If a genre remains popular long enough, and is marketable to kids, you can bet Disney will likely explore planting their own flag in that space before long. As such, Disney Dreamlight Valley has arrived to tempt Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing: New Horizons players who have no other worlds left to conquer… and a good relationship with their inner child.
Like those other life sims, Disney Dreamlight Valley presents players with a sandbox of licensed characters and generically cute fantasy elements. Unlike them, there’s actually a little more narrative meat on these bones. Your avatar has been whisked away to this world to stop the curse of the Night Thorns that overtook the village and either rendered the inhabitants amnesiac or drove them from their home altogether.
While Disney Dreamlight Valley borrows conventions from those other games, it does manage to combine them in a fairly unique way. Like Animal Crossing, gameplay is tied to the real world clock, instead of using an in-game time system à la Harvest Moon. Players have limited stamina to perform most actions, which can be restored by eating food, levelling up, or after a house upgrade, simply by running back in their house for two seconds.
Through the tutorial, a suite of tools are unlocked to enable the typical life-sim duties: shovel, pickaxe, watering can, and fishing rod. The early hours are spent clearing Night Thorns from the village grounds, meeting the first villagers, and learning the basic interactions. Then, players are turned loose to more-or-less chase their bliss. “Dreamlight” is awarded for performing daily tasks and larger achievements, which can then be used to unlock new regions of the village or individual mini-realms where more characters await.
“While Disney Dreamlight Valley borrows conventions from those other games, it does manage to combine them in a fairly unique way.”
The characters will be a strong pull for most fans. At launch, Disney Dreamlight Valley boasts about 17 familiar faces, pulled predominantly from either the most timeless or most recent properties—the likes of Mickey’s clubhouse gang, Elsa, Anna, and Moana, but also Remy from Ratatouie and Merlin from The Sword in the Stone.
Given the sheer size of Disney’s roster, the opening cast is about as balanced as it could be. Of course, some may be disappointed to learn that several characters featured prominently in the key art are not here yet. Belle, Scar, and Buzz Lightyear are front and centre on the loading screen, but not yet listed in the game’s Collection of possible neighbours. Surely this will change over time, and quickly swell into another living museum of IPs and fairy tales.
Managing these characters drives much of Disney Dreamlight Valley’s gameplay, either in completing their quests or improving their friendship levels. Once befriended, each can be assigned a role from your life-sim tasks, like foraging or fishing. Players can recruit one friend to follow them around, and when performing that character’s particular task, they can impart extra rewards. This helps make them more personable and useful than the NPCs of most other sims.
“At launch, Disney Dreamlight Valley boasts about 17 familiar faces, pulled predominantly from either the most timeless or most recent properties…”
In this department, Disney Dreamlight Valley does a pretty solid job of keeping the gameplay fresh. Quests are varied enough to avoid feeling like an utter slog, and avoiding both Animal Crossing’s real-time, long-term gameplay and Stardew Valley’s stamina-focused days keeps it playable for long stints without feeling like a chore. The rudimentary cooking minigame also helps in this regard, and fishing is a nice change from the slew of other fishing minigames that permeate the entire industry.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a life sim without some friction from the in-game economy and inventory management. I hit a small wall after a few hours, where expanding either my personal or home inventory would require 4000 gold, at a time when my pockets were already too stuffed for efficient money-making.
Speaking of efficiency, let’s move on to some foibles with this particular version: Disney Dreamlight Valley is not ideally optimized for the Nintendo Switch. Load times are long, both upon moving to new areas and when loading the camera. It’s not unplayable, but it is very noticeable.
One thing this game has over Animal Crossing is being able to manipulate items in the larger environment from a top-down menu instead of physically manipulating and landscaping. However, between some generally tedious camera work and the Switch version’s struggles, this wasn’t as big of a change as I’d hoped.
More glaring are some technical issues with the presentation, like pop-in and audio glitches. I also encountered some bugs before and after the day one patch, like a couple instances where the game spontaneously crashed. Upon unlocking the forest region, I found myself unable to actually enter it. I ducked into a nearby building to reload the area, only to find the thicker Night Thorns covering its entrance again. Only when I closed the game and entirely reloaded it could I access the new biome.
In the grand scheme of things, these are largely temporary setbacks that Gameloft could address, but for now, the Switch may not be the ideal platform, despite its appeal to kids.
“Foibles aside, I felt the same “one more task” pull from Disney Dreamlight Valley that I get from the games that inspired it.”
(A quick note on that topic: Disney Dreamlight Valley may be better suited to older kids, or adults. It doesn’t have quite the same level of accessibility as Animal Crossing, with its larger variety of resources. Young kids will enjoy seeing the familiar Disney characters on-screen, but catering to their whims is a little more daunting.)
Foibles aside, I felt the same “one more task” pull from Disney Dreamlight Valley that I get from the games that inspired it. It doesn’t feel derivative, as I’d feared upon its announcement. There’s enough of a unique spin on the gameplay, coated in that Disney charm, to justify its existence—nor does it have the same exploitative business structure of similar mobile games from the House of Mouse.
Without reinventing the wheel nor being a stale imitation, Gameloft has carved out a nice little niche in the genre for itself in Disney Dreamlight Valley, which will only be more enticing as more beloved faces arrive over time. With luck, the Switch version will get the juice it needs to help keep up with demands.