Few would dare argue against the importance of Disney’s heritage. Whether as a fledgling studio in its formative years coming up with shorts featuring Oswald the Rabbit and later Mickey Mouse, as an innovator of cartoon cinema or as a purveyor of outstanding CG in partnership with Pixar, Walt Disney’s animation powerhouse rightly has a history that most companies would be jealous of. As such, it is a pretty tall order of any medium - book, game or film alike - to achieve a quality befitting of the Disney brand. Disney Universe is the latest attempt in gaming, following last year’s excellent Disney Epic Mickey; have Eurocom and Disney Interactive Studios delivered a beauty or a beast?
Disney Universe is presented as a celebration of the company’s past and present output, though it’s disappointing to see just two films plucked from each of Disney’s numerous arms of work. The Lion King and Aladdin represent animation, Monsters Inc. and Wall-E guard the computer generated branch, while Pirates of the Caribbean and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland round out the package on the live action front. Set in a virtual theme park, these worlds are simulated for visitors to enjoy...until the systems are hacked and corrupted, leaving behind chaotic areas that need to repaired by a line-up of vigilant park visitors.
These would-be heroes take the form of brightly coloured children, each combat-ready and prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their preferred Disney lore. They are purposely light on distinctive looks, as another of Disney Universe’s key selling points is that each character is dressed up as one of over 40 different Disney idols, from a range that spans further than the reach of the numerous worlds. These costumes are very LittleBigPlanet-inspired, with large, exaggerated heads encapsulating the wearer’s, leaving only their face exposed as with the PlayStation 3 series’ headline character Sackboy. It’s all about the aesthetics when it comes down to it - gameplay is the same whether you’re grinning ear-to-ear as the Cheshire Cat or flapping your tongue as Lilo and Stitch’s little blue terror - but it’s a cute hook, and players are sure to pick their favourites in no time.
Sadly, when it comes down to how it all plays, Disney Universe falls short of the company’s legacy despite a few bright sparks. The game very much owes itself to the LEGO titles, taking the same basic set up and wrapping it in a generous layer of Disney fluff. Up to four players can run and jump around the various worlds battering enemies with super-simple child-friendly combat, solving puzzles that rarely move beyond ‘shift item A to point B’, adjusting wheels and levers or firing cannons, and collecting dozens of golden Mickey Mouse emblems to spend on treats and new worlds later. It’s impossible to fail; characters simply respawn with a little less money every time they ‘die’, which is good as it’s a fairly common occurrence. Once the goals have been fulfilled it’s through the portal and on to the next stage. Right at the end of each of every worlds’ three levels you’ll face a boss fight or larger puzzle, the completion of which will reward you with the unlock of a new costume by way of rescuing a fellow park guest.
It’s all been seen before, and it isn’t helped by the fact that some of the stages are really lacking. The Pirates of the Caribbean levels in particularly, introductory though they are, are uninspired compared to the recent LEGO bash at the same franchise, and it’s only once you’ve gathered up enough gold to buy a new world that Disney Universe starts to look up. It’s a game of trial and error which universe you unlock, though - you can explore them in an order of your choosing - as some fall short where others excel. With the price set at 2000 coins a time, you could end up stuck playing through a world you don’t enjoy just to gather up enough money for the next one if you make an unfavourable choice. While there are disappointing stages, however, there are also fun, inventive ones that push that bit further than the rest. Both the Pixar areas, Monsters Inc. and Wall-E, evoke the best reaction, with the former’s use of the film’s magical door portals as platforms, obstacles and new paths being a huge highlight.
During these levels you can uncover new areas slightly off the beaten path to grab collectables that are relevant to each world but serve the same purpose overall; picking up three of them will unlock a treat such as a piece of artwork in the extras section (though art work is disappointingly of a size roughly equivalent to a postcard while the rest of the screen is taken up by border and user interface). Wall-E’s findables are Buy n’ Large meals, The Lion King’s are slimy yet satisfying grubs, and so on. By exploring the little that you can, it’s also possible to uncover keys and unlock treasure chests to gather character-upgrading stars to help the journey along. Subsequent playthroughs of the levels will reveal new objectives to keep you coming back, too.
Just as the core gameplay is inspired by the LEGO video games franchise, Disney Universe takes another brick from the bucket of TT Games’ series in incorporating co-operative play as a key focus. It’s far more fun for best of friends to dash around than solo, and the multiplayer comes across just as competitive as co-operative; both play styles encouraged by the game’s opposing ‘park managers’. Any power ups collected, from Hercules’ stony-staring Medusa head to space-age ray guns, can be used equally as well on other players as enemies, so there’s plenty of room for mucking around. Each player is ranked at the end of each level also, based on how many times they have had to respawn, the gold they have collected, etc., so it becomes a battle not only to finish levels but to also get one over on your buddy.
There is a contrast in Disney Universe’s approach when it comes to the challenges that turn up throughout. Most of the time the game is at pains to reassure players and offers small incentives to push them along, including collectables and pointer arrows guiding the way, but all bets are off when one of the little arcade cabinets shows up. The strictly time-limited asides range from destroying a certain number of enemies, picking up enough coins or avoiding obstacles and prove to be welcome distractions, but in opposition to the rest of the game’s attitude it seems odd and discouraging that the inability to complete one results in the player being told outright that they have failed with no opportunity to retry and redeem themselves unless the level is played again.
Very easy to get to grips with, featuring simple combat and puzzles, and very friendly for kids and co-op play. The worlds can be hit and miss, however; some are excellent, while others fall flat.
The developers have found a style that is friendly and carries well over the numerous Disney eras represented here.
Some excellent remixes of Disney music, making for a simultaneously familiar but new score.
Disney Universe can be blasted through fairly quickly, but thanks to a number of collectables, co-operative play and the need to complete each level twice to unlock all costumes it retains some replayability.
When it differentiates itself Disney Universe comes across well, but the problem is that it just doesn’t happen enough. The gameplay is clearly derived from the LEGO titles, while costume presentation comes from LittleBigPlanet, all given a Disney coat of paint. The game has its highs, such as the Pixar stages and co-operative play, and generally panders well to younger players, but with only a scant fraction of Disney’s back catalogue represented there’s very much a feeling that Disney Universe could have and should have been much expanded to include more of the company’s history, especially in lieu of completely original gameplay.