Disney Speedstorm Is A Great Kart Racer Mired In Confusing Progression Hooks
Gameloft's Disney-infused kart racer makes a great first impression, but it isn't long before its aggressive, confusing progression hits the brakes.
Gameloft is a mobile-first studio with loads of experience making snappy, responsive racing games through its Asphalt series. Disney Speedstorm represents its second venture into PC and console gaming using the popular Disney license, after the friendly life sim Disney Dreamlight Valley. And while Gameloft's expertise in crafting well-made racing games is on full display--complete with plenty of fun callbacks for Disney fans--it also feels like it has imported some of the confusing microtransaction baggage familiar from the mobile market.
As a racer, Disney Speedstorm carries itself with an earned level of confidence, nailing the feeling of a veteran kart racer right from the start. The cars here are sized similarly to actual small automobiles--at least, as far as I can tell from the proportions of human characters--which is more reminiscent of the Sonic Racing series than the tiny, zippy go-karts from Mario Kart. The vehicles grip the road well and take sharp corners with well-calibrated drifting mechanics. If you've played a kart racer or even just any arcade racing game in the last few years, you'll feel immediately at home stepping behind this wheel.
Where it starts to differentiate itself is with its variety of characters, each with their own classes and special abilities. These include the differences that you'd expect to stats like handling or top speed, but the classes also make a much bigger impact by changing mechanics like how you gather boost. Your boost meter is a major part of the racing strategy in Speedstorm, and each class is built to gain its boost function differently. Brawlers, for example, get boost when they successfully stun an opponent, which means they excel when they're in the middle of the action, while Defenders gain boost from drifting off their opponents' slipstreams.
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Within those classes, individual characters also have their own powers. Donald Duck is one of several brawlers, for example, but he's the only one with the special skill "Why I Oughta," which puts up a defensive shield and then unleashes a flurry of flailing fists if he gets hit. The greater variety rewards eagle-eyed Disney fans to recognize the references while also making each racer feel different, even within the same class. There are a range of regular items that each character can pick up, but having a wide variety of different powers among the characters really makes them stand out as their own. The cars themselves have much less personality, though with only very slight touches of characterization across a set of similar stock cars.
Another nice twist comes in the form of Crews. Every racer has their own set of support characters, familiar minor characters from their own movies and cartoons, who can be equipped with the racer to boost certain stats. These run the gamut from widely recognized animal companions like Mulan's horse Khan or Mickey's dog Pluto to obscure deep cuts like Gus Goose.
Visually, each character has been given a Speedstorm makeover, which works well enough but can be inconsistent. More cartoonish characters like Mickey Mouse and Sully from Monsters Inc. look great, and even live-action characters like Jack Sparrow have been given a stylized makeover. The odd exception are animated human characters, like the array of Disney princesses, who often look just slightly off. Some look better than others, but overall they appear flatter and less visually interesting than the other racers.
The greatest treat for Disney fans, though, comes in the track design. These take loose inspiration from their movie properties, like Hercules' Mount Olympus or a pirate ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean. The tracks are bursting with clever bits of character and references, and many include upbeat, jazzy remixes of popular songs from Disney's animated musicals. They twist and turn and defy gravity to dizzying effect, but the signposting is always very clear and feels utterly fair.
And design-wise, some of the tracks are just remarkably inventive. The Silver Screen starts in an old theater playing a classic, black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon. Upon starting the race, you burst through the screen and into a black-and-white world, before circling back around into the color theater and then teleporting through the screen again.
For added variety, each track type houses several courses, and Speedstorm also introduces a few alternate modes that are mostly very fun. A Fog Challenge severely limits your sightline, for example, while Floating Objects Challenge forces you to plan daring jumps to gain items or hit boost pads. The one bad mode I found was Last One Standing, which slowly takes out racers in last place until there's only one remaining. It's a good idea, but whoever loses a pip of health gets boosted in front of other racers. That means if you happen to be in first when there's only two racers remaining, your opponent could get boosted in front of you automatically and you have only a second or two to overtake them before you get eliminated instead.
All of these mechanics are explained through a lengthy set of tutorial races called the Starter Circuit that mostly lock you to certain racers and tracks. It's there that you learn the ropes of how to upgrade your racers, their special power sets, and more. It's also where you get your first bitter taste of the aggressive progression mechanics.
I first ran into the progression gating on chapter 4 as Mulan. After cruising along without difficulty, I suddenly hit a race with a recommended level of 6. I had capped out at 5, and without the requisite upgrade material to level up Mulan again, I was stuck there. I went ahead and raced anyway, and accomplished the goals with a little more difficulty than usual--but then the next race recommended level 7. So I skipped to the next chapter and played with Hercules, until I ran into a similar problem there. This seems aimed at pushing you into the various other modes, but it's strange to shove you out of the tutorial before completing it.
I went into Season Tour to earn upgrade materials, but eventually, I hit another roadblock: I couldn't proceed without a Monsters Inc. character, none of which I currently had. So I looked for how to obtain one and found I could earn shards for Celia Mae, one of the eligible characters, by taking part in a limited-time event. I headed over to these to look for more Celia shards and started doing those races. But gaining enough shards to earn her would take completing Apprentice, Advanced, or Expert level events--which, again, required a higher-level racer than I currently had. It's frankly just a confusing mess of menus, and I shouldn't need a flowchart to figure out how to unlock a character. You cannot purchase currency or characters with real money in this early access period, but the inscrutable arrangement of the menus and multiple currencies is indistinguishable from countless microtransaction-infused mobile games.
The timed events are especially frustrating because the leveling requirements feel like you're barred from earning certain rewards when you only have a limited time to gain them. I'm sure they'll be cycling in and out, but it feels bad to find yourself hopelessly outmatched in timed events with rewards that are going away, however temporarily. I actually tried taking on a level 12 race with my best racer--a level 8 Donald Duck--and it was not even close.
It's possible Gameloft will sort out these issues while the game is still in its Early Access period. I hope it does, because Disney Speedstorm makes a fantastic first impression thanks to its rock-solid racing mechanics and spirited reverence for Disney canon. While the first few hours of Disney Speedstorm are a raucous joyride, the leveled gating mechanics and confusing web of menus are a blinking "check engine" light. It doesn't immediately spoil the fun, but it's definitely cause for alarm.
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