With the cost of living going up and the quality of superhero movies going down, it feels like we could probably all use a cuddle right now. Disney Illusion Island seems to sense this, because this co-operative platforming adventure for up to four players features a dedicated hug button to give your partner an instant health boost whenever they’re struggling to go on. It’s an endearing bit of mouse-to-mouse resuscitation, and it’s just one of a handful of examples of kindhearted collaboration that helps to make Disney Illusion Island approachable to players of almost every age and aptitude level. There are certainly more innovative modern Metroidvanias on the market as far as level design and boss encounters are concerned but, on the strength of its warm and fuzzy feel-good factor alone, Disney Illusion Island is worth throwing your arms around.
Its whimsical charm is evident from the outset. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy arrive on the mysterious island of Monoth intending to indulge in a picnic, but are soon tasked with retrieving three magical tomes that have been stolen from the island’s library and spirited away to three interconnected biomes that make up Monoth’s vivid 2D landscape. Disney Illusion Island’s adventure is presented in a classical, hand-drawn art style that recalls the House of Mouse’s earliest forms of animation, but its irreverent and self-aware sense of humour feels noticeably more contemporary in tone. Although most of the interactions with the eccentric cast of island locals you meet along the way is purely text-based outside of a handful of major cutscenes, Disney Illusion Island still managed to elicit regular chuckles from my son and I as we breezed along through its ever-expanding world and busily ticked off its growing list of upbeat story quests.
It’s a Sprawl World After All
While its map eventually becomes a sizable rabbit warren – or perhaps mouse hole – of 2D tunnels that spiral out in all directions, Disney Illusion Island is not the kind of Metroidvania that expects you to get stuck for long. Checkpoints are generously staggered, directions to specific areas are clearly marked with in-game signposts, and there are even some handy teleportation devices at several story junctions that allow you to skip return trips entirely in order to beam Mickey and the gang directly to the next mission marker. As a result, while the story took me around six hours to complete, very little of that time was wasted retracing my steps or getting confused about where to head next. It makes for a journey that maintains a strong sense of forward momentum to match the fluid set of movements of its four main characters.
Each member of Disney Illusion Island’s quirky quartet is indeed a joy to steer around, with a simple and responsive set of inputs and just the right amount of floatiness to allow for split-second corrections in midair. New abilities are unlocked at regular intervals in order to gain access to previously gated areas, from wall jumps to earth-shattering ground pounds and grappling hook swings. While there’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen elsewhere in the platforming genre many times over (you can even pull off a Mario-style side-flip when you reverse direction just before a jump), it’s all implemented so smoothly that performing a series of leaps, swings, and slides in quick succession often had me feeling higher than the pitch of Mickey’s voice. All of the four playable characters feature the same expanded moveset – presumably to cutdown on squabbling at the character selection screen – but I appreciated the uniquely entertaining ways in which they’re presented; Mickey’s glide move sees him whip out a pedal-powered gyro-copter to slowly drift down to earth, while food-obsessed Goofy pulls out a giant bottle of mustard to slow his descent with a spluttering squirt.
To be clear, none of these unlockable abilities are combat-based. Although Disney Illusion Island is home to a rogue’s gallery of ill-tempered ‘toons ready to trip you up at every turn, each and every one of them is to be carefully avoided since you’re not even equipped with a basic butt-stomp to fight back with – which is possibly for the best due to the fact that most of the enemies have spiky exteriors and Donald Duck still stubbornly refuses to wear pants. That said, there are still a handful of boss encounters, but they put the emphasis on passive platforming rather than direct assaults. In one you have to hop between a shuffling sequence of buttons to trigger the drop of giant capsule toys onto the head of a robotic thief, while in another you must grapple and swing off a number of perches in order to shake acorns loose that crash down onto a feathered foe. If those two examples sound somewhat similar, it’s because they very much are, and I wish developer Dlala Studios had channeled a little more creativity into these showdowns because Disney Illusion Island’s boss fights feel more like one-dimensional, paint-by-numbers contests rather than full-on Fantasia-style spectacles.
Mouseketeers of the Kingdom
Its cooperative play, though, is truly commendable – particularly if you have a balance of experienced players with more novice adventurers on the couch. Aside from hugging it out anytime you need an extra heart added to your health bar – which never stops being both useful and utterly adorable – Disney Illusion Island equips each player with additional methods of assistance to ensure that no mouse, pantsless duck or pants-wearing dog gets left behind. If another player is struggling to reach a platform higher up, you can drop a rope down to give them a shortcut. If they’re too intimidated to swim through a swirling school of enemy fish in one of the underwater passages, you can drop a marker and teleport them directly to safety. Seasoned platforming fans might ignore these sweet-natured support measures entirely, but they’re invaluable in ensuring the weakest link in your co-op chain is rarely forced to suffer or sit out for stretches of time simply because they died too soon.
Of course, Disney Illusion Island can also be played solo if you choose, and it’s certainly the most effective way to experience the adventure if you’re after any form of challenge, particularly towards the story’s end where constant prickly surfaces and waves of projectiles put your platforming reflexes to the test. On your own there’s no way to skip obstacles, and extra hearts need to be sought out and collected in the world rather than coaxed out of a co-op partner with a cuddle. However, checkpoints remain abundant and even during its most taxing passages of level design this is still relatively gentle stuff for the genre, with wide timing windows for wall jumps and grappling hook throws that are practically magnetic. If Super Meat Boy is close to the pinnacle of punitive platforming experiences, then Disney Illusion Island is positively vegan by comparison.
While I did play chunks of the adventure on my own, I certainly had a much better time of it with my son riding shotgun. The Glimt you collect – an analogue for Mario’s coins or Sonic’s rings – contributes to the one pool rather than individual purses, so there’s no real reward for whoever can hoover them up first. However we still found ways to indulge in a bit of friendly rivalry. One of the best examples of this are the selfies you can take with Mickey symbols hidden throughout the world. It quickly became a competitive game within a game for one of us to find one before the other, not unlike trying to be the first to spot a certain colour of car on the highway during a family road trip. It did strike me as being a little cumbersome that I was forced to quit out to the main menu and then restart at a checkpoint any time my son wanted to join or leave my game, though. For a 2023 multiplayer platformer, no drop-in drop-out feels like a bit of a co-op cop-out.
Glimt, which can be invested in permanently increasing the number of hearts for each player, is not the only collectible to be found in Disney Illusion Island. While progress through its main quest may be heavy on handholding, there’s still some joy of discovery to be found poking through suspect walls that reveal numerous hidden secrets, including mementos from Mickey’s most famous appearances on screens both silver and small. I rolled credits on the story at only 70% total completion, and I’ve since spent a couple of hours trying to seek out all the character cards and memorabilia I missed. While I’ve enjoyed the extra time spent in Disney Illusion Island’s vibrant cartoon kingdom, the more I explore it the more I lament the absence of a mini-map in its HUD. It’s somewhat of a shame to stall your smooth platforming motion from one corner of the map to the other simply because you have to constantly pause and un-pause the game to consult the full map at each fork in the path. I expected a mini-map, but all I got was a Minnie Mouse.