++Review: Disney Infinity

Disney Infinity is an absolute disappointment. I was excited beyond measure when it was announced. Being a huge Skylanders supporter and fan, hearing that a similar franchise was emerging, but with the Disney characters, worlds, and brands, my hair stood on end with electric anticipation. What I got was, instead of a fun, wonderous romp that hearkened back to my choldhood and awakened my inner-child, a flat, corporate punch in the stomach. “Disney Infinity?” More like “Disney Ad Nauseum.”

One word kept running through my mind, from the time I turned the game on, to the time I turned it off in disgust: ‘soulless.’ It felt like “here’s the happy music, here’s the corporate voice over, here’s the darker music denoting villains are afoot, here’s the Toy Box” all cut from a canned expectation of what ‘Disney’ is, instead of inspiring me to continue forward with genuine awe and wonder. It expects that “I’m Disney” is enough to keep me interested; meanwhile in any given Disney film, the fact that it’s Disney means there’s a level of polish, fun, and clean morality that puts me in touch with my humanity, and the humanity of others. This game is more presentation than an interaction, exposing you not to wonder and childlike amazement, but to a thin veneer, easily cracked; and it carries this vibe throughout the game, in its entirety. The unifying element among all of the Disney characters being brought together in the same place is that they’re all toys in a toy box, and just like actual toys, this leaves the game feeling as plastic as the figures themselves.

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It isn’t you I don’t like, boy-O’s. It’s the game.

Disney Infinity (XBOX 360 [reviewed], PS3, Wii, Wii U, 3DS)
Developer: Avalanche Software
Publisher: Disney Interactive
Release: 08/18/2013
MSRP: $74.99
Words: James Bacon

Let me get this straight right out of the box. I implied it above, but I prefer to state it without room for interpretation: I love Disney. I love Disney/Pixar. I love nearly all of their animated features, and should they produce a film I don’t ‘love,’ I still manage to like them pretty well (The Emperor’s New Groove, for example; not their best, but certainly still enjoyable). I do NOT verbally harass Disney in any way, shape, manner, or form for the sake of it. I do not adopt a “they’re a faceless, emotionless corporate entity” mentality in order to justify digs I make. I don’t make those digs, and I rather love the company.

Also, I prefer to write positive reviews. If you comb back over my body of work, here, at ++GG, you’ll notice I tend to score high. That’s because I have the luxury of assigning my own workload, and I tend to write about the games I enjoy, while not malingering on the ones I don’t. This industry, the gaming press, is rife with naysayers and abject hatred. It’s ‘cool’ to not like popular things (Call of Duty, anyone?), and disapproval is what the flavor-of-the-week trends stick to. That is not what is contained in this piece. This review is prompted by sheer disappointment to a point where I could no longer contain it. This is a wake up call to Disney, because I want them to be better.

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Let’s begin with the good, because it isn’t all bad. The character designs are wonderful. In fact, any game with characters designed as plastic figures would instantly pull me in (*cough*Skylanders*cough*), so it’s no wonder that Disney franchises re-envisioned as plastic playthings, with this unique, unified, chunky design aesthetic was incredibly endearing. To the point where I stood in line, repeatedly, at E3 2013 for a chance to win some of the figures before the game’s release. Even if I don’t ever play the game again, I will still strongly consider continuing to collect the figures, because having a tiny, chunky Jack Skellington or Davy Jones on my work desk tickles me.

Another tick in the ‘good’ column is the simple gameplay… when you’re playing though the Play Sets of familiar worlds. Each set is a platforming level of mild difficulty wherein you can hunt down extra toys for the Toy Box, complete quests for familiar characters, open vaults (assuming you own ALL of the figures that pertain to that Play Set), or hunt down world-relevant collectibles for ‘special rewards,’ which really just amount to more options for Toy Box mode. Unfortunately, those same Play Sets are an example of sandbox gaming gone wrong. It feels like Avalanche Software was attempting a Grand Theft Auto approach to the NPC quest-givers, but in such confined spaces as the Play Sets tend to be, it comes off as superfluous and hackneyed. Sparce, even, if you can even believe that. For a time, at the beginning of each of the playsets, you follow characters and complete quests in a set order order, but once you’re through with the into and the Play Set ‘opens up,’ the disparity between goals and lack of honest-to-goodness cohesion makes the game, in this area, fall flat on it’s face.

It is true that each character unlocks new features in each Play Set, but this amounts to a simple, repeatable challenge. Just one. And the reward for completing all levels of these challenges are merely coins to spend on character items in the Toy Store. It’s not a bad feature, but often it’s a bit meaningless, unless a quest forces you to purchase a particular item.

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Unfortunately, all of the nice things I said about the simple gameplay go right out the window in Toy Box mode. You’re supposed to be able to realize your imagination within the vast space that makes up the Toy Box… IF you can get through the convoluted menu system, first. Placing tiles and object is as simple as moving them with the thumb-stick and pressing ‘A,’ and the depth of variety of piece is certainly surprising, but finding those pieces in the horrendously organized, cumbersome menu-dump, as I’ve come to call it, is enough to make you quit before you’ve ever even placed your first item. If the Play Set controls are adequately simple for a child’s enjoyment, and they are; then the obtuse complexity of the Toy Box menus completely and totally nullify that. You can’t tell me this is a game meant for children of ANY age, when 80% of the entire experience is buried beneath needless encumbrance.

Also, the controls are, to heap more distaste upon this giant pile of disappointment, ‘gummy.’ Again, for as simple as the gameplay is in the Play Sets, a smartly responsive control scheme should have been the expectation. What we got was floaty jumping, off-putting camera issues, and terribly confusing platforming. Crisp, near-instant action as the result of control input should never be sacrificed, especially for platforming, yet here we are.

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Funny enough, I’m glad I got it. I waited for it to go on sale ($65 dollars on Amazon.com), and the vast majority of figures I own were given to me at the Disney booth from this past E3, so my investment is nominal. The figures, themselves, are charming, and I have absolutely answered my curious calls about it by ponying up and playing it. It’s just a shame those calls were answered with wonky controls, mucked-up menus, and canned corporatism. As it is, I’d’ve rather held on to the money to pick up the newest entry in that other physical figures based series… but who knows. Maybe Infinity will grow on me. Then again, at $13.99 a pop for single figs, and $34.99 for Play Sets, I think I’ll save my cash.

Verdict – 5.5 (+Ungood): Though the design of the characters and the visuals of the distinct Disney worlds are absolutely spectacular, the directionless, open-world-ness of the Toy Box is daunting and frustrating, and new “toys (read: textures, border pieces, floor tiles, and sometimes actual toys)” having been sprinkled throughout the characteristic Disney worlds hampers the wonderousness of the creation tools, and the murky, complicated menus dampen what should be a fun, SIMPLE experience; while the “questing” system leaves much to be desired. The most obvious comparison is to Activision and Toys For Bob’s Skylanders franchise, but I assure you, Skylanders this is not. I say wait for Swap-Force this holiday season.

I wanted Disney Infinity to be Little Big Planet meets Skylanders… I got neither.