Into the pretty well-known
Back in 2016, I spent more time than I would like to admit on my phone playing Disney Magic Kingdoms. Developed by Gameloft, Magic Kingdoms is a free-to-play city builder along the lines of Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow and Ice Age Village. I should have been able to resist the urge to download the game as I am not a fan of this particular offshoot of the city simulation genre. And yet, that Disney “charm” roped me in and had me fussing endlessly about proper placement for all my attractions.
Over the past few days, I’ve found myself fussing endlessly again with Disney Dreamlight Valley, another Gameloft product that hit Early Access this week. Like Magic Kingdoms, the goal of the game is to shape and expand your town while building relationships with familiar Disney characters. A lot of people out there are comparing the game to Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley because they share a lot of similar gameplay elements and name-dropping those titles likely helps with the SEO. But to me, it’s more akin to Disney Magic Kingdoms, just more fleshed-out and fully realized.
Disney Dreamlight Valley (PC, PS4, PS5 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S]
Released: September 6, 2022
MSRP: $29.99 (Standard Founder’s Pack, Part of Xbox Game Pass)
It’s almost embarrassing how quickly I lost track of time playing Disney Dreamlight Valley. Literal hours melted into the background as my beautiful Black princess planted carrots, baked pies, mined for gems, and ran errands for a small slathering of iconic Disney characters. Like with any well-developed free-to-play game, which Disney Dreamlight Valley will be once it leaves Early Access, it’s able to sink its hooks in quickly with enough content to keep players properly engaged.
The central narrative for Dreamlight Valley revolves around your character returning to a special place from their childhood and being whisked away to a fantasy world left asunder by an event known as “the Forgetting.” Its former inhabitants have nearly all fled, and those who remain are left struggling with memories of a time before the night thorns started popping up all over town. As the savior with a magic touch, it’s up to you to clear the night thorns and restore the town to its former glory, while wrangling together the Disney characters who used to call it home. You’ll do this by farming, fishing, crafting, cooking, mining, digging, and helping your new Disney BFFs with their requests.
On paper, I can see how that sounds like Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, or Story of Seasons. And while its gameplay may hew close to those titles, its objective-oriented progression system is far more restrictive than those more open-ended experiences. You’re not just here to make friends and relax in a laid-back lifestyle, you’re here to complete the various story and friendship quest lines that help build toward the overall goal of restoring the town. Completing these quests, as well as performing just about every action you can in the game, will earn you “Dreamlight”. With this, you’ll be able to open up new areas of the valley and access the different Disney realms where new town inhabitants can be found.
Let’s Get Together
Just a few of the realms are available right now, covering Ratatouille, Moana, Frozen, and Wall-E. Don’t expect anything too extensive with these realms. They’re not like the worlds you explore in the Disney Magical World games on the Nintendo 3DS. The realms here so far are just small themed areas where you’ll find a character or two asking you for help with a problem. For Ratatouille, Remy needs your help in the kitchen. For Wall-E, it’s all about trash and plants. Complete their requests, which you should be able to do in a matter of minutes, and they’ll agree to come live in your town.
Other characters join the fun as you unlock more of the valley. Initially, it’s just Merlin, Mickey Mouse, and Scrooge McDuck, the latter of whom has the most comically inconsistent voice acting I’ve heard in quite some time. It doesn’t take long for Goofy to appear, and within a few hours, most players should be helping out Ursula too. Add in Mother Gothel, who somehow made the cut for early inclusion, and it’s clear to see that, at least for these opening hours and Early Access period, Gameloft is leaning toward Disney’s more recent history in building its collection of characters. More are on the way, and I suspect as a games-as-a-service title, we’ll see them added with high-profile updates over the next few months and years.
Hopefully, those updates will come with more than just new characters because I’d really like to see more of Disney’s past injected into this game. Outside of the familiar faces, Dreamlight Valley is a largely unremarkable fantasy world that doesn’t share a connection to any particular Disney product. Had this game taken place in a more recognizable location, like Main Street U.S.A., it might feel more sufficiently “Disney” than it does right now. As a lifelong fan of this evil corporation, I appreciate what references have made it so far. Never did I think, in the year 2022, I would hear a character whistling part of the song from the Splash Mountain ride, but here we are.
It would just be nice to see Gameloft go a bit deeper into the Disney catalog as it continues to develop and update this game. For instance, the soundtrack went dead silent when the rain started to fall in the valley. With Disney having a few pieces of music associated with rain—the score to The Old Mill, “The Rain, Rain, Rain Came Down, Down, Down,” and “Little April Shower,” to name a few—it illustrated just how much more history the developers could be pulling from.
Of course, all the Disney references in the world won’t matter if people tire too quickly of the gameplay loop. I’ve been obsessed with this game for the past few days, but I’ve also reached a point where I can see a progression wall on the horizon. Some characters are making requests for items I don’t have access to yet, and costs for entering realms and building character dwellings are rising. Character questlines are also becoming increasingly complicated, often dependent on how far I’ve progressed with other characters around town. Add in long wait times for crops to sprout and Dreamlight being earned at a slower pace, and it’s clear I’ve reached the point in a free-to-play game where I’m really going to have to start putting in the time or potentially putting in the money.
In terms of money, Disney Dreamlight Valley has a battle pass-inspired “Star Path” where completing certain tasks will earn you credits you can use to buy limited-time items. The game is currently hosting a Pixar Fest Star Path, which has a variety of Pixar-themed rewards to earn. Like with most battle passes, there is a free and paid track, the latter of which requires “Moonstones”, the game’s paid currency. There doesn’t appear to be any way to purchase Moonstones in Early Access, but if you buy into the game right now with any of the Founder’s Packs, you’ll be given enough to cover the cost of a few of the Star Paths depending on which edition you spring for.
The cost of the paid track for the Pixar Fest Star Path is 2,500 Moonstones. While you will earn more Moonstones if you purchase the paid track it looks as though, at least for this Star Path event, you can only earn 2,175 of them, which likely won’t be enough to cover the cost of the next featured Star Path.
Like with earning Dreamlight, completing tasks for the Star Path will require a lot of repetition. Cook this many meals, pick this many fruits, sell this many items, etc. Obviously, this ties into Dreamlight Valley’s gameplay loop, but I do wonder if such a system could lead to faster player burnout. How many times are players going to be up for picking 100 fruits or collecting 10,000 coins before they get bored of it? It’s one thing to offer these activities as optional or spread out over the life of the game. It’s another thing to tie these types of tasks to temporary events and fleeting rewards.
But such is the nature of a free-to-play game. It may look like something designed with the console crowd in mind, but at its core, it’s no different than what Gameloft did with Disney Magic Kingdoms. The only difference is this is a much more engaging experience. If you do decide to jump into Dreamlight Valley during its Early Access period, know that I did encounter a few issues that did encumber my progression for a few hours, including ridiculously scarce seaweed–a vital crafting ingredient–and little woodland creatures that refused to stop so I could feed them.
In a way, Disney Dreamlight Valley is a wish come true for me. I’ve always wanted a wholesome game where I could share a fully realized world with the Disney characters I grew up with. And while I’m sure those characters will be added to the game eventually, what’s here is enough to satisfy the 10-year-old inside my soul who’s eating a Mickey Mouse waffle at Goofy’s Kitchen while getting an autograph from some criminally underpaid guy in a Pluto costume.
Disney Dreamlight Valley is available now in paid Early Access for PC, Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. It is also part of Xbox Game Pass. It will launch as a free-to-play title on all platforms and mobile next year.
[This scoreless review is based on an Early Access build of the game provided by the publisher.]