When Disney Magical World was first announced for the 3DS, it seemed that there was a bit of collective groaning from life-sim gamers. After all, how many other life-sims are out there already? There’s the ubiquitous franchise offering of The Sims 3, several Harvest Moon games, Rune Factory 4 and of course, Animal Crossing: New Leaf. These days, when talk of a life-sim pops up, inevitably all the comparison and discussion is going to come back to Animal Crossing: New Leaf. But is that really a surprise, considering the amount of time and energy players have sunk (and continue to sink) into it?
So, the question was: How will a Disney life-sim stack up against the already full slate of big players on this handheld system? The answer, it turns out, is: Pretty darn well. The key is in taking the best elements of sims that people enjoy, adding some unique features, and creating a game that’s new, different, and stands on its own.
I want to say, right off the bat, that Disney Magical World is not an Animal Crossing game. If you’re going into the game hoping for Animal Crossing, you’re going to be disappointed. And while I have not played Animal Crossing myself, from speaking to other players of both games, the differences are vast enough that not everyone who loves Animal Crossing will enjoy Disney Magical World, and vice versa. Disney Magical World is truly “its own thing,” in that respect.
In Disney Magical World, instead of animals wandering around your town, you’re dropped into a Disney-eqsue town called Castleton inhabited by beloved Disney characters and other NPCs. The good news for players new to a sim-game is that this familiarity of faces is a great way to draw the player in. You’re able to interact with your favorite characters, and doing so can bring rewards. We’ll get to that in a bit.
On the surface, as we’ve suggested, Disney Magical World appears to be a life-sim, but there’s more to it than that. The game shifts gears constantly, allowing the player to experience different styles of gameplay within a short period of time—so there’s little downtime or room to get bored. The game is highly goal-oriented, presenting players with tasks to perform in order to achieve “Happy Stickers.” As the player’s sticker collection increases, different pieces of the game unlock—areas like combat levels or new sets of items.
You’re also put in charge of a café, which you add to and build up over the course of the game. It doesn’t die down and customers don’t passive-aggressively snub you for other restaurants, but rather it has its own set of goal-oriented achievements that keep the pace of the game moving. The café is considered your home (your bedroom is an unlockable achievement early in the game), and becomes your main income source within the game. Players find or earn recipes, collect ingredients, and “make” food for customers. The more often new items are introduced, the busier the place is. It also seemed that the café would sell out of items faster at certain times of the day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner, perhaps?) though I didn’t bother to confirm that—I tried to always keep food available at all times.
The café is customizable, and there are many different character-driven “theme” combos and decorative items for players to use to decorate their café. Your two employees can also be given different costumes to wear. An exciting bonus that keeps players engaged with Disney characters is the “Party” function, where players can throw parties with various decor and food combos, in hopes that characters related to those theme combos will show up to the party. There’s a “secret” feature to the game here as well, but rather than give that away, it’s fun to discover on your own (or look up on a walkthrough site…).
Aside from the café, Happy Stickers can be achieved by taking on quests in the Disney-themed worlds around the outside edges of Castleton. These quests give you a magic wand and send you into the forest (or a tomb, etc.) to defeat ghosts…. but in Cinderella’s world, there are several rhythm games that may either frustrate or delight players, depending on their musical skill. You’re also able to view all the tasks that will earn a sticker while you’re playing, which allows players to pick and choose which task they’d like to complete at what time. And yes, you can work on more than one at a time.
Life-sim fans will also enjoy the large, clothing-based component of the game. There are hundreds of outfits that your character can change into, and while the selection does seem biased in some ways to female outfits, there are still many male outfits—and your character can wear both, regardless of gender. In order to create these outfits (aside from the ones earned through various tasks), you’ll need to collect items and ingredients. This can be done around town, in quests, purchased from vendors in town, and even harvested from the garden you’ll grow in the 100 Acre Wood.
There’s a lot going on, to be sure, and most of the game is really centered around collecting items—whether that’s Happy Stickers, clothing, ingredients, money, photos with characters, or cards. Characters within the game will ask for favors, and you can choose to help them or not—they’re collecting items too, and they’ll give you items in return. That’s one of the notable aspects of the game—when characters ask for a favor, they do so with general politeness, and you can choose to help or decline. When you decline, they don’t throw a fit or act with passive-aggressiveness. They’ll stick around until the next reset (the quests and items available in certain areas change over twice a day), and perhaps come back another time.
There are no penalties for not completing a request, which brings us to the difficulty of the game. The most difficult aspect is probably keeping track of how many things there are to do, though the Sticker-focused goals will keep a new or younger player focused on the task at hand. And despite the game changing gears all the time—questing, dungeon crawling, gardening, fishing, throwing parties—the controls worked perfectly for me 100% of the time, in all the areas. The challenges in the various areas are enough without overwhelming the player, and while older / more experienced gamers will certainly have no problem with most of the tasks at hand (the early quests, for example, are ridiculously easy), younger or new players will be easily able to get into the game and learn the controls without frustration.
Difficulty increases as you achieve more Stickers and unlock more levels, with a final dungeon of five levels for the player who feels truly ready. And with a variety of gameplay styles offered in just this one title, it could be an excellent way for new players to try out different game genres without commitment.
It’s worth mentioning (though I hinted at it two paragraphs ago) that Disney Magical World does share a key feature with Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and that is the real-world clock. However, unlike a certain other game where stores close at night, you can continue to move around Castleton after dark and guests will still (though less often) come to your café for a snack. There’s not a lot of variety in terms of the weather, but there are decorations associated with different holidays, balloon releases a few times per day, and fireworks every evening at 8:30pm.
One downside to the game is that, while the Disney characters are fun to see and speak with, they really don’t do much other than stand there and pose while you’re out and about town. It would have been nice to see them come alongside you on a quest now and again, or help you complete a task. The most involved characters are those in the 100 Acre Woods, where Rabbit and Piglet wander around helping tend the garden while you’re not there.
Using full 3D can also be distracting, as not every element in the game appears to have been rendered to make full use of 3D. There are set pieces and characters that look flat, but this is a problem easily fixed by the player by finding their own sweet spot with the 3D slider (and it still looks just fine). Still, a game of this calibre really should have taken the time to perfect the 3D feature.
Beyond your immediate location in Castleton, Disney Magical World also allows players to visit the cafés of other players. You’re able to upload your café to the game’s server (or locally) and head in to take a look (and your character can sit down for a meal, if you’re so inclined). It’s not cooperative gameplay, and it’s really quite limited, but visiting will earn you special items. When players come to visit your café, their characters will wander around Castleton for awhile, but interaction with them is limited—it’s just their character data showing them in town, and not a true multi-player interaction. It would be nice to have a friend come to town and help you out in quests, for example—and then you could go to their town and return the favor. Alas, not this time.
Naturally, a game with so much collecting and featuring a limited number of Disney characters from their wide, wide catalogue means there’s plenty of opportunity for paid DLC and AR cards. It’s conceivable that the DLC available in Japan (where the game was released a few months ago) will be available in North America in due time, and we already have some items both for free and for purchase (a Sleeping Beauty set is available now for $2.00). While the prospect of DLC may be slightly terrifying for parents or players with tight budgets, it does speak to ongoing support for the game—hopefully something we’ll continue to see in the months ahead.
No, the game won’t appeal to everyone, and Animal Crossing fans looking for a replica of that game will be disappointed—but that’s because Disney Magical World is a game all its own, with achievements, replayability, and a goal-driven gameplay system. Above all, perhaps the world “accessible” should apply—in terms of the styles of gameplay we get within this one title, and the difficulty level that’s open to all levels of players… and especially to brand new players!
There are minor issues—the aforementioned occasionally flat visuals, lack of active interaction with Disney characters, no true multiplayer, and the not yet mentioned but notable lack of music from the Disney films (the themes for each area are similar, but not recognizable songs)—but these hiccups don’t distract from the overall gameplay or experience. It’s a fresh take on a life-sim that manages to go beyond what’s expected in this type of game, bringing more variety and accessibility to the table. No one’s going to move out of Castleton if you don’t play for a month, for example.
As for the collection aspect, making it goal-oriented certainly drives the game forward so that there is no shortage of things to do and people to talk to or help with favors.
In the end, here’s how I see it: Yes, in Disney Magical World as in most life-sims, you’re playing for your own character’s self-improvement, but in this game there’s also a significant focus on working hard to achieve your goals while being kind and helpful to others. If that’s not something we all need to be reminded of now and again, I don’t know what is.
And also? The game is just plain fun!