[Preview] Hands on with Disney Illusion Island: an accessible, exploration-focused platformer with beautiful animation
Posted on June 19, 2023 by Nicholas Serpa in Previews, Switch
Disney Illusion Island feels like the type of game that Disney hasn’t made in ages. It’s not only the first original Mickey Mouse platformer that we’ve seen in about a decade, but it’s combining some of the best gameplay elements of many of its inspirations with gorgeous character animation, and a rhythm that’s especially tuned for local multiplayer. While perhaps not seeking to innovate the genre, Disney Illusion Island feels like it’s built with incredible care and respect for its IP; while I’m sure fans of Mickey and friends will appreciate this game the most, there’s a lot to love here for fans of platformers in general, and I think its exploration and puzzle elements will resonate with many.
After Disney Interactive shuttered in 2016, the release frequency of new, original Disney games has slowed to a crawl – well, if you’re not a mobile gamer, anyways. While the recent Disney Dreamlight Valley and Disney Speedstorm have been fun takes on established genres, they’re also technically still in states of paid early access, and are rife with systems that will eventually be tuned for microtransactions, season passes, and everything else we expect from big modern releases these days. Disney Illusion Island avoids those trappings entirely – here is a game that feels built by Disney fans for Disney fans, is launching at a budget price point, and is crafted with incredible artistic direction and an approachable structure. Most importantly, though, it’s fun to play, especially with others.
I played Disney Illusion Island twice during my recent trip to LA for Summer Game Fest – once at the show itself alongside lead designer Grant Allen (see our interview here), and another time in multiplayer with some other media playing with me. My demo plopped me into the game’s open map at a point relatively early in the game, with only a small portion of its world explorable. Illusion Island could be called a Metroidvania – the focus is on exploration and backtracking through an interconnected world, eventually discovering new abilities to let players unlock other portions of the map as they go.
My first immediate takeaway was that the platforming itself in Disney Illusion Island feels intuitive and responsive, if also a bit simple at first glance. It’s perhaps closest to something like Rayman Origins in terms of feel – characters are light and nimble, but not to the extent where they feel floaty or unpredictable. Environments are often viewed from a wide angle, letting players analyze the layout of the room to plot a path forward. I only had some basic moves to play with at the start – a wall jump, double jump, and boost jump that’s sort of like a dash – but of course, eventually others will be unlocked, like, swimming, swinging and ground-pounding. These are all movesets we’ve seen many times before, and it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to not give these iconic characters some more unique special moves or abilities, but what’s here is easy to pick up and jump right into.
The game lacks combat entirely, which surprised me, but I didn’t find myself missing its absence. While there are still foes and hazards to avoid, and even boss battles that seem to rely on nontraditional means to defeat them, the extent of my interaction with the world seemed to be finding ways to get around it, and occasionally interacting with switches to move walls or platforms around. Progress is gated by, for example, needing to find keys to open locked doors, so expect to need to pull off some jump combos to access hard-to-reach collectibles, too. Nothing groundbreaking, but the placement of these elements in the world felt logical and decently engaging.
The animation of characters is incredible, and I could tell that at some point in the process there had been substantial pencil-to-paper work done. If you’ve ever enjoyed the old-school Mickey Mouse cartoons, you’ll appreciate how fluid everything is. I think the environmental backgrounds leave something to be desired in comparison – their overall theming is relatively light, and they didn’t feel particularly dynamic to explore – but as levels to jump around in, they’re well-designed and easy to parse. It does all look substantially more lively in motion than in screenshots, but I hope the variety of it all will increase as players progress deeper into the game.
For me, the big appeal with a game like this is not necessarily the brand or the characters, but the fact that this is local, couch co-op game that I can enjoy with my wife. I didn’t get the chance to play it solo as a point of comparison, and I’m a little unsure if it will feel quite as fun without the chaos that comes alongside playing with others. But the open structure of the game’s map really benefits from being able to chat with friends, to debate about which direction to explore in or where a key could possibly be tucked away. You can help other players by dropping ropes to help them climb up to you or cross gaps, and if a friend is low on health, they can come over to you for a hug to help restore it. If a teammate dies, they transform into a flying piece of mail – which I heard a developer hilariously refer to as “enveloping” – and can be brought back into the game at the mailbox-themed checkpoints that litter the map. And from an accessibility standpoint, there are a wide swath of options to make the game easier for less experienced players, like turning on infinite health, letting characters stick to walls, and more.
While there’s still a lot more of Disney Illusion Island that I’ve yet to see, it’s got most of the right components to make a satisfying 2D platformer. Although it could potentially be a little too straightforward for seasoned fans of the genre, it’s also very likely that there’s additional layers of depth to its mechanics and world that I haven’t experienced yet. We’ll find out when Disney Illusion Island launches exclusively for Switch on July 28, 2023.