COVID-19 can take away our in-person interactions, but it can’t stop us from traveling to exotic islands and chatting with anthropomorphic horses, darn it!
On the surface, Animal Crossing seems downright Seinfeldian, a game about nothing as you waste you time wandering about a tiny digital locale. Veterans of the series, however, know that the true joy of Animal Crossing lies in playing the long time: Bringing in new vendors, recruiting new residents, and generally crafting the idyllic community of your dreams. After spending roughly a week with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, it’s clear that this game comes the closest of all the games in allowing players to realize this goal.
There are not actually a ton of “new” features within New Horizons, but it’s the improvements upon existing features that really stand out. For starters, just being able to move around the island is much easier: You can craft items early on that allow you to vault across rivers and scale ledges, letting you get from point A to point B much quicker than in past series (no more following the river halfway across town to cross the one freaking bridge you’ve got). You’re also given a lot more control over where things go on your island: Not only will residents happily let you choose where you live (no more surprise move-ins nullifying a week’s worth of landscaping), but everything from the shops to the museum are moveable as well. (Eventually, though I’ve yet to unlock this, you will also gain the ability to build/destroy cliffs and re-route rivers, giving you mastery over darn near every grain of sand on the island!) Finally, visitor interactions can be restricted as well, keeping ne’er-do-wells from ruining all of your hard work. This not only gives you complete control over how your island takes shape, but also induces you to spend more time in-game laying things out—after all, anything you create now has a much lower chance of being ruined later! (Hmm…I’ve also noticed the New Horizons doesn’t give you those “you’ve been playing too long; take a break” messages like New Leaf did. Is Nintendo just trying to take over our lives?).
The biggest new addition thus far has been the crafting feature, which allows you to build furniture, tools, and other items out of raw materials found on the island.The good news is that raw materials of nearly every sort can be found in abundance (unless you do something really dumb like I did, which was immediately smashing all my rocks not realizing I could just whack them with a shovel to get iron nuggets), so you should always have the necessary materials on hand to complete your DIY projects. The projects themselves are fun to complete (you can even use the junk you fish out of the river to create decorative items!), and the customization kits you can apply afterwards let you give your items a personal finishing touch. (Instead of having a plain, boring rocking chair, I now have a darkwood rocking chair that reminds me of my grandmother’s old rocker.) The bad news, however, is that the price to pay for tool crafting options is tool durability, or more specifically the lack of tool durability: The nets, axes, and fishing poles you make (especially the flimsy early-game ones) are forever breaking on me, causing me to miss out things like rare bug captures simply because my net just snapped from catching a common yellow butterfly. I didn’t like the weapon-breaking mechanic in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I don’t like it here because it forces you to waste time and space by continuously going back and crafting new or backup items. (Thankfully, this doesn’t apply to all tools: Poles and ladders don’t break because doing so could leave you stranded!)
The island-visiting feature returns from New Leaf, but it’s both more and less interesting than it was previously. This time around, islands are basically loot boxes for you to plunder, and while that can helpful from a resource standpoint (I had to get my iron somewhere after destroying all my rocks), I really miss the minigames from the New Leaf islands. Those games really broke up the monotony of the slow town buildup, and gave you something fun to do with friends (more on multiplayer later). Still, I liked how they doubled down on theming the random islands: I haven’t made it to the tarantula paradise I see on Twitter all the time, but I did land in emperor butterfly territory (4,000 bells a bug!) to replenish both my cash and iron reserves. (Having random villagers around to recruit is a nice touch as well.)
Speaking of money: Bells are again the main currency of the game, but there are also “Nook Miles” that you can earn for completing various tasks on the island (you even earn them if you get KO’d by a tarantula) and redeem for island visit tickets or special Nook Inc. items. When you eventually join the Nook Miles+ program, you are continuously given random tasks (selling items, spending money, planting trees, catching fish, etc.) to complete for small mile bonuses. It’s an interesting concept, but I’m not sure why they had to make the distinction between Bells and Miles, as they both essentially serve the same purpose. Why not just convert everything to Bells and base your economy on that? It’s a harmless design decision, but one that feels unnecessary.
Decorating your home is much more delightful now thanks to a couple of new additions:
- The new room-arranging mode (where you just click and drag items to position them in your room) is a welcome addition, freeing you from the burden of manually dragging around furniture to get your house looking just right (and having to pocket items temporarily or push them out of the way to make room in the meantime).
- Storage (and a fairly generous amount of it) is given to you automatically upon upgrading from a tent to a house, rather than forcing you to buy a secret storeroom from Tom Nook to hoard your billiard-ball T-shirt collection.
- Placing items outside you house is allowed now, so you can organize your hammocks, lawn chairs, and birdhouses where they can be enjoyed in the wild (and save precious indoor space for other items).
The villagers themselves are interesting enough, but all of the personalities carry over from past games and can be a bit repetitive if you get two or more characters with the same one. Generally I find that no matter how crazy or strange I think a character looks at first glance, they eventually grow on me and I refuse to ever let them leave my island. I wouldn’t say they add a whole lot to the game, but they can be a nice distraction and a helpful source of items and resources in a pinch. (Hopefully they bring back the hide and seek games from New Leaf!)
Real people are far more interesting than NPCs, and New Horizons expands the number of players that can visit your island at once to eight, multiplying the amount of shenanigans you can get into. You can use the “best friends” option to separate known quantities from rando sketchies that might vandalize your island, further encouraging people to interact and check out each other’s creations. That said, the number of things you can do together are a bit limited so far—my friends (being the nice people that they are) gave me a whole bunch of resources to get started, but there wasn’t much we could actually do on the island. Also, the text chat functionality for the game is beyond clunky (you’re much better off using Skype, Discord, or whatever workarounds you’ve come up with to deal with Splatoon 2 communication). It’s cool to show off your designs and check out the work other folks have done, but I wish there was more interactive things you could do in-game. (I’ve heard mixed reviews about local multiplayer for the game, but I haven’t had the chance to try that out myself.)
My one major critique of the game is that is feels like it takes a while for things to really get going. Tools are released at a surprisingly slow rate, meaning you can’t fully explore your island for several days while you wait for your chance to craft vaulting poles and ladders. I understand that one of Nintendo’s modus operandis is to avoid overwhelming the player at all costs (think about that ludicrous 10-day unlocking period at the beginning of Super Mario Maker), but I’d kind of prefer them to give me all of the tools upfront and just let me play around. Otherwise, you find yourself bumping into walls all the time and wishing you could just cross this river or scale this height and see what else lay in waiting for you. For all the control Nintendo eventually gives you, they sure take their sweet time doling it all out.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed my time with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, as it once captures that “one more _____” magic that the Switch’s best games (Mario Kart, Splatoon, Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey) all bring to the table. You can easily lose yourself for hours doing nothing but chopping wood and catching butterflies, all the while building an Instagram-worthy paradise for all your friends to marvel at. In this time of social distancing and curve-flattening (Editor’s Note: Stay home and wash you damn hands), Animal Crossing is the sort of chill interactivity we all need more of right now (even if I’d prefer activities that are more, you know, active). I know I ragged on the lack of excitement in The sheer scope of customization and control given to the player let’s you engage as much or as little with your island as your want (I didn’t even touch on the custom design functionality in the game, mostly because I’m not much of an artist and thus haven’t tried it yet), letting you craft the exact experience that you desire. Given that the calendar for 2020 still seems a bit sparse and we’re all going to be stuck indoors for a while,spending $60 to build a coronavirus-free utopia and get a reasonable facsimile of human contact is a worthwhile investment for Switch owners.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I still need to build some furniture for that last house lot…