I have a long history with Disney videogames, especially the illustrious Illusion franchise. Predominantly appearing on SEGA’s 8 and 16 bit consoles, they were a series of game’s starring Mickey Mouse as he thwarted the evil Mizrabel’s plans in the titular illusionary environment. Having consistently excellent quality, they were a real highlight of Disney’s stint at video game development.
As such, seeing a new entry in the series: Illusion Island starring not only Mickey, but also the fabulous Donald, Minnie, and Goofy, needless to say it had me extremely excited. Using the gorgeous new animated style, this could be a real return for the series as it introduces new younger gamers to what Disney is capable of.
All that potential, however, was sadly wasted.
TAKING THE MICKEY
The game opens up with our four heroes arriving at the mysterious island of Monoth after receiving an invitation to a picnic. It turns out this was all a ruse and they soon find themselves searching for three mysterious tomes that have seemingly been snatched, and they need to retrieve them in order to restore peace to the island.
It’s a simple tale, if a a little predictable, but it’s well told through a mix of top notch animation, great writing, and superb voice acting. It really does a good job at making you feel like you’re watching a cartoon when the cutscenes are playing and they’re an absolute joy to experience. Sadly the voice acting is absent outside of these moments, as NPC interactions are solely dialogue boxes. An unfortunate omission considering that there isn’t exactly an overwhelming amount of conversation, but something that is still easily overlooked.
Unlike other Disney titles, Illusion Island is surprisingly a Metroidvania and can be played either alone or co-operatively with up to three other players. Starting out in the library, you’re sent to various biomes in search of the books that you need to find. Of course, you won’t be able to go anywhere you want and areas are restricted based on the abilities you have.
As you make your way around, you’ll acquire new moves free of charge from a friendly alligator type fella known as Mazzy, who is more than happy to equip you with his latest gizmo to help you around. Need to traverse longer gaps? How about a double jump! An air draft leads to higher areas? What about a flotation device! Each character is given their own special item to pull off their new move although they’re all functionally identical. Arguably Donald gets the coolest abilities, especially with his Quackshot inspired plunger, but there’s zero difference between the four heroes so you’re free to choose who you want.
The moveset is rather simple for the most part and doesn’t really offer anything particularly innovative, but it controls extremely well. Movement is responsive, fluid, and every jump feels fine tuned to perfection. It makes moving around the levels feel like a dance as you effortlessly manoeuvre obstacles and over enemies. There’s no combat, with enemies acting as moving obstacles, but they’ve been carefully placed as not to impede your movement. It’s a speedrunners dream and honestly feels like the best movement system in a Metroidvania that I’ve played for a long time – even beating that of Metroid Dread, which had almost perfect movement controls.
The lack of combat is a little unfortunate, especially as some moves could have easily worked as attacks, but the game does at least feature a handful of boss fights. Most of these feel like rather passive affairs as you work to simply avoid attacks, but they’re enjoyable enough to break up the pacing of the game a little and offer something slightly different.
It all sounds great on paper, and really it should have been; yet there’s one major drawback that holds the game back: the world just feels so bland and lifeless. Whilst the platforming itself feels good thanks to the flawless controls, almost all the areas in the game feel identical, with only a different colour scheme to set itself apart.
Those who have played those prior titles in the franchise can no doubt attest to the fact that the Illusion games are jam-packed full of of memorable locations and exciting set-pieces. The fan favourite Castle of Illusion brings to mind giant apples, dragons, haunted mushrooms, toy workshops, and much more; but even the more obscure titles, such as the 3DS exclusive Power of Illusion contains more than its fair share of moments that stick in your memory. Illusion Island, on the other hand, contains nothing of that nature with enemies and platforming obstacles that remain pretty similar until the end credits roll. The only moment that stuck in my mind after reaching the end credits was an overly long underwater section that plagues the latter part of the game. The game feels like an absolute bore as you backtrack to and fro collecting endless keys for doors to open. Even exploration isn’t really encouraged as there isn’t really a viable backtracking system until you’re basically at the end of the game, and hidden goodies mostly consist of artwork for you to find rather than anything useful. Floating orbs can grant you with additional hearts, but the frequent checkpoint system makes backtracking seem a little unnecessary for all but completionists.
One could boil this simplicity down to being aimed at children rather than veteran gamers, but it’s hard to maintain this criticism when one compares the game to the likes of Kirby and the Forgotten Land, which not only has an easy enough difficulty to be accessible to younger games but features plenty of varied and entertaining moments to put a grin on their face.
Don’t mistake my comparison for being a slight at the game’s difficulty, however, as Illusion Island does end up being surprisingly more difficult than you may expect. Sure, the game may be a walk in the park during the first few hours, but as the game draws to a close you’ll find that it puts up a reasonable challenge. It’s not exactly Dark Souls by any stretch, but no doubt experienced gamers playing with the recommended two hearts will still lose more than a life or two – especially during the hectic finale. Inexperienced gamers can increase the number of hearts should they feel the need to, or even enable certain other assist functions to help them make it through, and I certainly feel like this flexible approach to difficulty is one of the game’s more praiseworthy attributes.
The strong foundations of the game should have made Illusion Island a wonderful return to the series. The art style, writing, and perfect controls should have set the stage for Mickey’s greatest adventure yet. Instead, we get a rather dull and generic Metroidvania that lacks any real identity or excitement to keep you invested. Perhaps playing with children will give you the illusion of enjoyment, but your kids deserve to play better games than this.