To anyone familiar with the handheld’s lineup, it may seem like a bad business decision to make a life simulation game for the 3DS at this point. Three years into the console's life we've seen two Harvest Moon titles, a Rune Factory game, and The Sims 3. All that, and we haven't even mentioned Animal Crossing: New Leaf, a game that has arguably set the standard for the genre and continues to suck up more hours in our day than we’d like to admit. So how do you go about making a game in the same genre that stands a chance against the adorable Goliath? Take some of the key elements, add some of your own, then create something completely different.
From the periphery, and based on its own advertising, Disney Magical World looks to be in direct competition with Animal Crossing, but there are major differences in gameplay and tone that make this one a good companion rather than a competitor. In place of the quirky animal inhabitants and oddball charm are Disney's legacy properties and bottomless pockets; like in the case of Disney Infinity versus Skylanders, Magical World already has an established fan base in gamers familiar with its characters rather than having to rely on its own merits to generate interest from the audience. Clearly aware of this advantage, the game has been designed to focus on your interactions with the characters that you already know and love, thrusting you into both their worlds and their lives.
Beyond "life simulator," it's not easy to pinpoint what type of game Magical World really is. It has a tendency to frantically shift genres at the drop of a hat, but this frenetic style works to the game’s advantage, providing an experience that continues to feel fresh. It strikes a familiar chord with Animal Crossing in that your actions directly affect those around you, but in terms of gameplay this title is much more goal oriented. It doesn't open with exposition about your new life, and it doesn't put you in charge of a town in desperate need of resurgence, instead it casts you as yourself – albeit a version of you capable of using magic to fend for your life – and allows you to become part of the Disney canon. It gently guides you through the lives and worlds of Disney characters who are in need of your help. You may be new in town, but your childhood heroes already depend on you to save the day.
Early on in the game you receive the deed to the recently reopened café in the heart of Castleton, your new virtual home. While the café mainly serves as your source of revenue, it also solidifies your connection to the extended Disney universe. As your business grows various food recipes will become available for you to make and entice new customers to your town, including Disney characters who haven’t already been represented by one of the several explorable worlds. The café is, in a sense, a representation of you, so you are often encouraged to decorate it however you see fit, swapping out and rearranging furniture, decorations, and the uniforms of your employees. While the café does play a prominent role in your Magical World experience, the gameplay here is limited, usually only calling for a short visit or two during any given session.
The main goal during gameplay, beyond growing your café and finding new recipes for food, furniture, and clothing, is to collect Happy Stickers. Stickers are earned by completing specific tasks, such as catching so many fish or defeating a particular enemy, and the more Stickers you have the more quests become available in the various Disney-themed worlds. Forcing the Sticker mechanic on players can feel like a burden, pressing you to complete tasks that you might not otherwise be interested in, but the game makes it easy to see which Stickers you are closest to collecting at any given time. The Sticker system is set up to allow you to work on multiple tasks at once, meaning that you can always be in motion, picking and choosing which goals you want to complete in any order that you see fit.
Depending on which world you're in, you could be doing anything from farming to dungeon crawling, with a little bit of dancing sprinkled in. Almost everything is controlled with the 3DS’s face buttons, but the rhythm games instead make use of the console’s touchscreen. Whatever the gameplay calls for, the controls are tight and work well despite constantly changing their demands. It's no easy task finding the right balance in difficulty, but Magical World stands firmly on a foundation perfect for its target audience; even when the gameplay shifts between rhythm game, farming sim, and dungeon crawler, it provides varying challenges without becoming overwhelming. Though older gamers are sure to breeze through the majority of missions, especially early on in the game, the younger crowd who might not yet have a grasp on the nuances of Harvest Moon or Rhythm Thief will find comfort in the accessibility offered here. The variety in gameplay and welcoming difficulty levels also make this the perfect jumping-off point for younger gamers interested in exploring different genres.
Whether masking itself as a button masher or a rhythm game, one thing that won't go unnoticed is that the whole experience is one big collection fest. Everything that you do, from growing a special flower for Winnie the Pooh or fending off the ghosts invading Argabah, it's all done in the name of feeding the needs of those around you. Even your own goals in earning Stickers and opening up new areas to explore are based around collecting objects to further enhance your café and home. Residents of Castleton have a tendency to ask for very specific items, such as soap bubbles or pieces of cloth; then it becomes your responsibility, should you choose to accept the request, to venture out into the various worlds and find the treasures.
It's not just others that you'll be collecting for, because you will also need a vast variety of items to complete your own projects. Sometimes a quest will call for a specific costume to be worn or a special table to be placed in your café. If you don’t have the materials necessary to fulfil the recipes to create these objects, you'll have to seek them out. Some items can be purchased, and others can be found hidden around Castleton, but most of them will require the playing and replaying of missions that you've already completed. This can become tedious work, especially when you don't actually find the item you were looking for by the end of your quest, but it does provide a sure way to extend the hours that you'll get out of this game. Every quest is replayable at any time, making it easy to revisit ones that you particularly enjoyed, but the other edge to that sword is that it’s quite possible you'll find yourself getting bored of seeing the same old scenery time and again.
One of the more polarizing aspects of this game is this presentation. While the character models are detailed and animated well, and many of the environments are lush and do well to exemplify the Disney properties that they represent, the visuals are not without their flaws. Many of the set pieces look flat and pixelated, an issue that is exceptionally prominent when they’re carelessly dropped in the middle of the otherwise attractive three-dimensional environments. It’s also not a seamless universe, but thankfully the load times are quick enough to not be annoying or disruptive to gameplay. The handheld’s ability to display images in 3D is also put to particularly poor use, adding simulated depth to the environments but mostly just slowing the frame rate down to an irksome pace — it looks just as fine without the effect, so this is an issue that can easily be avoided.
One key element borrowed from Animal Crossing, meanwhile, is the use of the series’ signature real world clock. The time of day and year during which you playing Magical World is directly reflected in game, and it can alter your experience. As time progresses throughout the day characters move around Castleton and ask for different favours; depending on the time of year that you’re playing, the centre square of the city transforms to reflect an associated holiday or changes in the weather. The effect that time has on gameplay is minimal, providing mostly aesthetic shifts or changing the available tasks, but the alterations in the scenery are indicative of an evident care that was put into crafting the game.
Expanding beyond Castleton and the outlying realms, Magical World gives you the opportunity to visit the cafés of other players who have uploaded theirs to the game’s server, or those locally around you. It’s a far cry from cooperative gameplay, but it does allow you to see what other players on your 3DS Friend List or random strangers from around the world are doing with their shops. Visiting other cafés and uploading your own to have others visit you is also a good way to receive special items and quickly build up your wardrobe. Other players can also visit your town bearing gifts via StreetPass, further opening the game’s social features.
As a game mostly about collecting and trading, it’s no small wonder that the developers brought these aspects into the real world through paid downloadable content and AR cards. DLC was not accessible at the time of writing, but it’s safe to assume that more costumes and recipes will be available for purchase through the Nintendo eShop shortly after launch. Reminiscent of Kid Icarus: Uprising, AR cards can be read via the Magical AR feature, unlocking even more costumes, café decorations, and recipes to cook up. DLC and collectable cards can easily become a parent’s worst nightmare, but their presence does point towards the developers’ continued support, hopefully with them regularly churning out more content to continually make the game feel fresh and new.
Every young gamer needs a place to start. Disney Magical World isn’t going to appeal to everyone with a 3DS, but it’s a fantastic way to introduce its audience to a variety of genres in an easily digestible and family-friendly package. There are minor technical hiccups and imperfect visuals, but these are far from game breaking and are issues that can easily be overlooked when considering everything else offered here. Disney fans are sure to love interacting with their favourite characters and exploring their worlds, and those who enjoy life simulators will get a kick out of the variety in gameplay. If you’re beginning to get burnt out on Animal Crossing and you’re seeking something similar that also manages to feel fresh, Magical World is the perfect way to start a new life once again.