Release date: July 28, 2023
Developer: Dlala Studios
Publisher: Disney Electronic Content
Mickey, Minnie, Donald & Goofy may be some of the most recognizable characters of all time, but it’s been a hot minute since they featured in a noteworthy game of their own – something true of many Disney franchises since the shuttering of Disney Interactive in 2016. As such, Disney Illusion Island is something of an experiment; an attempt to craft a modern, original Mickey Mouse story in a new world with new characters, with the structure of a Metroidvania (or “Mickeyvania,” as the developers have put it). While a lack of meaningful surprises can cause the experience to drag and feel overly simple, the game’s charming humor and silky-smooth platforming result in a fun and amusing adventure.
Disney Illusion Island brings the Fab Four into the brand-new world of Monoth, a sprawling island populated mostly by a species of gerbil-esque creatures called the Hokuns. Their leader, Toku, somewhat deceptively lures Mickey and friends to the island under the guise of a picnic, only to reveal that there’s great danger imminent. See, the three magical tomes that contain the knowledge of the island have been stolen, and of course bad things will surely happen if they aren’t retuned to the magical bookcase in the center of town immediately. Being the plucky do-gooder he is, Mickey agrees without hesitation (Donald, inversely, with significant hesitation), and the gang heads off to explore Monoth and get to the bottom of things.
Being an exploration-focused platformer, the setting of Monoth is very large and designed to be turned inside out, although players will quickly realize there are many places they can’t access right away. From there, the standard gameplay loop of the genre begins in earnest: picking a direction to explore, unlocking traversal-based abilities, backtracking to previously insurmountable obstacles, surmounting them, and so-on. At the start, all Mickey and company can do is jump, but by the end of the game they’ll be swimming, ground-pounding and even grappling to previously blocked off areas. Abilities are doled out at a steady pace by a warm but mysterious inventor named Mazzy, and often came right when I felt myself yearning for an upgrade.
In a move atypical for the genre, Disney Illusion Island has zero combat in it – with no attack button, interaction with the world is limited purely to traversing it and avoiding hazards. There are plenty of obstacles to get in your way, from spiky urchin-like creatures that ascend walls to pulsing plants that shoot spikes across the screen, but there’s no way to dispatch any of them – avoidance is the name of the game. When I interviewed the developers about this decision prior to release date, I was told that the choice to exclude combat was multifaceted – that it didn’t fit the characters and that it didn’t align with their creative vision, primarily. While I agree that not all games need combat, including it does give the player another way to interact with the world. Disney Illusion Island fails to fill the void of its absence with some other engaging mechanic, resulting in a simpler gameplay loop that is highly approachable, but less interesting than other platformers. After some 10-12 hours of almost exclusively running and jumping, I found myself wishing there had been more variety of interaction in the game.
Boss encounters do break up the experience a bit – there are four of them spread fairly evenly across the game – and to me, these were some of the most exciting parts of Disney Illusion Island. Fundamentally, they act as tests of some of the movement abilities players should have mastered up to that point, so players who have wall-jumped and double-jumped in other games shouldn’t face much of a challenge. They’re good fun, though, thanks in large part to the high-energy music that plays and the several phases of each battle. In fact, the entire soundtrack of Disney Illusion Island is incredible – fully orchestrated, it feels right along the lines of the music one might hear playing as ambience at Disneyland, and seamlessly changes as players enter different regions of Monoth. Tracks balance whimsy with just a pinch of mystery, and I never got tired of listening to them, often finding myself casually humming along.
With traversal being such a huge focus of Disney Illusion Island, it’s very fortunate that moving around Monoth feels excellent. I’d say it feels remarkably close to something like Rayman Legends in terms of physics – characters are light on their feet, agile in the air, and snappy when hurdling up ledges. The map is massive, with plenty of tucked-away rooms containing collectibles to try and reach, of which my favorites are memorabilia inspired by classic Mickey cartoons. There are also Hidden Mickeys tucked cleverly into the background that players can seek out if they wish, and it’s quite satisfying stumbling across one in an unexpected place. For completionists, checkpoints are densely placed across Monoth; toward the end of the game, it becomes possible to fast travel to any of them, making mopping up those unfinished chunks of the map a breeze.
Each of the biomes has its own theme – Gizmopolis, for example, is a mechanical city filled with whimsical contraptions, whereas The Quarry is a dark, purple-tinged series of underground caves. While on paper there are many different regions to explore, in practice I felt a lot of them blended together to the point where only a handful felt truly distinct. I think this is partially due to the subdued environmental backgrounds, which generally lack substantial texture or detail and don’t feel particularly dynamic. They’re certainly colorful and pleasant to look at, but I don’t think they’ll stick with me in the same way a memorable Mario stage does, aesthetically speaking.
Players can choose to play as Mickey, Minnie, Donald, or Goofy, and while they all handle identically, they all have their own unique, quirky animations tied to their moveset. For example, Minnie Mouse’s double jump has her gliding on a paper airplane, whereas Donald rides a firecracker. The animation in Disney Illusion Island is impeccable. I love cartoon animation, and it’s clear that every frame of gameplay began with pencil on paper – in fact, you can even see glimpses of this process in the in-game gallery. So much effort has gone into replicating the style of Mickey Mouse cartoons, and I was delighted when I unlocked new abilities and got to see new animations, to the point where I frequently swapped characters to see more of them. And if you’re impressed by the in-game animation, you’ll be blown away by the cutscenes – though sparse, they’re stunning to watch.
The writing in Disney Island is witty and frequently had me laughing. It tactfully plays into the hyperexaggerated personalities of its main cast by creating situations in which they all poke and prod at each other as a group of close friends would do. It breaks the fourth wall to an extent, but in a way that feels more original than how video games often do it, and to hilarious effect. I’m definitely a kid at heart, so your mileage may vary, but I really enjoyed the quips from every character I stumbled across.
It’s worth mentioning that the whole game is built for local couch co-op play for up to four players, and it’s a great way to experience Disney Illusion Island. When I did play with other people, we had a great time deliberating over which direction to go in next and laughing when someone fell into a spike pit. It never got quite as rowdy as something like New Super Mario Bros. Wii did for me back in the day, which might be a good thing for people looking to play with their kids. Difficulty is quite adaptive, too, with each player able to set their own health level to whatever they desire, and additional accessibility option in the settings that allow for more simplified controls for certain actions. It truly does feel like the game was designed to be fun for as broad an audience as possible, and I think players of any ability level will be able to have a great time with an open mindset.
While Disney Illusion Island can feel a bit too simple for it’s own good at times, the overall experience is so polished and delightful that fun is all but guaranteed for Disney and platforming fans alike. It’s a creative, energetic adventure that charms with its writing and art direction, and it’s bolstered further by an incredible soundtrack that adds an extra layer of magic to exploration. Whether this is your first platformer or your fiftieth, Disney Illusion Island has something to offer just about anyone – as long as you don’t mind a relaxed, combat-free take on the genre.
Disney Illusion Island copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.