Disney’s answer to ‘Animal Crossing’ has a surprisingly dark twist

As I write this review, Disney’s Dreamlight Valley is in early access. When the game comes out in 2023, it will be free to play; for now, the game can be purchased on PC, Mac, Xbox, Playstation, or Nintendo Switch for around $40. This gives you early access to the game, some exclusive cosmetic items, and some of the game’s in-game currency.

Disney’s Dreamlight Valley is clearly meant to ride on the success of the life and farming sim genre dominated by indie hit Stardew Valley and Nintendo’s great Animal Crossing. It shares the central idea of building and customizing your own character, home, and town in your idyllic fantasy of a rural life. The game is effectively Animal Crossing with a Disney coat of paint, so the mechanics themselves are nothing special. You have the same set of tools typical in these sorts of games (shovel, pickaxe, watering can, and fishing rod) and can use them to do the obvious. Just like in Animal Crossing, there are fish to catch—though the mini game is different, the player can still  break rocks and collect currencies in order to customize themselves and their village. The mechanics for inviting new characters to your village are different, requiring a quest designed to fit the character rather than the random chance of Animal Crossing.

Despite being a clone  of an already successful game, Dreamlight Valley has something fascinating about its narrative: it is shockingly dark. You play as a young adult who returns to the place where they (you don’t pick your gender in game and can wear whatever you want with no questions asked) played as a child. They fall asleep amongst old memories and wake up in a magical land of dreams—Dreamlight Valley. This all seems perfectly innocent at first, but you quickly learn that the valley is overrun by vines that have slowly been consuming the dreams and memories of the inhabitants. These mind-altering, irremovable vines have been taking over the entire village since the old ruler vanished. This ruler breathed life into the Valley and without them, everything has fallen apart. 

The true subtle darkness hits you as you explore the ruined town and read the journal entries left behind by the old ruler. One in particular, written about Disney’s famous mouse himself, reads “…puts on a good front, but I can tell he’s utterly heartbroken. Minnie was his other half. Now that she’s disappeared I don’t know how long it will be before…” Mickey’s grief is shockingly prevalent in the game. His quests involve asking you to help him do things that remind him of her, and he often speaks about how much he misses her. He really gives the impression of someone dealing with loss by putting up a happy front. Minnie isn’t the only one missing; other famous Disney icons are either trapped throughout the valley or have fled into “a dream of their own world,” as Merlin, the game’s main quest-giver, puts it. Quite literally, they are small imitations of the setting you might remember from their movies. 

It’s up to you to bring them back despite the fact that they don’t remember the valley or the threat they escaped from. It gives the sense of a society falling apart against an encroaching threat they are helpless against.

When your character shows up in this place connected to their childhood dreams as the only one able to wield the magic tools of the old ruler and fight back the darkness, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess the twist before the game tells you: you are the old ruler. Somehow, as a child, you created a dream world so real the characters within are truly alive to the point of feeling grief for each other. And yet, you abandoned it. Forgot about it, even. It creates this dark feeling of dread and responsibility. Everything that’s happening, from Scrooge McDuck being trapped near his store, to Mickey Mouse visibly grieving for Minnie, is explicitly your fault. Everyone around you praises you for helping out so much, but you—the player, have to stew in the guilt that you caused all of this in the first place.

The game serves as an allegory for something a lot of people may experience: the feeling of being forced to abandon childhood whimsy in order to grow up. A feeling of not outgrowing your childhood dreams, but having no choice but to cast them aside. In allowing you to confront that darkness, to right the wrongs caused by your previous abandonment, the game provides a simple, yet hard-hitting message: it’s not too late. Your childhood dreams are still there, waiting for you to come back to them. They might be a little changed and a bit dusty, but like the characters in the valley, they’re still there to welcome you back, no matter how changed you are. It captures the timeless, ageless charm that Disney is famous for. Dreamlight Valley is a game that allows you to play through the recapturing of that whimsy.

Dreamlight Valley has a few praiseworthy features that eliminate a lot of the frustration that comes with Animal Crossing’s mechanics. You can choose which characters to recruit first, meaning you don’t have to wait around and hope you get your favourites, like you do in Animal Crossing. My hunts for my favourite villagers would take a frankly embarrassing amount of time. You don’t have to pay any additional funds to move buildings around once you place them—as in Animal Crossing, and don’t even have to go to a special location to do so—like in Stardew Valley. Shops are always open, with shopkeepers Scrooge McDuck and Goofy always wandering around and happy to help, making the experience of shopping for in-game items much more convenient. Additionally, the map shows you where everyone is at any given moment, making tracking someone down for a quest or just to say hello a breeze. Your character’s outfit and furniture don’t take up any inventory space and clothes can be changed at any time. You can also craft or cook multiple items at the same time, something that I would kill to be able to do in Animal Crossing. These are features that players of these types of games have been asking for in Animal Crossing for years, but Dreamlight Valley provides them outright. This makes the game commendable for its clear attention to the things that annoy players.

The game also has a few glitches that interrupt the experience. While some glitches are to be expected in any early access game, there is something to be said about the fact that they are charging $40 for the privilege of playing it. During my time with the game, I did encounter several glitches that made it difficult to play. At one point, the game crashed for seemingly no reason and I had to resume from my last save. The game’s relatively frequent autosave feature makes this into more of an annoyance than anything else. In addition, the music, composed of remakes of beloved Disney tunes, would become grating and distorted, cutting in and out. I noticed this mostly on the edges of the different map areas. There was also an issue with occasional lag and characters disappearing randomly or otherwise acting oddly (such as saying good morning in the middle of the night), but nothing else particularly major that I noticed. Also, the system for selecting and moving objects is finicky and floaty, so redecorating can be frustrating until you get the hang of it.

Dreamlight Valley’s greatest strength is that it knows exactly what it is and is not trying to be anything else. It is well aware of its status as an Animal Crossing clone. It sticks to the formula and adds only quality of life features and a few novel ideas like allowing you to take a Disney character of your choice with you as you complete your tasks. Fishing with Goofy and gardening with WALL-E has a certain unique charm. The game plays on the nostalgia of its players. It captures the grief of leaving your childhood behind as you grow, and then the joy of rediscovering it again. Through surprisingly dark undertones in an otherwise candy coated game, it gives the message that it’s never too late to be a kid again.

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