It’s always exciting to play a game with a well-planned Early Access period. Sure, it might start with a few hundred bugs to be squashed, but getting frequent expansions as more and more content rolls in for the thing you already bought is fun and keeps most of the player base on an even progress level.
Of course, the real test comes when it’s time for that big, full 1.0 release, as that’s when players are going to expect something resembling a finished product. So, with over a year in Early Access and a much-publicized patch cycle, is the full-fat release of Disney Dreamlight Valley deserving of its price tag?
A Free-to-Play Game Going Premium
With this release, the price tag is the elephant in the room, so I will address it immediately. Disney Dreamlight Valley, ever since its Early Access debut, was publicly stated to be in a paid EA period but would go free-to-play sometime in 2023 when the full version launched, and this was emphasized with everyone who bought the game (or played it through Game Pass) receiving a “Founder’s Pack” with a bunch of cosmetic goodies and a generous amount of Moonstones, the game’s premium currency. I’ve basically been writing this review in my head over the last year, with many of the game’s stranger mechanics being understandable in the context of a free-to-play game, and that I now need to reconsider…
Because only two months before this launch, Gameloft about-faced and instead announced that not only would the game remain a “premium retail” title, but it would actually increase in price to $40 for the base game and have a $30 expansion releasing on the same day. The base game will continue to receive content updates, but the A Rift in Time expansion will continue to expand the world with new locations, as the entire Valley is already present in the base product without much room to get bigger. The matter of the game’s pricing structure is something I’m going to have to come back to later.
A Story That Captures Disney Magic
Upon clicking start, the player creates an avatar from a decent variety of character creation options and is dropped into the Valley, once an idyllic paradise where many different characters lived together in friendship. The Avatar is told that everyone who once knew them there has forgotten them and each other. While there are characters that still dwell within the Valley itself (like Mickey Mouse and friends), many of them have scattered into “Realms” that resemble the worlds they originally came from before moving to the Valley. These Realms must be accessed from the magical-looking Castle at the top of Dreamlight Valley.
I don’t want to get into many specific spoilers. Still, the story (or the first arc, anyway, which is what’s currently available in the base game) actually touches on very adult and mature themes for a Disney product involving so many of their beloved characters. Dreamlight Valley is definitely a game for Disney adults, and some chapters even contain content warnings for darker themes being explored. The nature of this game is obviously going to draw comparisons to Kingdom Hearts, but it goes in a totally different direction, and I appreciated the effort that was put into considering the audience for this kind of title.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The nature of this game is obviously going to draw comparisons to Kingdom Hearts, but it goes in a totally different direction, and I appreciated the effort that was put into considering the audience for this title.[/perfectpullquote]
Outside of the plot, Disney Dreamlight Valley is a cozy game that sits much more on the Animal Crossing side of the spectrum than the Harvest Moon side. The game has you befriending many Disney characters and helping them rebuild their lives and regain their memories. As you progress with each character, you’ll be able to select a beneficial perk you’ll get while hanging out with them and unlock clothing and furniture themed around that particular person. The quests are memorable and often involve interacting with other Disney characters, which really accentuates the biggest narrative strength of Dreamlight Valley – this is probably the most ambitious official Disney crossover property ever created.
A Relaxing, Cozy Game Experience
During or in between quests, you’ll be farming and gathering materials that spawn all over the map in order to craft items and cook food, which restores the stamina meter that goes down while completing other activities. Stamina itself is basically a non-issue, as you can restore it entirely in just a few seconds just by entering your house or eating some of your foraged or cooked foodstuffs. Not much consideration needs to be given to keeping crops alive, as their growth will simply freeze in place if you haven’t watered them in long enough.
Your crops and supplies can also be sold to Goofy stalls for coins, which can be used to buy seeds and crops from Goofy stalls, clothing, and furniture from Scrooge McDuck’s store. Coins are also used for various quests in order to, for example, build homes in Dreamlight Valley for the characters returning from their dream worlds. Two other currencies are present, but what they do is distinct and straightforward – Dreamlight is earned through rotating, repeatable quests and used to unlock the dream realms.
Moonstones are the premium currency used in the game’s cash shop and for the event-based battle passes. The passes so far have all given about two-thirds as many Moonstones upon completion as were required to buy them, and the free version of each pass still has plenty of rewards without demanding too much of the player.
But now that I’ve touched back on the things in the game that real money can be spent on, I want to go back to the game’s pricing and how Dreamlight Valley is already somewhat compromised by the original vision the team had for it. Multiple aspects of Disney Dreamlight Valley are more understandable or even forgivable in a free-to-play experience but don’t make much sense in a paid retail product.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]There are multiple aspects of Disney Dreamlight Valley that are more understandable or even forgivable in a free-to-play experience, but don’t make much sense in a paid retail product.[/perfectpullquote]
Is Dreamlight Valley Ready For Launch?
The most significant and noticeable relic is the stamina system, which, while unobtrusive, comes across as entirely pointless. While there is a day-night and weather cycle built into the game, it is not at all connected to stamina, so it’s not meant to be a realistic representation of what the Avatar can do – it seems clear to me that the plan was to have stamina regenerate over time in the free-to-play release, as many other such games do, and remove the house-based replenishment.
If the game is going to require an upfront fee in perpetuity, this entire aspect of gameplay can and should be done away with. I’m also not a fan of continuing to use the premium currency and cash shop, but at the same time, it’s not terribly difficult to accrue Moonstones by finding them in daily respawning chests, so this is a somewhat lesser issue.
There’s also the issue of real-time-gated content, most infamously regarding the introduction of Stitch. His quest takes ten full days to complete in order to bring him to the Valley, which is an absurd amount of time that seems like it could easily be nerfed now that the game is fully launching with as much content as it has.
The other major issue that should have been addressed more aggressively if the developers were approaching version 1.0 is the sheer number of bugs present in the game. While Disney Dreamlight Valley has had many of its bugs squashed over the patch cycles, there are still a lot of obvious graphical and mechanical issues present – in the footage I captured yesterday; there was an object in the Lion King realm that refused to load in no matter how many times I reloaded the area, resulting in a large gray ball simply hanging in the air in the middle of a cave passageway.
Sure, I could walk through it, but this is the kind of error I expect when I accidentally break my Fallout mods, not in an unmodified professional product. Character pathfinding is also majorly broken; people will frequently attempt and fail to walk through each other without changing their trajectory.
Unfortunately, The final issue is something that can’t be undone without angering a large portion of the player base, and that is the in-game economy. At this point, a little over a year after starting and having not touched the game a lot over several months of that year, I am sitting on over six million coins without much to spend them on.
Once the Forgotten Lands update came, it introduced pumpkin farming, which players quickly discovered was a way to completely break the game in terms of earning coins, and I assumed incorrectly that eventually, the cost of in-game items would rise to account for people like me sitting on draconic hoards. This never happened, so the primary in-game currency is functionally pointless once you progress far enough.
The game’s presentation is acceptable, and I like the blended art style that keeps the characters looking reasonably close to their original designs while also making it possible for them all to exist near each other without plummeting into Disney Uncanny Valley. A lot of the game’s soundtrack consists of redone arrangements of classic Disney tunes, but this makes it extra noticeable when they don’t show up – for example, the recently added Beauty and the Beast realm plays what sounds like legally distinct motifs that definitely are not the original Alan Menken tracks.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]…I’m very excited to jump back in and see all the new stuff awaiting me with the full release and the expansion…[/perfectpullquote]
How Green is the Valley?
I’ve probably played around a hundred hours of Disney Dreamlight Valley over the last year, knowing the whole time that I’d eventually be writing this review. At no point have I been at all unhappy with what I’ve put into the game, and in fact, I’m very excited to jump back in and see all the new stuff awaiting me with the full release and the expansion, but the late-game change to the business model of this product has left it in a strange state that’s also full of bugs.
If the change had happened much sooner, with enough time to properly convert this game into the “premium” product that Gameloft intends for it to be now, I think there would have been a lot more changes. But, if you’re the kind of Disney fan who can look past a few oddities and inconveniences to see your favorite characters chatting it up in a cafe or hanging out with you while you tend your farm, it’s got enough magic to be worth it.
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