A good Nintendogs clone with a twist of Walt Disney World.
Nintendogs with Disney characters. That's the best way to describe Disney Friends. It's a fair description, and it might not totally do the game justice, but if you've played Nintendo's virtual pet sales megalith you can pretty much figure out what to expect.
I'll admit that I didn't have huge expectations for this game; after all, there have been more than a few Nintendogs clones that were nothing more than simple cash-ins. Disney Friends could have been one of those virtual pet games, intended to simply be carried aloft by the strength of its brand. Thankfully, it is not.
I suppose it probably isn't Disney canon to use the term “pet” to describe the characters in the game. Given the nature of the game, it was my first inclination. However, I'll try to use the word "friend" to describe the characters who I have to feed, pet, entertain, and even tell when to go to sleep. In that respect, they're just like my real-life friends.
In Disney Friends you are recruited, by an insistent Tinkerbell, to be "guardian" for a cavalcade of Disney characters. Being a "guardian" is not unlike owning a copy of Nintendogs, because that's essentially what this game is. When you start the game you are given access to a single pet…er friend, the green alien from Toy Story. The alien really isn't a fully fleshed out…friend; he's more like a training dummy. Tinkerbell guides you through various interactions, explaining the mechanics of the game. After completing her tutorial you gain access to your first full friend, Stitch, from Lilo & Stitch. The game also features Simba (The Lion King), Dory (Finding Nemo), and Winnie the Pooh.
The friends themselves are excellently presented, with each having a distinct character. The game certainly treats the properties with the respect they deserve. They all behave like their film counterparts, and in doing so provide considerable entertainment. Stitch is hyper-active and destructive; Dory is high-spirited but forgetful; Winnie the Pooh is also forgetful, and soft-spoken; Simba is prideful, and a bit aggressive. By matching their film sources the game gives itself a distinct character and separates itself from the other games in Nintendogs' long shadow.
As you interact with your friends your relationship with them goes up. Increasing your relationship with a friend earns you "Guardian Points," which grant you access to new, character-specific places to take your friend, and eventually new friends. It doesn't take very long to unlock every friend - I did it in about two hours. Getting every location and completing the challenges - each location has one challenge - takes a few more hours beyond that. The game offers a store to buy toys and clothes for your friends, and various trinkets to unlock as you play the game.
The interactions are almost completely done via the touch screen. You can pet your pe…friend by stroking them with the stylus, and chastise them by jabbing them with it (I found that it's best to have an iron grip on your friends). You can also buy toys for the two of you to play with, play a character’s touch screen mini-game, visit other characters from the friend's franchise to compete in challenges, draw with your friend, and write a song for your friend to sing. There is also voice recognition support, so you can tell your friend to sing and dance, or simply say their name until they announce that they're "busy." It's not bad as voice recognition goes, but if you have problems you can select all the options from a list and the game behaves as if you had said it. All in all, the interactions are well-executed.
They do have their drawbacks, however. Some of the mini-games are reasonably fun (such as creating a city skyline out of toys for Stitch, playing the role of Godzilla, to knock down), but most are pretty basic and repetitive. Some of the timed mini-games go on far too long. It's also a bit too easy to make your friends happy. You can simply pet them most of the way up their "happiness gauge," say "Hello" a few times, and maybe take them on a field trip to fill their gauge. As long as you remember to feed them during those interactions you're probably good for the day. In a change from most virtual pet games, you're not punished for missing a few days. Despite using the real-world clock of your DS, the game's friends' issues (hunger, boredom, loneliness, and tiredness) only build-up when the game is running.
As stated previously, most interactions take place on the touch screen. Petting your friends, interacting with toys and scenery, and navigating menus are all done via touch control. Beyond the occasional moments when the touch screen reacts strangely (which has more to do with the DS than the game), it works well enough. Movement through the 3D environment is done via the D-Pad (with strafing mapped to the L and R triggers), while the face buttons serve to open up menus. Lastly, the microphone is used to issue commands or interact with your friend. In pieces it all works well enough, but as a package it isn't perfect. The main problem is that you’re constantly shifting between using the D-Pad, face buttons, and touch screen. With only two hands, this requires shifting the stylus around to access the buttons, which is a bit of an annoyance.
Disney Friends’ visuals are very impressive. The entire world is 3D, and while the compartmentalized world means the areas tend to be small, there is a lot of detail to be found. Fluttering butterflies, wandering secondary characters, and environments designed to evoke the feel of each franchise all add a nice polish to the game's backdrops. The character models are perhaps even more impressive. They're well detailed and animated, and many times two characters are on the screen at the same time with no degradation in smoothness or animation. The only flaws are occasional glitches that happen when multiple events occur at once. For example, if you get an item out of your inventory it floats in front of you so you can grab it and use it. However, if you take an item out just before your friend rushes towards the screen (to hug you) they'll pass right through whatever you took out and block you from using it. Despite these oddities, Disney Friends' visual presentation is right up there with some of the better DS games.
The game’s audio is not quite as good as its visuals. It features top-notch voice work, but is rather bland in every other category. Each friend has a large library of recorded phrases, most of them apparently delivered by the original voice actor. They’re of good quality and they come across cleanly. However, the sound effects aren’t very noteworthy, and the music is forgettable. The lackluster musical score is especially disappointing, since Disney cartoons are known for their musical numbers. None of the music in this game is really all that impressive.
On top of its standard "virtual pet" mode, the game features online play. In this mode you compete against friends (via friend codes) or random people in some of Disney Friends' mini-games. You can choose to play any single mini-game or pick "all" if you want to really play for a while. I was able to connect, but unfortunately I was unable to find an opponent. That said, based on my single player experience with the mini-games, online play probably isn’t very compelling.
Disney Friends is a quality take on the "virtual pet" genre. By not simply trying to get by on brand or on the recent upswing in genre popularity, Amaze Entertainment ended up doing justice to both the Disney brand and the genre as a whole. While some mini-games are shallow and repetitive, and it doesn't take very long to see all the game has to offer, the effort that went into the game's production is evident. If you're a Disney fan you'll probably find something to like here. If you like virtual pet-style games and are sick of Nintendogs, there isn’t much new here but the game's unique character makes Disney Friends a decent choice. If you happen to be a fan of both, then this game is made for you. Everybody else should probably look for gaming fun elsewhere.