Disney Infinity starts with a floating spark. It's an ember of imagination that gathers other little glimmers as it begins piecing together―with a wand-waving, soaring, musical charm―a whole host of colorful Disney characters that we all recognize. There's Wreck-It Ralph with his oversized galumphy fists and Woody straddling his faithful stead Bullseye. Jack Skellington waves at us, dressed in his boney best, and the smiling speedster Lightning McQueen salutes with a rev of his engine. Rapunzel sighs and Mr. Incredible flexes. And, of course, Mickey Mouse looks out over it all with a knowing royal grin.
And that, in a simple introductory reel, is Disney Interactive Studios' wish-upon-a-star goal: to give House of Mouse fans a magical bedspread on which they can unfold worlds and set up adventures with a toy box full of characters to play with. For the Mickster understands that if you give kids (or those who are still kids at heart) a box full of toys, they'll build up quests full of childlike joy and jump-and-run glee. Then they'll knock everything down and start all over again.
Oh, but you may not have heard his squeaky mouse voice mention, with the music swelling so grandly behind him, that your piggy bank will feel the full weight of filling your fabled toy chest. (And we'll talk about that more in a bit.)
Where Some Have Gone Before
We've seen the mechanics and action figure focus of this creative little game before, of course. It's the same kind of concept that's featured in the Skylanders games. Players place a plastic action figure on a special console-connected platform, and that allows them to play as that figure in the game. It also saves all of that character's progress on a memory chip in the figure's base. So if you're in the thick of things with that big blue closet-dweller James P. Sullivan on your PS3 at home, you can snatch him up and jog next door to pick up where you left off on your buddy's Wii.
Another similarity to Skylanders is the fact that there are no messy-bloody battles or nastiness to worry about in the gameplay. Some characters do battle baddies with a sword or pistol, such as Jack Sparrow packs, but fallen enemies merely disappear amidst a scattering of coins and health-regenerating stars. Even if you go out of your way to wreak destructive havoc in these semi-open sandbox worlds, the AI characters giggle it off as silly rambunctiousness. And the fences, phone booths or water towers you break soon regenerate.
There are, however, some distinct differences between Disney's concept and that of its cartoony dragon-figure competitors. For one thing, Disney Infinity is divided into two complementary parts: Play Set and Toy Box.
The Play Set is a series of mission-based, character-driven adventures, each with its own unique challenges, quests and puzzles. Each with its own bits of baggage, too, since not all of Disney's franchises are squeaky clean and without problems. So if you're still playing as Sulley, say, you'll be on the grounds of Monsters University, buying toy gadgets and plotting TP-the-trees raids on rival Fear Tech. If you're playing Mr. Incredible you'll be bashing Syndrome's robot charges. And as Cap'n Sparrow you'll be climbing the yardarm and sinking pirate ships at sea.
That means you can't be playing along as the quarrelsome cap'n and then suddenly substitute, say, your rootin' tootin' pal Woody into a piratey adventure. Each figure has his or her own world to play in, and only characters from that world can join in. Mr. Incredible joined by his loving wife, Elastigirl, in a two-player quest is no problem. But Jack Sparrow teaming up with Tonto―as the game's commercials suggest―just ain't gonna happen in the Play Set worlds.
The Brimming Toy Box …
Where you might be able to set that kind of arrangement up is in the Toy Box area. This segment of the game is where your imagination really gets cranking (especially for teens-and-up players). In Toy Box you use the collectable goodies that you find throughout your Play Set adventures, and from those bits you build an imaginative playland all your own.
There aren't any real rules or scripting to this part of the game, just a lot of unexpected giggles. You and your invited buddies can lay down racetracks, build buildings, set up walls, design castle corridors, create enemy encampments, launch fireworks, you name it. And then when you throw your characters into the action, the rambunctious fun can include anything from shoot-me-out-of-a-cannon challenges to a speeding twisty-turny road race to a little sword-fighting practice between Jack and, well, Tonto. Your adventures are limited only by the characters you own and what you can collect in the Play Set lands.
… And How You Fill It
Now, Disney's diverse stable of products presents a bit of a special challenge to parents when considering a game like this. Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, is not exactly an equal with Monsters, Inc. Toy Story is not the same as The Nightmare Before Christmas. So how much characters in Disney Infinity might draw kids toward certain movies and ideas is certainly something worth considering here. And … while I encountered no foul language or vicious-feeling battles in any of the adventures I had, this is one of those games that could haul off and sock Dad's wallet with some pretty hard smacks.
Disney Infinity is a wonder of contemporary video game marketing, actually. The initial starter set comes with the base game and a trio of personality-packed figures in the form of the aforementioned Jack Sparrow, Sulley and Mr. Incredible. But there are already, as of this review, 14 other characters available for individual purchase (representing Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, Monsters University, The Incredibles and The Lone Ranger). Twelve more are promised, from the likes of Toy Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Wreck-It Ralph, Phineas and Ferb, Tangled and Fantasia. And after that, there are still scores of places Disney can go for even more.
You don't have to purchase any of those other characters, of course. You can even stick Cap'n Jack down in the bottom of your sock drawer before handing the rest of the game over to the kiddos. But then there are quests they won't get to complete, familiar figures they're deprived of holding, worlds they'll never visit, building blocks they can't collect … and disappointment you won't be able to avert.
I'm just sayin'.