There is no character quite as timeless as Mickey Mouse. First created almost 100 years ago, Mickey has been a fixture in TV, movies, and animated shorts since his initial appearance in Steamboat Willie. With such an expansive legacy, it was only a matter of time before Mickey appeared in the gaming medium again.
Mickey Mouse’s gaming history is more extensive than you may initially expect, from the Illusion games released over the past few decades to his significant role in the Kingdom Hearts franchise to the fan-favorite 3D-Platformer Epic Mickey. With such a malleable character, it was only a matter of time before Mickey and his friends appeared in a 2D platformer designed for modern audiences.
Disney Illusion Island is a brand-new 2D platformer, exclusively available on the Nintendo Switch, featuring Mickey and his pals. Players can take control of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy in single-player or cooperative play. By far, the most significant appeal of Illusion Island is the gorgeous hand-drawn art style. However, that raises one key question: does Disney Illusion Island have tremendous and addictive gameplay to back up the art direction? Or is it the epitome of style over substance?
The Fab Four
Certainly, Illusion Island‘s colorful cast of characters helps make it more than just a pretty face. In many ways, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy are just as iconic as Mickey Mouse. Each character is fully playable and features unique animations. For example, you can access a ground-pound ability later in the game. Mickey’s version of the ability resembles Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the original incarnation of Mickey Mouse before Universal bought him.
Donald Duck’s ground pound is, instead, a giant anvil. Both serve the same purpose but are styled differently. It makes each character feel unique without forcing you to change characters to get past a specific puzzle.
There are other characters besides the main four as well. There’s Toku, a little creature who gives you your main quest to find the Tomes of Monoth, the game’s central location, and return them to the Library at its center. Mazzy, a pink crocodile, gives you all your main gadgets. Lastly, there’s Uncle Steve, a character that shows up to deliver the odd joke and help here and there. There are other NPCs and characters you meet that help you accomplish your main quest of finding all three Tomes of Monoth. Those three tomes provide the brunt of the game’s main story, traversal, and gameplay.
2D Platforming, Mickey Mouse Style
The gameplay loop of Disney Illusion Island is not what you’d expect. When I entered this game, I was looking forward to a game that operated similarly to Rayman Legends, one of my favorite 2D platformers. I figured the game would be level-based, feature collectathon elements, and have a few worlds that you would have to comb through until you reached a boss. In reality though, Illusion Island is more akin to a Metroidvania.
There are no levels: instead, there is one unified overworld that you can travel across as you attempt to find the three tomes. You get gadgets and abilities, just like in Super Metroid. You even acquire a deep-sea dive ability to swim through large bodies of water without instantly surfacing. It’s very similar to how the Metroid franchise utilizes the Gravity Suit. As a result, Illusion Island feels immediately unique from the likes of New Super Mario Bros. or Rayman Legends.
The game gives you several options for traversal: wall jumps, grappling hooks, gliding, and swimming mechanics are all given to you as you progress through Monoth. That said, your base move set is surprisingly simple. All the player can do is jump and move left and right. There is no attack button, and a double jump is given to you after about thirty minutes of traversal. Your only means of avoiding enemies is platforming and quick timing. At times, balancing both as you try to avoid projectiles and enemies moving back and forth can get a bit frustrating. Although, there are options that allow for further accessibility, especially for its core audience: children. I’ll dive into that more later, but even when the game does get a bit hard, Illusion Island never stops being a visual treat.
Mickey Mouse Has Never Looked Better
Disney Illusion Island is easily one of the best-looking 2D platformers on the market. The designers and artists have brought the recent Mickey Mouse animations to life through stunning cutscenes and charming character animations. Every character has a distinct walk-and-run cycle. Mickey has a different static animation than someone like Minnie or Goofy, and the cutscenes feel like they just ported over the Mickey Mouse cartoons into the game. As a result, the game feels delightfully nostalgic, as if the developers captured the feelings of delight and innocence the audience felt watching Mickey Mouse and imbued them in Illusion Island.
The voice direction helps to fuel that nostalgia. Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Donald are voiced by actors who’ve been doing their voices for years, even decades. You can tell they’re putting everything into these performances, as their interactions in the cutscenes feel right out of the cartoons. The music is filled with sweeping orchestral beats and resembles scores from works like Fantasia and Epic Mickey. The art direction is stellar and easily one of the main reasons to purchase this game. As a result of such magnificent art and sound direction, the level design is heightened, making the world feel delightful to explore.
There are three main biomes players can explore in Disney Illusion Island. First is Gizmopolis, the biome of engineering. Then there’s Pavonia, the biome of botany. Lastly, there’s Astrono, the biome of astronomy. Each biome is themed around the different tomes you must collect and feels unique. They each have unique enemies, puzzles, and NPCs. For the most part, traversing the world of Monoth never gets old. Emphasis on “for the most part” because it is in Illusion Island‘s level design that the problems begin.
First, you have access to a map that allows you to track where you are, where you’ve been, and where you need to go. Once again, very similar to a Metroidvania. Like most Metroidvanias, you are forced to backtrack frequently. There was one part later in the game where I had to go to one end of an area, return to the other side of the level I just left, and then return to where I had just gone. Therefore, traversal felt exhausting, and I would skip collectibles to progress even a bit.
Speaking of which, there are many collectibles that players can acquire on their journey. These include hidden Mickey symbols, related memorabilia, and trading cards called Tokums. Despite the many collectibles players can receive, there seemed to be no visible reward for collecting items. I beat the game after five hours and fifty minutes, with a final percentage of 65%. Yet there was no incentive for going out of my way to collect items. All I got were extra hearts and bragging rights. While there is a post-game, I have felt no desire to go back and try and 100% the game.
Lastly, and most importantly, while the levels look nice, they don’t feel any different from levels in other platformers. There’s an ice area, a grass area, and a water area. For platforming fans, many regions will feel familiar and derivative of the games you have played. This wouldn’t be a problem if the levels were fun to play through, and sometimes they are. However, there were just as many times when platforming felt like a slog, and I was left wanting to play other platformers.
This leads me to my main problem: the levels don’t feel like areas from Mickey or Disney’s past. Instead, they feel like every other platformer I’ve ever played. There are some references to old Mickey cartoons, even a few nods to old Disney movies, but the levels themselves don’t reflect that. The difference would be negligible if you switched out Mickey for any generic platforming protagonist. Constantly, throughout the game, I asked one key question: who is this game really for?
Who Is Disney Illusion Island for?
Without knowing how Disney Illusion Island truly plays and based only on first impressions, you’d think the game appeals primarily to 2D platformer fans. Yet it features a massive world map and platforming cliches that would make players desire a game like Rayman Legends or even the old Mickey Castle of Illusion games. You may think that the game is designed to please Metroidvania fans. However, most Metroidvania fans would much rather play a game like Hollow Knight or Metroid Dread. Those who enjoy co-op platformers would be better off playing New Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario 3D World. Players fond of the style of Illusion Island would find more challenge and excitement in Cuphead. Even fans of Disney’s past won’t find a lot to work with in this game.
Epic Mickey was a 3D platformer highlighting several obscure elements of the company’s history, such as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the Mad Doctor, and the Shadow Blot. Illusion Island features very few callbacks to Disney or even Mickey himself. There could’ve been a lot of potential for unlockable costumes or even unlockable characters such as Daisy and Oswald. Instead, the game feels self-contained, which works to both its benefit and detriment.
Therefore, you’d presume the game is designed to appeal only to kids. It is, after all, rated E for everyone. That was my suspicion, so I tried putting it to the test: on a visit to London, I visited my younger cousins. Their ages were 5, 7, and 11. From what I understood, this was their first time using a Nintendo Switch. I implemented as many accessibility and co-op options as possible: I set their hearts to three and waited to see how they’d perform. I discovered they did not even remotely understand how to play the game or progress.
Sometimes, they forget to move the joystick or walk into apparent enemies. Other times, they couldn’t grasp how the double jump or wall jump functioned. I only let them play the game for about half an hour until realizing this was a losing battle. We never got to use any custom co-op abilities or even more complex gadgets like the grappling hook. Despite this, I realized that if I were their age, I would probably get frustrated after the first fifteen minutes, maybe even less.
Mario is such a timeless icon because the controls are easy to understand. All you have is a jump, some power-ups, a ground pound, and a sprint. Nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, Illusion Island makes several button prompts context-sensitive. Gliding, ground pounds, and grappling hooks are all mapped to the same button. Thus, there could be times when you’re trying to grapple over spikes and instead ground pound into them. I struggled with this as an adult; I couldn’t imagine how kids would get through this.
Disney Illusion Island is a game that sadly suffers from an identity problem. I could never tell if it wanted to be a true 2D platformer, a Metroidvania, or a cooperative adventure for all ages. Despite that, one thing stuck out to me as I watched my cousins attempt to play through the first part of the game: they were grinning.
Undeniably Charming Fun
Disney Illusion Island is a game rife with problems. From controls to level design to its confusing genre, I always wanted more from the experience. That said, I still felt satisfied at the end of the game. Despite all my issues, I could tell the game was made with passion and care. The incredible art style and the voice cast brought me back to my childhood. That’s all it needed to be. I still wish there was a more unified vision for the experience and a bit more substance beyond five hours and fifty minutes. I’m also not sure if the game is worth $39.99. At the end of the day, though, if you have a sibling, child, or cousin in Middle School or above that loves Disney, Illusion Island will still be a fun time for those fond of Mickey Mouse and his friends.
Disclaimer: Disney provided Final Weapon with a Nintendo Switch copy of Disney Illusion Island for review purposes.