is simply a pretty amazing game. Here, the developers combine an accurate interpretation of the Animal Crossing concept with nostalgic Disney magic, and the result is unbearably cozy.
I never doubted that it was going to be good, but it was not a foregone conclusion that the experience would be as enjoyable as what Gameloft has achieved. There are plenty of simple Disney games on both console and mobile, but Dreamlight Valley is elaborate in a rare good way.
Not only does it look and sound great, with colorful characters and gorgeous renditions of classic Disney music, but considerable effort has gone into making the universe and characters feel alive and true to the source material.
Of course, those who don’t have a huge love for Disney won’t get as much out of the experience, but there’s actually a surprisingly engaging life simulator game at heart here. Here you plant vegetables, fish and build houses for the big gold medal, and together with a rewarding mission system it is already very lots of exciting things to do in Dreamlight Valley.
You cannot avoid a number of “bugs” and moments of irritation in Early Access, and this also applies here. I also wonder exactly how much content the game is intended to have – at some point it has to run out of dialogue and missions, and without new characters, worlds and missions, I fear it may become a bit empty eventually.
We already know that Scar from The Lion King is on the way in the near future, while we’ll also get to explore a Toy Story realm later this year. The key will then be to constantly have new and appealing content, while maintaining the current quality of animations, environments, music and dialogue.
If there is one company that I believe has the resources to make something like this happen, it is of course Disney, and with so many films and brands to take off, I am quite optimistic for Dreamlight Valley’s future. At least for the time being very engaging to explore this little magical Disney game.
Disney Dreamlight Valley is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (tested), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch and Windows. A Mac version is also in development.