I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d be getting, going into Disney Dreamlight Valley’s paid early access launch this week, but I knew I wanted in. From the moment the game was announced and it was revealed that I’d be able to befriend the likes of WALL-E and Ratatouille’s Remy and live with them in a magical village, I was sold.
Now that the game is available for anyone willing to pony up at least $45 for a Founder’s Pack (a free-to-play launch is scheduled for next year), I’ve been able to put in a little time and get a feel for just what the game is and whether you should have it on your radar or even splash out and jump in now. The good news is that it’s a genuine treat, a sickeningly-positive light amidst a year stacked with very Serious™ video games. It’s unashamedly rooted in the mindset of a F2P mobile game, spinning busywork into ‘gameplay’ in the name of dopamine-boosting audiovisual feedback, but it’s also just really nice. And did I mention WALL-E is there?
Dreamlight Valley starts you off by giving you the tools to create a representation of yourself with its fairly robust character creator. You likely won’t be able to generate a near-likeness given the lack of fine control over face and body shape, but the preset options encompass a decent enough spread of features and the whole things is nice and inclusive overall with gender ambiguity across the board and options for things like vitiligo and religious coverings. The end result will always be a very “Disney” version of whatever you’re trying to create, but it makes sense within the game’s visual language (and honestly everyone winds up looking a little bit gay which I love).
Once in the game proper, after your character is mysteriously whisked away from their real-world life to the magical realm of Dreamlight Valley, you’ll meet Merlin. Merlin explains that the Valley’s “Ruler” has disappeared along with a ton of its residents, and that evil Night Thorns have sprouted up and taken over the place, causing the inhabitants to forget their friends and their purposes. Of course it stands to reason that your sudden arrival is no mistake and you just happen to be the only one capable of harnessing the power of Dreamlight to remove the Night Thorns, return the estranged villagers and save the day.
This manifests in the game’s core gameplay loop which sees you roaming Dreamlight Valley, collecting resources, crafting items, farming, fishing and all those great life sim activities in order to get the place back into ship-shape and also to earn Dreamlight. Get enough of that, and you’ll be able to remove some of the nastier Night Thorns and unlock paths to new areas of the Valley as well as open doors to magical realms where you’ll find lost friends to bring home. This side of the game is fairly compelling on its own, and no doubt will appeal to the Animal Crossing/Stardew Valley fans among us. I’ve already lost hours just picking flowers and breaking rocks to craft new things, trade for coins to upgrade resident’s houses and customise my own home. Where this game set itself apart though, is in the friendships you form along the way.
Every villager that resides in your game, and the ones that you head out to rescue, is a new opportunity to form a friendship and its one of the core pillars of Disney Dreamlight Valley. You’ll build bonds with iconic characters like Goofy, Mickey and Moana by chatting to them daily, gifting them items that they like and inviting them to hang out with you while you perform chores. That might not sound like a new concept, but the fact that these are such treasured and beloved characters makes it feel that much more special, especially when you see them pottering around the place humming recognisable Disney tunes or bumping into each other and having their own interactions. I’ll admit I nearly shed a tear the first time Goofy and WALL-E were introduced and Goofy made every effort to help WALL-E feel welcome in his new home.
I feel like I’m still just scratching the surface of the critical quest path in the game, but I’m also aware that in this Early Access state there’s still a lot of that to come down the track. For now I’m very content just hanging out with the friends I’ve made so far and making my surroundings as beautiful as possible. There’s a heap of flexibility in customising your version of the Dreamlight Valley, not just the interior of your house but nearly anything outside can be picked up and moved, or new things placed down. You’ll even get to decide where new residents’ houses go, so after a few dozen hours everyone’s Valleys are guaranteed to look completely different. I’m also obsessed with designing my own clothes using the game’s simple editor that lets you craft basic upper-body clothing using decals and decorations earned through gameplay.
Naturally there is a monetised component to Dreamlight Valley, but I’ve found it incredibly unintrusive so far. An “Event” tab sits quietly in the pause menu, not bothering or interrupting the core gameplay with its existence. In here is a season pass-style system where you’ll earn points to spend on themed rewards, currently a catalogue of Pixar Fest celebration items, unlocking things faster if you drop a secondary, paid currency on the event. It’s all entirely cosmetic/decoration stuff with nothing that’ll change or improve the standard gameplay experience, so it really feels like a best-case scenario for a game like this. It’ll be interesting to see if things become more aggressive once players are able to jump into the game free-of-charge, but for now signs are good.
Being an Early Access title, there are definitely a few little issues here and there that I’ve experienced but typically nothing that a quick save-and-load haven’t fixed. I’ve seen some more egregious issues from friends on social media but Gameloft looks fairly committed to righting any alarming wrongs quite quickly, and no doubt things will only get better as it heads toward a full launch. It’s quite a handsome game overall, especially on newer consoles where the simple visuals mean it runs buttery-smooth. And while the music, which frequently drops in with gorgeous renditions of classic Disney scores, is fantastic there’s a distinct lack of voice acting which might put some off. Characters chatter away when left to their own devices but very little of the dialogue in proper conversations or cutscenes is voiced, which might put off younger players.
Overall, it’s a great start for a game that could easily have been a cash-grabby copycat of other, better life sims. Instead what’s here (so far) is an earnest, thoughtful and delightfully optimistic adventure packed with iconic characters and designed with genuine care for its players. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go see a mouse about a rat.
You can grab Disney Dreamlight Valley for yourself here: