Another year goes by and yet more excellent titles grace us with their presence, particularly as the Christmas season begins to gain steam. Yet, while most of us are hammering trolls in Skyrim and blasting the opposition on Modern Warfare 3, what big names are family-friendly enough that they can be recommended to anyone below their teens? Such titles exist, but they’re certainly few. It may not have the pulling power of this season’s triple-A titles, but with the Disney name behind it, will kids find an experience that doesn’t leave quality by the wayside in the name of a simple cash-in?
Based on the front cover alone you would be forgiven for curiously picking Disney Universe up from the store shelf and expecting a budget version of LittleBigPlanet. In reality, everything from the camera and focus on collectible tokens to the simple one-button combat evokes thoughts of the Lego video game franchise. You might be disappointed to learn that you never actually play as your favourite characters at all, but rather only dress up as them. This goes for certain villainous appearances as well, though we won’t spoil it here by dropping names. The reason for this – whether you buy it as a good excuse or not – is that Disney Universe is actually a tourist attraction that has gone the way of Westworld, with the park’s robots turning against its guests. Your job is to free these guests and restore peace to the land of entertainment; everything is as cutesy as expected, bringing a light-hearted and typically ‘Disney’ touch to the proceedings.
While it’s disappointing that no characters are actually featured, Disney Universe makes up for this failing through solid use of its themed worlds. Unfortunately, the Pirates of the Caribbean world – the very first one you’ll play through in the game – is by far the least interesting and fails to engage with a strong first impression. Beyond this, the worlds are made up of three areas, each featuring three stages and a welcome dose of variety; some highlights include a spell through Wonderland and The Lion King’s elephant graveyard. There are graphical touches that make each world unique, though you could never go so far as to call any of this ambitious – the game is artistically sound and bright, vivid colours give life to a world that kids won’t want to ignore. In most cases however, it’s the recognisable backdrops that will please Disney fans the most.
Each stage plays out in a similar yet slightly different manner. One moment you might have to use cannons to blast away at a mermaid to collect tears, and soon you may have to throw water bombs onto seeds to make them grow, allowing access to higher areas. Disney Universe has many of these deviations that afford the game play some variety, and while the creativity in this regard is impressive, levels can still feel like a bit of a slog as you make your way to the exit. The biggest issue comes in the form of the enemies; be it the standard grunt, the common brute or the occasional spawner (which shoots enemies at you), the range of foes just won’t impress in any way. Instead, these encounters irritate and become predictable very quickly, slowing things down just as you’re making solid progress within a stage. Boss fights change between each world and do become quite challenging, though it’s worth mentioning that there is little penalty for death, affecting only your end score and losing you a handful of tokens.
It’s these tokens that make up the crux of the game. With an abundance of collectibles filling each stage (literally in every corner and inside every breakable object) it soon becomes clear that racking up a large amount of these ‘Mickey Mouse ears’ actually takes precedence over reaching the end gate. The developers want you to search out as many of these as possible and try to reward you for doing so, translating as currency to open worlds and unlock new costumes. If concept art is your thing (that typical ‘go-to’ unlockable that no one ever cares about), then each stage plays host to three special items that alter in appearance depending on the level’s theme. Whatever you think of the items you obtain, there’s enough on offer to keep prospective treasure hunters occupied.
Part of the selling point is in the fact that you need not venture alone, with up to four players supported for local play – no online modes have been included. Co-operation is king here, but the game encourages a certain degree of competitive behaviour, as you’re so often reminded during loading screens. The game can easily be completed without the aid of another, but as it’s been designed for multiple people in the room it’s likely that a few chuckles will be earned should other players enter the fray. This is an easy going, inoffensive game so it makes perfect sense that kids would want to experience it with a buddy or two, and this may even go some way to alleviate the repetitive ‘whack whack whack’ nature of the combat.
It can be hard to reach a fair score considering that the game is aimed squarely at a much younger target audience, but there’s no denying that Disney Universe holds its fair share of charm and harmless joys. The music – particularly that of the main menu – is unashamedly funky, as are the remixes of classic Disney tunes, although these can be almost unrecognisable at times. Fans of the Disney films will no doubt be disappointed that you’re suiting up rather than playing as the famous cast members themselves, so you’re advised not to invest too much in the brand name here. This is a simple, welcoming escapade that can (and probably should) be ignored by the vast majority of adult gamers this holiday season. Those with children or younger siblings however, would do rather well by giving this a look.
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