James Stephanie Sterling
Disney Dreamlight Valley - Friendship Is Vapid (Review)
Updated: Oct 18, 2022
Disney Dreamlight Valley Release Date: September 6, 2022 Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox SX (Reviewed)
Much has been made regarding Dreamlight Valley’s similarity to Animal Crossing, and while there is the potential for superficial comparison, superficial is all it can be. Yes, you poddle around a village performing mundane tasks. Yes, you can interact with a growing cast of characters who take residence in your expanding home. Oh yes, some of them are even animals!
The similarities wither beyond the surface, however. Compared to the wholesome mundanity of Nintendo’s flagship life sim, Disney’s canned offering is a far more cynical beast. Dreamlight Valley’s world is one in which friendships are purely transactional, where nothing is undertaken simply for the fun of it, where each rote task and daily chore strives only toward the next empty reward. It is a game in which each completed objective simply opens the door to more repetitive busywork, which in turn opens more doors to more objectives that require yet more busywork.
Those comparing Dreamlight Valley to Animal Crossing seem to not understand Animal Crossing in the least - a pretty impressive missing of the point, considering Animal Crossing is about as easy a concept to grasp as they come.
No, this corporately branded exercise in mawkish tedium is far more comparable to Farmville, a game in which routine exists for routine’s sake, to the exclusion of pretty much any other form of meaningful interaction. All of it governed by a pointless fucking energy meter that drains with every little action, forcing the player to stutter for reasons that shoot beyond arbitrary and can only be described as fucking incomprehensible. But we’ll get to that.
The “plot” of Dreamlight Valley, such as it is, almost comically lampoons itself in an attempt to appear heartfelt. The titular valley was once a bustling place of joy and friendship until “The Forgetting” happened, and its residents lost their memories of the bonds they shared, of living together in harmony, all that sentimental garbage. Dreamlight Valley’s ruler has mysteriously disappeared, the once vibrant settlement overtaken by darkness, depression, and choking “Night Thorns.”
Naturally, it’s up to YOU to bring back the magic! Magic that mostly involves the acquisition and sale of goods. Walt’s kinda magic!
A game in which Disney’s cherished characters forget themselves in a world overtaken by empty joylessness would have been an amazingly self-aware storyline if it were done with any actual awareness of the self. As the latest contribution to a sprawling mass of vapid crossover media, Dreamlight Valley is about as plastic and shallow as it gets, a cavalcade of classic characters trotted out for nothing other than brand recognition and the continued driving into the ground of metaversal fan service. Indeed, if Dreamlight Valley is looking for a perfect representation of “The Forgetting,” it could start with its own existence.
When I say this game is like Farmville, I am not exaggerating. Indeed, it’s hard to exaggerate anything about this game, because this game is far too basic to be taken to any kind of extreme.
After some light tutorial nonsense with Merlin, the player is essentially left to get on with the rebuilding of Dreamlight Valley, a mission that mostly involves doing the same handful of things over and over again without a shred of variance.
You pick crap up off the ground, you break rocks with a pickaxe, you dig holes, you plant and water crops, you catch fish via an insipid timed minigame. That’s the vast majority of what you’ll be doing with your time, and you’ll be expected to do it forever. Naturally, you can use the dozens of materials you acquire in the process to craft, be it to make furniture or cook food. This is because when a videogame doesn’t have any ideas of its own these days, it can always rely on crafting to falsify a sense of player investment.
As far as interactivity goes, there’s pretty much nothing else. The game’s overwhelming heap of story missions and character quests are just variations of the same collecting, planting, and crafting you’re doing anyway. Actually, calling them variations is inaccurate - it literally IS the same collecting, planting, and crafting.
Every completed job is simply a stepping stone to more of the same jobs that will lead to more of the same jobs that will lead to more of the same jobs. It becomes apparent very early that not a single one of the soullessly smiling creeps inhabiting Dreamlight Valley will ever be satisfied. They just want more, more, more. More of the same, anyway.
The loop of drudgery runs pretty much like this: Mickey Mouse wants three ingredients, you gather three ingredients, he wants you to cook them, you cook them, he wants you to gather ten bits of wood, you gather them, he wants you to make a chair, you make it, he wants you to gather twenty bits of sand, you gather it, he wants you to make glass or fucking whatever, you do what you’re told with a sigh because you know that no matter how many things you collect, how much stuff you make, your ultimate reward will simply be the obligation to collect and make even more things and stuff.
Meanwhile, every other character is charging you with the exact same shit. Moana needs you to gather fifty sticks, seventy fiber, and, I dunno, a dozen bits of fucking string or whatever. Ursula expects you to pick up a bunch of flowers and make some glass vials. Goofy demands you catch a bunch of fish and make some fucking fish sandwiches. Scrooge wants you to place ten pieces of furniture, and once you’ve done that, he’ll need you to place ten pieces of furniture followed by ten more pieces of furniture.
As you labor for these lazy little shits that could stand to pick their own fucking apples for once, you’ll increase your friendship levels with them, thus informing those transactional relationships we mentioned earlier. Every character has up to ten friendship levels, with each level unlocking a new reward of currency or cosmetics. Building these friendships is pathetically vapid and about as repetitive as anything else in the game - you can talk to each character once a day, you can give them gifts, and you can “hang out” with them, which just means they’ll follow you around and slowly gain friendship with each little task you perform.
There’s barely any real interaction between you and the other residents. They’ll never surprise you. They’ll never do anything that creates even the vaguest illusion of spontaneity, depth, or genuine feeling. You can read a dialog box of inane chatter, you can buy their affection with items, or you can have them follow you around while you do all the menial crap you were going to do regardless. Ultimately, you’re just dumping time and resources into filling a bunch of meters for your own material gain. All of it easily readable on progress trackers that show you exactly what rewards you’ll get in exchange for pretending to give a shit about any of these cretins.
This, indeed, is the true meaning of friendship.
The real objective of Dreamlight Valley isn’t really to rebuild the village or hang out with your favorite characters, but to acquire stuff. Vast mountains of frivolous, cosmetic, ultimately trivial stuff.
Be it clothes or furniture (there’s precious little else to earn), the only tangible reward for your progress is the unlocking of bullshit to wear or bullshit to look at. You can spend gold in Scrooge’s shop for furnishings and outfits, as well as find them in chests that spawn daily, and earn them from building your so-called “friendships.” It could be argued that this is true in a game like Animal Crossing as well, but at least the acquisition of gear was clothed in a sense of real sincerity, with characters that came and went and often hung out with you simply for the fun of it rather than because there’s a nebulous reward at the end.
It should be added that Dreamlight Valley isn’t particularly pleasant to play from a mechanical standpoint, either. You move awkwardly and are prone to stopping dead when bumping into the mountains of shit that start filling up the environment. Interacting with objects consists of pointing your avatar at them until they’re highlighted and holding a button, which works fine until the camera nudges, an NPC wanders in the way, or the highlight keeps changing because the game can’t work out if you’re wanting to dig a hole or fill a hole you just dug.
Jesus Christ, I’d love it if Mickey would just get the fuck out of my face when I’m trying to harvest my carrots. I don’t want to talk to the little bastard. Ever. Get the fuck out of it!
Fishing is especially irritating. Bodies of water will have circular ripples in them indicating there’s something to catch. After equipping the fishing rod, you nudge yourself in the rough direction of the ripple and hold down a button to determine how far you cast your line, casting once you let go. Simple enough, but the slightest nudge can make a difference between perfectly lining up your rod and sending your line far from the target. You won’t really know until you try, because sometimes your character can be looking right at the ripple but still send the line veering off to the side. There’s no penalty for failing, you can just cast again, and you’ll almost certainly get it right the second time after a slight adjustment, but it’s still pointlessly imprecise for what is otherwise one of the most dull and uninvolving fishing minigames I’ve ever played.
Speaking of total wastes of fucking time, let’s circle back around to the game’s energy meter. I see absolutely no reason why this thing exists, other than the fact Gameloft made this game, and Gameloft’s got brain poisoning from all of those mobile games it usually makes.
Almost everything you do in the game involves energy. To mine, to dig, to fish, it all uses up energy and energy drains damn fast. What makes its inclusion baffling, however, is how easy it is to top the energy back up - either eat a bunch of readily available food, or tromp back to your house, stand inside it for less than a second, and continue on your merry way. The energy meter doesn’t genuinely block your actions, because refilling it is so bloody trivial, but it does annoy the everloving fuck out of you because you either have to keep stepping in and out of a house or navigating the game’s shitty menus to chomp down on a bunch of apples.
Why is this “mechanic” even part of the game? It very literally adds nothing to the experience except an additional layer of incredibly brief tedium to an already tedious experience. It may very well be a holdover from a version of this game that was designed to be far more aggressively monetized than it is. In most free-to-play games that use them, energy meters are arbitrarily designed to limit how much a player can interact with a game in any given day - it refills if the player waits an exorbitantly long amount of time or spends real money to instantly restock. The desired outcome for the game, of course, is the latter.
Dreamlight Valley’s energy meter behaves exactly the same way except there’s no premium refill options and an abundance of food to replenish it. The result is something that feels utterly vestigial, and while I’m glad its inclusion is not as insidious as it could have been, I am thoroughly confused why it remains at all. It perhaps speaks to the sheer lack of imagination at Gameloft, that they included the energy meter simply because games like this “always” have them, and they simply couldn’t conceive making this game by anything but the book.
Same goes for the downright choking inventory limits as well. You start the game only able to carry a tiny handful of items, and even using gold to expand your inventory helps by a mere fraction. You will constantly be managing your inventory as it fills with stunning rapidity, forcing you to constantly trudge to Goofy’s little stall to sell excess stuff. You could put them in a storage chest, but for some bizarre reason, their capacity is even LESS than your carrying amount.
On reflection, I am considering the energy meter and the inventory both are capriciously capped to give the player something to work for, to artificially inflate the sense of progress. As you level up, you expand your inventory meter. As you spend coins, you expand your inventory. These are handicaps that you can only improve through hours of playtime. Dreamlight Valley simply can’t offer anything more compelling than the prospect of dragging your capabilities up from frustrating to acceptable.
Add to that how inevitably grindy the whole affair is, and you have a dull game that goes out of its way to be even more dreary than it should be. To buy items at Scrooge’s store, upgrade buildings, and expand your inventory, you’ll be spending tens upon tens of thousands of gold that you scraped together by finding coins in the world or selling loads of rubbish to Goofy. As you perform various tasks you’ll also earn Dreamlight, a currency used for unlocking new areas of the valley and entering miniature “realm” environments that allow you to recruit new characters by performing the usual chores for them. Acquiring enough of that stuff to unlock a new area can take hours of collecting, crafting, fishing, and farming.
If I can say anything nice about Dreamlight Valley, it’s that I think the thing’s gorgeous. It has a bright, colorful, appealing art style that does a great job of unifying the otherwise disparate looks of the various Disney properties being exploited. It’s a shame the game’s such a slog to play, because it’s a genuine pleasure to look at.
Character customization is terrific as well, with options that do a better job of representing gender, race, and culture than most other games. Of course, it behooves Gameloft to appeal to as many people as possible - more players equals more suckers. I’m somewhat loathe to express gratitude to these corporations for offering us diverse visual representation in a product designed to profit from visual representation, but y’know, we marginalized folks kinda take what we can get, so it’s at least notable.
Dreamlight Valley’s soundtrack is decent enough, with subtle little renditions of familiar Disney music swimming in and out of the background. The voice acting, what little there is, pretty much sucks. Most of the dialog is communicated via text boxes, but the few stock phrases uttered by each character range from passable to embarrassing. Some of the worst offenders, like Scrooge McDuck, sound so little like any existing representation of the character that you wonder if they were even trying.
At the time of writing, I do have to say that Dreamlight Valley’s monetization is not as aggressive as I feared. It does have a microtransaction currency in the form of Moonstones, but curiously I struggled to find any trace of premium purchases within the game itself and it’s been suspiciously generous with handing Moonstones out during gameplay so far. Rather than trust this, I am apprehensive that somewhere a hammer will drop and the game’s more insidious elements will unveil over time. Ultimately, we’re talking about a free-to-play game developed by Gameloft for Disney. They are planning to make a killing, and our wallets are the prey, so do please be vigilant if this game does indeed get its hooks in you.
As for me, I can’t say I was hooked. Dreamlight Valley is a world of cardboard, its inhabitants little more than set decoration and animated sources of material gain. It’s a game about menial labor for menial labor’s sake, the most monotonous elements of a life sim emphasized and weakly justified by the shallow inclusion of marketable Disney characters. It masquerades as a game about friendship while portraying personal relationships as little more than means to an end. Worse than all of that, though, it’s simply boring. Dreadfully, interminably, boring.