Like most people, I grew up with Disney being a real part of my childhood. So, while I find the content of modern Disney to be little more than a corporation demanding money, the classic hijinks of Mickey and Donald and co will always tap into deep nostalgia. Case-in-point: Next year I’ve got a cabin room booked for the Disney cruise (I so much need that holiday).
Disney Illusion Island’s greatest quality is that it successfully captures classic Disney’s whimsical, playful, and happy side. You get to play as one of four characters – Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald (Donald!) as you explore a non-linear 2D platforming world. It’s like a Metroidvania, but pitched at an all-ages audience.
You’re going to get the most out of this if you play with your kids, grandkids or younger siblings (depending on which of those applies to you). You can play with up to four people, and in a co-op context, the simple platforming and exploration takes on an additional dynamic, and the simple characterisation will fill the room with giggles. Progression means less, too, so you can enjoy jumping around and working together to overcome obstacles.
When you play by yourself, the shallowness of what’s actually going on becomes more apparent. Illusion Island never becomes more complex than a pretty standard platformer, and as a Metroidvania it’s let down a little by how overly consistent the environments are. You’ll need to refer back to the map pretty regularly because relying purely on identifying landmarks as you go back and forth is a recipe for getting very lost.
What’s more, you’ll scream through the game, and it’s a problem, ironically, because it controls so nicely. It’s so easy to get into a flow and mastering the various platforming techniques that the game provides will take next to no time. I’ve not played too many mainstream platformers that feel as responsive and dynamic as Illusion Island. The downside to that is that levels fly by without you ever really taking them in. You’re also encouraged to take risks and be unconcerned by the consequences, because even if you should run out of hearts and “die”, the checkpointing is very generous. The ability to be a daredevil about leaps and falls helps speed progress up, too.
It’s too much, given that one of Illusion Island’s greatest achievements is the quality of the art and animation, and the goal should have been to get people to immerse themselves in it more. Backgrounds are colourful and filled with subtle little details that help the overall experience pop. A character might not have much to say, but their little quips and vintage Disney stuff.
Illusion Island is also, for the most part, non-violent. There are enemies, but the goal is to navigate around them rather than defeat them. The reason for that is pretty obvious – this really is an all-ages entertainment deal – but at the same time, it’s refreshing. So often video games rely on violence to provide that visceral loop and to engage players, that when something deliberately aims to resist that impulse, it comes across as quite creative. Navigating through much of Illusion Island feels like a light puzzle game experience. I would have liked to see something slightly more complex to really allow this concept to take flight and more clearly distinguish this from other 2D Metroidvania platformers, but the effort is appreciated, nonetheless.
The biggest problem the game has is that it’s too long for what it offers. It’ll take most people somewhere between 10 and 12 hours to clear the game, and while that might sound like a relatively brief experience, for what Illusion Island does, it’s spreading too little butter over too much bread (thanks Bilbo Baggins for that quote). Neither of Illusion Island’s two greatest strengths benefit from length. Firstly, co-op games generally do better when they’re sit-down time fillers, rather than a commitment over lengthy gaming sessions. Because Illusion Island features a large and continuous world, it’s not broken down in a way that works well for co-op.
But even looking beyond that abstract issue, the other quality that really holds Illusion Island together is its humour. The first time the four heroes bump into an alligator character that gives them special items to help them make their way around the levels, it’s hilarious. It’s an item that allows you to double-jump, and Mickey and Minnie get pretty decent items that they’re chuffed about. Donald, meanwhile, ever the brunt of classic Disney humour, gets an item that looks… distinctly unsafe. It’s very funny to see Donald so disappointed (and concerned) in true Donald Duck style. I grew up watching and re-watching entire seasons of Donald Duck cartoons where this was pretty much the entire premise. The problem is that this humour is great for a short TV show. It doesn’t work when it’s repeated several times over the course of a much longer game.
Disney Illusion Island is both enjoyable and entertaining, but just as the action in the game zips by with slick efficiency, so too is your memory of the time with it going to be breezy. If you’re able to use it as a way to bond with family or friends, then it’s going to have much more value than as a single-player experience. For those playing solo, expect plenty of charm, but given that it has been developed so that the youngest of children can enjoy it, there just isn’t much substance to it.