Disney Dreamlight Valley Is More Than Animal Crossing In Mickey Mouse Ears

It may be the house that Mouse built, but in Dreamlight Valley, the interior decorating is all yours.

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When Disney Dreamlight Valley was announced, I found its intersecting parts of Disney, the farm-life sim genre, and a free-to-play model to be exciting. With a fair in-game economy and gameplay that keep genre fans coming back, the Animal Crossing-like could have the potential to become a hit with players of all ages--but that microtransaction question loomed large. After spending an hour with the Gameloft development team and checking out a hands-off demo, I'm heartened to have seen a pay model without uncomfortable caveats, making me more confident Dreamlight Valley will be well populated by fans of the genre and brand alike.

On the surface, Dreamlight Valley appears to be your typical farm-life sim--even its name seems determined to recall imagery of Stardew Valley, one of the genre's most beloved games. I arrived to my demo wanting to find out if this other valley could provide a similar mix of relaxing gameplay mechanics such as farming, mining, and socializing. It does all of those things, but to my surprise, it does a lot more as well--things that feel uniquely suited to what a Disney take on the genre could be.

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Now Playing: Disney Dreamlight Valley - Announcement Trailer

Separate from the farming, Gameloft says a whole second chunk of this game is inspired by the adventure genre. The world of Dreamlight Valley is quite large--I wasn't given a size but it looks much bigger than Animal Crossing's town. There are also entire other "realms" to which you travel to aid beloved Disney and Pixar characters in quests. In an example I saw, the player went to visit WALL-E and helped the eco-conscious robot clean up garbage, plant trees, and beautify a world inspired by the movie's trash heap of a planet.

The size of this realm appeared small, but I found it to be a clever extra touch, and the team has plans to continually add new Disney characters to the game over time. The early access period will kick off this summer, and even before the 1.0 launch roughly a year later, Gameloft says players can expect more realms to be added for free on a routine basis. A house full of doors leading to the WALL-E realm and other future realms was mansion-like in size, with each door decorated by tantalizing symbols hinting at the characters and series coming later.

For seasoned gamers, these quests will likely feel simple. Gameloft has designed them to offer fewer hints than you'd expect, seemingly seeking a hard-to-find middle ground for the players of all ages and skill levels who will be drawn into this sort of experience. What I like about these realms is they serve as recruitment missions. My demo skipped ahead to a time later where WALL-E was no longer in his own realm, but instead a neighbor.

Help someone in their realm, and they'll move into Dreamlight Valley as your new neighbor.
Help someone in their realm, and they'll move into Dreamlight Valley as your new neighbor.

Like in Animal Crossing, people move into town often, but unlike Nintendo's juggernaut, Gameloft says its sandbox world and its many biomes will have enough space to house all characters who move in, at least for a good while. Rather than kick people out of town to land your dream neighbor, players will have the real estate available for all realm-recruited heroes and villains. The team anticipates this will eventually not be the case, but adds that world expansions are planned as ways to accommodate an ever-growing population of beloved characters.

The "metanarrative" of the game, as Gameloft put it, is townsfolk have fallen victim to something called The Forgetting, causing widespread amnesia among characters and giving you a mystery to solve in between bouts of recipe mastery, fishing, and harvesting. On a basic gameplay level, this Forgetting is displayed in the form of stormy clouds and prickly purple vines, which players can dig up like weeds in similar games. Your job is to beautify the world to its former glory, but because you invite new characters to town often and unlock new furniture, clothes, and more, you'll make it your own, too.

Those customization options looked massive in number. A glance at the collection menu suggested that all furnishings total nearly 1,100 already in the game, alongside 150+ crafting blueprints, 160+ meals, and nearly 700 clothing items. Not only will more properties introduce new characters to the world, but their related cosmetics will come with them, including an in-game store run by Scrooge McDuck--the game's Tom Nook analog--who offers a regularly rotating selection of styles inspired by heroes and villains.

You can also design your own clothing layer by layer just like in Animal Crossing. A late-game multi-level home I toured included themed rooms for Monsters Inc., Tangled, and more. Collectively, it feels like Gameloft has covered every base genre fans would hope for, while adding more story content than they'd expect.

While dialogue isn't fully voiced, each character does chirp out some voice lines when you pass them by. They also each have their own schedules and AI behaviors, meaning a stroll through town may see Goofy fishing in a nearby pond, Ariel sunbathing by the beach, and Scar resting his traitorous paws in the Lion King-inspired biome. It's funny to see that characters are made to scale, meaning it's not mascots of Buzz Lightyear and Prince Eric you'll see about town; it's really them--and the humorous height difference that comes with them. Every character doles out rewards as you increase your friendship level with them too, adding additional time to a campaign Gameloft says will take players 40+ hours to complete even if you don't maximize your relationships with everyone.

With daily things to do and new friends to make all the time, this is a live-service. Gameloft says co-op plans are in motion, though the game will launch as a solo experience. While the earliest iterations of Dreamlight Valley are only to feature Disney and Pixar characters, the team says the door is not closed to adding other Disney properties like Marvel and Star Wars. Time will tell if all promises will be kept and all potential is met, but in theory, it seems designed to get the post-launch support Animal Crossing fans were starved of.

Hands-off previews come with baked-in caveats, including the simple fact that I haven't played it myself yet, but I saw the game from several angles and I'm excited to see more. The art direction is lovely, as you might agree based on the screenshots, and it seems designed to reward both long and short sessions like the best of the genre does.

Customization options will pull from a great number of Disney series from day one.
Customization options will pull from a great number of Disney series from day one.

The one major question I had--how would the in-game economy look?--came with a heartening answer. In Disney Dreamlight Valley, there are no timers or things of that nature. You can't spend money to speed up the growth of your crops or re-energize your character. These mechanics are often seen in mobile games, a space to which Gameloft is no stranger, but the team assured me they won't be present here.

In their place will be optional customization options, like clothes and furniture. New realms will be free for all players, and while some cosmetics will be paid for with real money, others use a currency you can only earn through playing the game, partitioning the free and paid items clearly. The team also has plans for a battle pass-like chain of seasonal rewards, and paid expansions are also in the works, though the team isn't ready to talk about what those include yet--the planet Hoth, perhaps?

This begs the question of what sort of ratio between free and paid items there will be, not to mention what those prices will look like, but at least for now, the catch I was waiting for regarding Disney Dreamlike Valley doesn't appear to be present. So long as this real-money system is priced reasonably and doesn't lock away all the best rewards behind the cash register, the rest of Dreamlike Valley has all the markings of a future genre favorite, and more than likely many Disney fans' gateway into gaming.

Disney Dreamlight Valley launches into Early Access on PC and Xbox Game Pass this summer, before an eventual release on Switch and PlayStation as well.

Mark Delaney on Google+

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