If you just heard a high-pitched wailing on the winds, it was just my inner child having a meltdown after our first look at Disney Dreamlight Valley, a new sandbox simulation absolutely dripping with Disney pixie dust. You've might have heard games compared to Animal Crossing before - with variable accuracy - but this looks to be the real deal, with added Wall-E.
"We wanted to create something fresh, something new and that's why we created this hybrid between a life simulation game and an adventure game," explains Gameloft's Manea Castet.
"It's a mix between what you love in a life sim game and what you see in games such as Monkey Island and old school games where you have to relive an adventure and go through puzzles and riddles."
A thorny problem
We got to see a look at a few different slices of the game, the very early onboarding, after a few hours of progress, and a look at the magical realms that can be accessed through the iconic Disney castle.
The first thing to notice in the first moments of the game is that either the Disney animators are processing some very complex emotional issues, or a dark power has infected its magical world. Dreamlight Valley's ruler has gone MIA, the kingdom was plunged into darkness, its inhabitants lost their memories and some very dangerous looking plantlife started to appear. Luckily when players first arrive Merlin - from The Sword in the Stone - is there to spot our magical potential and set us on a quest to save the day. After helping him overcome a dash of amnesia, he remembers that the missing ruler had a special set of royal tools.
"These were enchanted and powerful tools that were allowing him or her to take care of the valley," says Castet.
"So there was a pickaxe, a shovel, a watering can... any kind of tool that will allow me to help the valley and as a player, engage with the sandbox."
Merlin also gifts you a house, and yes you can decorate it. Castet explains this first quest is just one of many, and the more Disney and Pixar characters you meet, the more quests you will have. Although, Castet reveals, that in these early moments most playtesters seem to be quite content going around using their magic to clear thorns and clean everything.
As you might have guessed from all those tools, there are plenty more activities in the game. Your pickaxe can be used for mining, wildlife like rabbits can be tamed to be your companions, and each different biome has new ingredients and resources for you to cook and craft with. There are beaches, forests, Frozen-inspired landscapes, and the savannahs of the Lion King. Castet shows us fishing with the help of Goofy.
"Each character has their own behavior, their own little schedule. For us, when we talk about life simulation the most important part is really the 'life' of the life simulation. Of course, you can engage with the sandbox and spend hours fishing, cooking, and gardening but we want to talk about the characters themselves because they are really special in our game."
Each character has their own house, and they all have their own individual arc. To learn more about them you'll need to befriend them and build your relationship with them. For instance Goofy loves fishing, so finding his lost rod is a great way to do that, and to get a quick lesson in fishing, which you can do anywhere in the valley where you can find water. For Scrooge McDuck, following his story means helping him earn money with a store, while to befriend Mickey you need to help him find Minnie, and to take care of his village. And if all else fails, you can always try buying their love with gifts, like Stardew Valley. Castet gives us a pro tip - cooking is a great way to increase your friendships because everyone likes food. A look at the huge selection of things you can cook - either at your home, other characters' homes, or Remy from Ratatouille's restaurant - reveals nods to some familiar foods from Disney movies.
King of the castle
Next, we finally get a look inside the Dream Castle, and it's filled with doors. Magical doors, naturally, that give you access to different Disney realms.
"Disney realms are a little bubble of a Disney or Pixar movie," says Castet. "You'll be able to meet famous characters from the movie and then bring them back to the valley."
The doors on show represent Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Moana's ocean, but that's just a smattering compared to the potential Disney and Pixar realms that could be added. In Early Access, there will be four realms on offer on day one, with more added as the Early Access continues. We head into Wall-E's world, where we get to see the player character solving puzzles, some easier, some harder. With Wall-E, it means helping him fix his movement tracks. You can also use your tools in these realms like a shovel or your watering can.
The biggest takeaways from this early look were that as soon as this game comes out my life is over - I'm going full Disney adult and only ever spending my time with Wall-E from then on - and that this isn't some plastic Disney knock off. The world is yours to design, you can decide who are your neighbors - ELSA DO YOU WANT TO BUILD A SNOWMAN? - and you can customize your clothes, use the over 1000 (and counting) decoration items to perfect your interior design, move around trees and buildings and create your avatar with more than 17 different "points of customization".
Castet even shows us a garden he planted just for Mickey. The characters look absolutely faithful to their origins, from Scar the lion to Belle to Buzz Lightyear, and the voice acting is performed either by the original character actors or Disney-approved replacements, and it looks like the final experience is going to be a lot like dropping some acid and then moving into one of the Disney parks.
A free (Disneyland) ride
Before you start putting your kidneys on eBay, know that All your adventuring is only limited by your energy, similar again to Stardew Valley, rather than the size of your bank balance. The in-game currency is Star Coin, unlocked with gameplay, and you can't buy more of it with real money. Of course, it's not charity, and the free-to-play game will have some items - "cosmetic or paid game extensions," according to the Steam FAQ, - but you could play forever for free too.
"We want to make crystal clear that there is no way to accelerate gameplay with real money," states Castet as he plants vegetables, before returning to the subject later when explaining the energy system.
"The more actions you do in the valley, the more tired you become. And at one point you need to go back to your house or eat something if you want to continue being active. And the higher the level, the bigger the maximum is," he says. "Again, here, no monetization mechanism tied to this energy system. There is no way to spend money to refresh your energy or increase your energy. It's all about gameplay and no monetization."
Disney Dreamlight Valley is coming to PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch in 2023 as a free-to-play game. For more impressions, read our Disney Dreamlight Valley review following its entrance into Early Access on September 6.