An incredibly strong start to a bewitching, Disney-infused life sim.
Where other life sims can sometimes struggle to make interesting use of the characters that occupy their towns, developer Gameloft bursts onto the scene shirtless and flexing its muscles like Maui with Disney Dreamlight Valley. Even in its unfinished early access state, this is an irresistible blend of city planning from the likes of Animal Crossing with quests and a progression system more commonly seen in RPGs. All of that is wrapped inside a Disney theme with an all-star cast of adored characters that make it ridiculously hard to put down. Some tedious quests, copious bugs, and an incomplete final act mean it certainly warrants the early access label at the moment, but it’s already all too easy to lose dozens of hours in this magical simulation.
Disney Dreamlight Valley’s cozy concept has you rebuilding a village, befriending iconic characters, and getting sorta creeped out by the look in Mickey Mouse’s eyes. You’ll learn how to fish from Goofy and secretly hope he’s your real father, struggle to find space for all the useless items in your inventory that you absolutely cannot live without, and get really bummed out when you visit Wall-E’s world and remember how sad that movie was. Your ultimate goal is to recruit all the memorable and well-written Disney characters to your town and foster friendships with them, complete a sea of fetch quests to unlock new abilities and access to new areas, and become fabulously wealthy enough to build your Disney dream home in the process. If you’ve played Animal Crossing before, you should feel right at home with Disney Dreamlight Valley – though it isn’t afraid to stray from the well-established loop of farming, fishing, and digging that is the bread and butter of its peers.
The chief differentiator is that Disney Dreamlight Valley wisely focuses far less on the actual village-building and item-collecting elements that are dominant in other games. Instead it relies on its most valuable asset: its characters, who stand front and center as the ultimate unlockable to chase. Completing the right quests to finally convince Moana or Ariel to settle down in my neighborhood provided a hit of dopamine that kept me happily sprinting on the grindy hamster wheel for over 40 hours – not bad for early access.
You might not expect a Disney nostalgia simulator where you hang out with a sailor duck and chef rat to try to tell a serious story, but Disney Dreamlight Valley makes just such an attempt – and with more success than I anticipated. That story is dizzyingly meta, but so dang clever I’ve gotta hand it to the devs for their creativity. You enter Dreamlight Valley and quickly learn of a mysterious ailment known as The Forgetting that ravaged the place and caused all the beloved characters to lose their memories; a suitably vague premise that initially made me roll my eyes. Then I began to realize that The Forgetting was actually just an extremely on-the-nose metaphor for my character entering adulthood and leaving behind this imaginary world of their own creation. Rebuilding the town and creating bonds with its characters, then, is an attempt to rediscover my character’s childlike wonder, which (not coincidentally) is exactly what I was doing by reconnecting with these Disney characters. I see what you did there, Gameloft.
Zero to Hero
Just about every activity gives you some kind of meaningful progress, whether it be earning money to upgrade the village or Dreamlight that lets you access new areas and realms, all in pursuit of recruiting more characters and advancing your relationships with them. Of course, you can upgrade your house, buy new furniture and cosmetics, and all that familiar stuff, but it’s hard to beat recruiting your favorite Disney character to become your next-door neighbor as far as incentives go. And by spending time with these characters, you’ll build social links that eventually unlock rewards and quests, the latter of which sometimes result in your character gaining some useful new ability like breaking apart giant ice roadblocks or tearing out troublesome tree stumps. It’s a loop so disgustingly engrossing that I found myself putting off bathroom breaks and ruining my sleep schedule as I told myself “I’ll stop after this one last thing,” time and time again.
That said, although chasing new characters and leveling up relationships is endlessly enticing, the actual quests themselves can be a little touch and go. Many of them amount to little more than going out and picking some berries, or crafting a piece of furniture, or cooking some food for someone. Those can often feel like busywork that artificially drag out how long it takes you to unlock your favorite character – even if most don’t actually take very long to complete, they’re usually so similar to one another that it gets repetitive.
In a few cases though, quests can be genuinely entertaining in their own right, rather than just a means to an end. In one I chased around a magical feather to divine the location of Donald Duck, who was eternally trapped in a spooky, labyrinthine forest, and in another I helped Anna reunite with Elsa by distracting a giant stone troll in Arendelle. Sadly, these interesting adventures are few and far between amid a sea of much less compelling errands.
Again, I was going strong for most of my time with it, but the novelty of this treadmill does slow down toward the end of the adventure. Hopefully this is the part that’s still being worked on to justify the early access label, because it currently seems devoid of meaningful ways to progress. That’s a major shock to the system after being so handsomely rewarded up until this point. For example, the final two areas (which cost the most Dreamlight to access) don’t unlock any new characters and feel largely empty compared to previous ones. And although there’s quite a bit of content to chew on at this early stage – eight distinct environments, four realms, and 17 characters at launch – if it gets its hooks into you as designed you can grind through most of that in a pretty short span of time and be left with little to do aside from log in every day to see what Scrooge McDuck is selling at his store.
I’m already excited to revisit Disney Dreamlight Valley once it’s out of early access, but whether or not I’ll continue to play beyond this point before 1.0 depends heavily on if the live-service model will be able to output content frequently enough to keep me engaged. That said, no game must be an endless font of entertainment to be a good time, and in its current state it successfully kept me entertained for 90% of the dozens of hours I put into its journey before ending anticlimactically.
Aside from that though, there is some seemingly unintentional timegating that happens which really throws a wrench in an otherwise well-built machine. Unlike real-time games like Animal Crossing that limit your daily progress and ask you to log on every day, Disney Dreamlight Valley sagely sets nearly no limits on how much you can play or accomplish in a single sitting… at least, not on purpose. For example, you can mine ore to your heart’s content, and by the time you’ve left the area to sell off your haul and return, you’ll find the deposits replenished and ready to be mined again – the same can be said for fruit on trees, randomly spawned flowers, and more. But then you’ll run into things like a quest that requires you to collect mushrooms and find no good way to get them except by picking a few that only seem to spawn after reset each day. That effectively adds the same obnoxious timegates to an adventure that seems to have intentionally rid itself of those in other areas, which made them even more out of place and irritating.
There are other areas where it doesn’t seem to respect your time, such as crops that take way too long to grow, water-based characters that would swim to places I couldn’t reach them, and, most frustrating of all, characters randomly deciding to sleep in their house and lock me out of it for six real-life hours when I just needed to get in there for a minute to complete a quest. And as of this writing, I am still waiting for some of those accursed mushrooms to appear in the only area that spawns them, with no end in sight.
A Whole New World
As Dreamlight Valley’s redemption arc plays out, you’ll be treated to a fantastic showcase of the colorful worlds and personalities for which Disney is known. Each character is so impeccably recreated and full of life that hanging out with them gave me flashbacks about parts of the movies that I’d long forgotten. Plus, seeing Donald Duck lose his mind and enter a frenzied rage for no reason just never gets old. All the while, orchestral versions of popular Disney theme music plays in the background and had me humming along like a nostalgia-drunk sucker. The only real letdown, where look and feel is concerned, are the environments – they’re surprisingly claustrophobic and poorly textured compared to how great everything else looks. Granted, that issue is almost a hallmark of the genre at this point, but one that never ceases to gnaw at me as I play nonetheless.
Less bland are the character-customization and furniture options you use to decorate the town and your home. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that there’s a pile of cosmetics to unlock as big as Gaston’s biceps, seeing as it’s the primary method by which Gameloft plans to make a buck off optional microtransactions when it leaves early access, but it’s still an impressive selection nonetheless. (Unless you wanted to make a redheaded character, in which case for some reason you can only give them ginger eyebrows.) Similarly, the ways in which you can decorate the town and your house are numerous and diverse, and exploring the goods offered by Scrooge’s store became a habit-forming ritual each morning.
Also, I’m rarely struck by how good a UI feels to navigate, but Disney Dreamlight Valley unquestionably stands out in this regard. Everything is super easy to find and the all-important collections tab details everything from the unlockables you haven’t discovered yet, to clues for certain ongoing quests that you’ll need to reference.
With all of that in mind, it has to be said that Disney Dreamlight Valley feels impressively like a finished product for an early access game. The caveat here, though, is that performance is frequently and brutally murdered like Mufasa (too soon?), sometimes resulting in a painful loss of progress. Some issues are minor, like graphical glitches in which the world temporarily freaks out and turns neon colors for some reason, the camera temporarily develops a mind of its own, or the framerate takes a dive under the sea, but I also hit plenty of crashes or broken states that warranted a hard reset and forced me to repeat whatever I’d done since the last autosave – which was 15 minutes of progress in a few of my cases. These issues are a regular occurrence, too, some of which became insufferably so by the time I saw everything there was to see in my magical valley.