The honeymoon is over! I feel like my initial preview of Disney Dreamlight Valley was far too positive, even for a self-described Disney Adult. I was blinded by my desire for a cozy game with a Disney slant. And to be fair, I’ve had experiences with Early Access titles which started small and promising, and grew into great games, such as Dave the Diver or Stardew Valley. As the developers have inched closer to their one-year mark, and rumored free-to-play launch date, not much has improved. Sure, content has been added, but there’s still no enjoyable gameplay loop and what once seemed like it could be a worthy successor to Animal Crossing now feels like nothing more than a mobile game with console-level graphics: a mile wide, but an inch deep.
Six months ago, the game was on its second post-launch content update after a September Early Access release. Since then, there have been four more content updates. Six new characters were introduced, along with accompanying quests, furniture, and clothing options; a Premium Shop was added; and the main story wrapped up (complete with credits and post-credits tease). Most recently, a new multiplayer competition was implemented, although the rules for participation rendered one of the game’s main selling points worthless. Some bugs were fixed, but many still haven’t been, and yesterday, several players were unable to log into their game because of an unknown initialization error (Authors Note: Gameloft claims the error has been fixed, though not everyone seems to be able to log in currently).
Once again, I’ll start with the positive. The music is still top-notch, and with each new character also comes a slew of new Disney references to find in dialogue or quest prizes given. The newest update, for example, allows you to earn the Sugar Rush Arcade Cabinet from Wreck-It Ralph, although the cabinet artwork differs from the film. But this is where the positivity ends. Heck, even the game’s battle pass equivalent “Star Path,” which I raved about in my preview, has turned into a marketing push for Disney, including Elemental- and Disney100-focused prizes prioritized over recognizable or old-school Disney content.
Most egregious to me is the game’s story, which, as I stated above, finally has a conclusion. I didn’t go into much detail six months ago as I wasn’t sure where the plot was heading, but now that “Act One,” as it is referred to by the developers, is finished, I need to discuss it in some detail. Especially since a mental health warning was added to the game; a warning that was only necessary (and I would argue that, even now, it’s not necessary) because of how divorced the conclusion feels from the rest of the story, let alone the game. If you’re averse to spoilers, skip ahead.
Dreamlight Valley is a figment of your imagination; a place you visited as a child. Upon a trip to your childhood home, you fall asleep in your old backyard and find your valley overrun by Night Thorns and darkness, with only Merlin, Mickey, and Goofy around to welcome you, although they have a hard time remembering the past. What do they remember? The Forgetting has set in across the valley. Through the main questline and a series of diary entries written in Atlantean (a deep-cut Disney reference that has absolutely no meaning beyond aesthetic purpose), you learn of a being called The Forgotten who has taken the eight orbs which keep Dreamlight Valley safe from evil. As you unlock biomes, characters both villainous and heroic help you restore the valley and start to remember life pre-Forgetting. Scar helps you restore Sunlit Plateau, Olaf helps you restore Frosted Heights, etc. In each of these biomes’ quest segments, you learn more about The Forgotten, and in the final story update before the conclusion, you learn that your angsty past self is The Forgotten.
This is where the story takes a detour into something that feels darker than it is, mostly because Gameloft didn’t want to take the time to create a model of your character as a child/teen. Through a series of memory-related quests, you act like an angsty pre-teen/teen who believes growing up means giving up your carefree childhood attitude. Villains like Mother Gothel and the aforementioned Scar take advantage of this change in attitude, as they wont to do in their films, and help you plunge Dreamlight Valley into darkness. This sliver of yourself still exists in the Valley, and with the help of the restored Valley residents, including the villains, you have a heart-to-heart with your younger self (which, again, looks exactly like you as an adult because new models cost money) and teach them that it’s okay to be a Disney Adult. As the game fades to credits, you, the reformed Forgotten, and the rest of the Valley’s residents, wave to the camera. Sure, some of them helped ruin the valley, but it’s okay now.
My biggest problem with the story’s conclusion is, it doesn’t feel like anything that came before. First, it takes 1-2 hours at most, whereas the lead-up takes days, simply because a lot of gameplay grind is necessary to unlock every biome and realm. Second, because prior updates never treated the Disney villains as true bad guys, when we finally see them acting evil, it made me question why we were letting them live in our Valley without recourse. These villains weren’t reformed. They were just waiting for the opportunity to strike. Third, and I stated it already a couple times, Gameloft didn’t create an age-accurate model of The Forgotten. So, when the past version of yourself turns out to be a carbon copy of your character, just with an evil, dark purple glow, it’s hard to view The Forgotten as the way the final quest frames them: a young kid who thought he had to give up childhood fantasy and their love of Disney to grow up. If Gameloft had taken the time to represent The Forgotten as the age they’re supposed to be, the mental health warning wouldn’t be necessary. Also, as a sidenote, I could also go into the terrible writing/dialogue the game has as well, but that would just be beating a dead horse.
Outside of the story, the game is just boring. The only reason to log in is to perform tasks which earn Dreamlight, a currency required to unlock future Disney realms or biomes as they appear, or Star Path credits, a currency which unlocks Motifs, furniture, and clothing revolving around the current Star Path’s theme. There aren’t any NPCs who visit your valley a la KK Slider from Animal Crossing, nor are there any in-game events outside of major holidays like Christmas, Easter, or Halloween. And even those events lacked Disney branding. The gameplay loop isn’t for you to enjoy yourself, it’s to be prepared for whatever Dreamlight requirements are necessary to unlock future updates. And if you find yourself lacking Dreamlight when an update launches? Time to grind before you get any gameplay benefits.
Earlier I mentioned a new multiplayer competition that just launched. It’s called Dreamsnaps, and it involves creating a tableau featuring a predetermined number of required themed furnishings or clothing. If you don’t meet the requirements, you can’t submit a photo (and you don’t get the weekly bonus of 300 Moonstones, the Premium Shop currency you can also purchase for real money). You also can’t submit a photo featuring anything created using the Touch of Magic tool, an Early Access launch feature which allows you to use Disney motifs, found by feeding in-game critters or earned through the Star Path, to create custom outfits and furniture. Why? Gameloft claims it’s to keep the competition fair (Premium Shop and Founder’s Pack items are completely fine, of course; even encouraged. This week’s theme is Royal, which just happens to match the contents of the most expensive Founder’s Pack bundle), but it’s a way to save money by not hiring moderators to go through submissions each week. Now, half of the prizes in each update’s Star Path are completely useless, unless you’re creating for yourself and social media. There’s no way to share your creations in-game, and it doesn’t look like the ability will be coming any time soon.
As for bugs and glitches, they’re still plentiful, and they’re still annoying. While many get fixed each update, new ones pop up. For months, some folks haven’t been able to place items on counters, or they would just disappear back into inventory. This wasn’t fixed in the last update. Instead, the update added new issues. Want to store items in a chest? Oops, you accidentally ate a food item in the process. Want to talk to Vanellope in her house? You had better be standing in the correct spot, or the game won’t react when you try to talk to her. Sure, these seem small and they’re not game breaking, but for being 10 months into Early Access, they show how inexperienced Gameloft’s development team really is.
Finally, there’s the Premium Shop. It’s a weekly rotation of four items, some bundled, some individual. You can purchase costumes for other villagers, new house designs for your own abode, or Premium furniture or clothing you can’t get through the in-game free currency shop. When I wrote my preview six months ago, you could only earn 10 free Moonstones a day. Now, with Dreamsnaps participation and an upped daily amount, you can earn 700 Moonstones a week. Not only are none of the Premium Shop items worth their price, but with the added ways to get free Moonstones, Gameloft has put this game into a terrible position. I’ll never have to spend money on this game ever again, and honestly, that’s the only reason I’ll keep playing. But I’m not the kind of player this game needs to survive. Gameloft needs people to buy in, but this game isn’t worth spending any real money on.
Six months ago, I had a vision of this game being the Animal Crossing killer; a game I would revisit for years to come. Now I’m writing this, expecting this game to decline further and further until Gameloft can’t afford to keep the updates rolling. Heck, if you go back to the Early Access trailer, there are still a large number of unreleased characters with no release date in sight, and with how many issues crop up when only one or two characters are introduced, I’m not expecting an update which brings six or seven at once. Besides, even if they all showed up, they would still act robotic and with a limited amount of in-game dialogue. Should you check this game out when it becomes free-to-play? Up to you. It’ll be free, so where is the harm? There is none. Maybe they’ll fix all the problems at release. Who knows? But should you pick this game up now in Early Access? No, stay away. The declining quality of this game is not worth supporting monetarily. I know that feels excessive, but Gameloft and Disney are worth a lot more than way it feels like is being put into the game. And yes, your mileage may vary, but mine has stopped. As long as I don’t have to spend more money, I’ll continue to play, but as soon as they make me pay for DLC content, I’m out.