"The perfect antidote to lockdown and social distancing. "
Itís hard to imagine what it wouldíve been like to face a global pandemic without Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Originally set to release late 2019, the game was delayed until March 20, 2020, just as people around the world were being told to stay at home and practice social distancing. Itís hard for me to separate this game from real world events, so Iím not going to try. This gameís cultural impact really cannot be understated. At least in terms of gaming.
I live alone, and I am among a large percentage of people who lost their jobs during this time. I think I may have lost my mind if this game did not come out when it did, and I know Iím not alone. I could forget I was cooped up in my small one-bedroom apartment with no one to talk to, because I had a tropical paradise to call my own Ė I could walk along the beach, catching fish or simply experiencing the waves crashing against the against the rocks, I could walk among the trees during a strong wind on a moonlit night, watching the leaves shaking. Iíve experienced thunderstorms Ė an ominous dark sky punctuated by heavy rumbling of thunder and bright flashes of lightning. The high definition graphics and amazing sound design create a very immersive experience. Why would I need to go outside?
Your island is populated by an ensemble of cute animal friends to talk to. Youíll start with only a couple until you can prepare plots of land for incoming residents (fans of previous titles rejoiced that new residents wouldnít just plop their houses down on your hybrid flower garden). With hundreds of potential animal villagers in the game, your starting group will be unique to you. I probably talked to them out loud more often than I realised, fully embodying the role of my silent protagonist avatar.
New Horizons starts out differently to previous Animal Crossing titles. Instead of moving into an already established town, you will fly to a deserted island as part of a getaway package. Here youíll meet your first two animal neighbours, plus Tom Nook and his two employees, Timmy and Tommy. You can choose which island you want to travel to, and even see what the native fruit is (some players of previous games would reset the intro repeatedly until they got the layout/fruit they desired, so itís nice of the developers to make this less of a necessity). You can also design your avatar with a proper character customisation tool, rather than your appearance being nonsensically generated based on the answers you give a cat on the train.
Once you arrive on the island, youíll start a weeklong ďtutorialĒ phase, where new mechanics are unlocked over time. Advanced players might roll their eyes at some of the simple things Tom Nook asks you to do, but there are enough changes to the Animal Crossing formula that it is still enjoyable. One of the main changes is the resource and crafting mechanic. You can chop wood from trees, mine stone, clay, and iron from rocks, and use them to craft tools and furniture. Your early tools will be flimsy, prone to breaking after a small amount of uses. I can understand this mechanic in the early game when resource management is a thing, but three months later, it is incredibly annoying to always be crafting or buying new tools. I donít know whose bright idea it was to take the worst feature from Breath of the Wild and stick it in a non-action game. Even the top tier golden tools can break, and gold is too rare a resource to waste on something disposable. Please address this, Nintendo.
Crafting opens so many possibilities to personalise your island and your house, and most items even have further customisation options, such as changing the colour or pattern. New Leaf dabbled with this idea, although it was very limited. Once youíve done a lot of crafting, however, the clunky user interface gets in the way, seemingly designed to slow you down. If you want to craft something, you first need to look at the recipe (that you obtain from various sources), check the resources you need and ensure they are in your inventory, then interact with your crafting table, confirm you want to craft, find the recipe, craft the item. It feels like there should be a way to do this with far fewer button presses. It would also be nice if the crafting table in your house could automatically link to your house storage, so you donít need to manually retrieve resources. There should also be options to craft multiple items, such as fish bait. Please address this, Nintendo.
Nintendo have been supporting New Horizons with updates. Glitches are patched, but it seems like the developers are more willing to make changes that prevent people from cheating (i.e. duplicating items) rather than implementing QoL changes that would make the game more fun. The reason this game does not support cloud saves is dupers would exploit it. I find it odd that Nintendo thinks stopping a few cheaters is a higher priority than giving their players peace of mind regarding the islands theyíve spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours on if their file were to become corrupted, or their Switch lost or damaged.
Iím aware of how negative Iím being towards this game. I love it to pieces and could sing its praises all day, but you donít spend four hundred hours playing it without getting annoyed at some of its faults and picking apart the questionable game design choices the developers have made. If I had reviewed this game back in March or April, I wouldíve been much more positive, but the depth of my love and understanding of the game might be more superficial. Writing this in June, the honeymoon phase is long over. We fight. Itís okay. This game is built around a live service model, with updates promised for three years. In a few months or even a year, a lot of my criticisms might not even be relevant. But if they are, Iíll keep complaining about them.
In the three months since release, Nintendo has provided multiple updates to the game, adding in new features and timed events. The events have ranged from aggravating (Bunny Day flooding the island with eggs), to inconsequential (Museum Dayís stamp cards which can be completed in five minutes). Weíve only had one major content update so far, about a month after launch. All it really did was add previous features back into the game that were absent at launch, such as the art gallery in the museum, Crazy Reddís black market, and Leifís gardening shop. As it stands right now, New Leaf feels like a much more complete experience as everything was available in the game from day one, even if some things did take a month or two of play to unlock. There hasnít been any word of new content updates at the time of writing this, but Nintendo hasnít been dealing with the Ďwork from homeí situation well, so I wouldnít be surprised if any planned additions have been postponed.
There is enough content to keep myself and other players going, though. New Horizons has a plenty of addictive new features to make me log on every day. Nook Miles is an achievement system where you receive points for completing goals, which can range from catching fish to attending K.K. Sliderís live music shows on a Saturday night. There are also shorter goals which are easy to complete and will continue generating goals until you decide to ignore them for the day. The first set of goals will usually reward you with multiplier bonuses on points. Itís an addictive gameplay loop, and a great way to keep track of your in-game accomplishments over time. The points can be redeemed for a variety of things, such as special outdoor items and DIY recipes, new fence types, and other useful features.
The biggest leap forward New Horizons brings to the series is the ability to completely customise your island. You can place any piece of furniture outside, replacing the costly and limited ďpublic worksĒ system from New Leaf. Youíll unlock a variety of fences so you can partition off sections of your island as you see fit or give your villagers proper yards. You can also lay down a variety of paths on the ground, which is a very welcome addition. In New Leaf, people would drop patterns on the ground to make a path, so itís great to see the developers responding to this need and making it a feature. Lastly, the terraforming tools allow you to completely change the layout of your island - you can move rivers and mountains. My island looks completely different to the island I started on, and Iím thinking of redesigning it soon. In previous games, when you became bored with your townís layout, you either lived with it or you deleted everything and started over.
Iíve enjoyed shaping my island and seeing my animal neighbours come and go. A different special visitor lands on your island every day Ė old favourites such as Saharah the rug selling camel, or newcomers like Flick or C.J who will buy bugs and fish at a higher price and craft special models of said bugs and fish. Sometimes Celeste the Owl will wander your island and night if thereís a chance of shooting stars, and sheíll hand out Zodiac or space themed DIY recipes if you talk to her. If you have a close community of friends to play with, you can invite them to your island, or visit theirs. While most of these visitors will show up once every week or two, you can often catch them on a friendís island as well. Most of us will drop whatever weíre doing and travel to a town if Celeste is there.
I was able to reconnect with some online friends, some of whom I used to play New Leaf with until they moved on. I wasnít just developing my own island, but I was also watching the evolution of my friendís islands, too. But like most things I like about New Horizons, there is a but coming. The online functionality of this game is clunky and outdated in true Nintendo fashion. Opening your gate to visitors, or flying to another island, is a drawn-out process. Youíll need to navigate annoying dialogue trees with multiple steps of answering questions. Every time you fly to an island, youíll be treated to a cut scene of your plane flying over their island, giving you a nice birdís eye view.
What you soon realise is that while this is happening, any players currently on that island must stop and watch a flight information board of your plane taking off and landing. If there are lots of visitors on an island, the gameplay will stop and start constantly for minutes at a time as people leave and arrive. If you try to fly to an island and someone else is flying (or someone on the island is doing something), youíll get an annoying error message and be forced to try again over and over. The game doesnít even bother to put you in a queue. If there is one aspect to New Horizons that needs attention, it is the online mode.
Players are expected to make their own fun in multiplayer. You can visit another personís island, talk to their villagers, shop at their stores, catch fish and bugs (a bonus if they live in the opposite hemisphere to you), but there are no mini games. New Leaf had island tours with a variety of mini games you could enjoy with friends, but that is conspicuously missing here. Still, in the year 2020, weíve been making the most of what we have. Iíve heard of people holding weddings or graduation ceremonies in game due to lockdown. YouTube shows have even popped up, such as one guy who built a talk show set in his house and interviews celebrities who play the game.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is an amazing game, despite some questionable design choices. I still play it every day even after three months, but Iím not playing 6-8 hours a day like I was in the first few weeks. Iím down to an hour or two a day, eagerly awaiting news of any updates that might hook me back in. Right now, my island is blanketed by snow, because Nintendo finally lets players choose which hemisphere they live in. For the first time, the seasons in game match my reality. My island changes day by day, month by month, season by season. Iím looking forward to the vibrant greens of Spring and Summer, and the new bugs and fish that it will bring. Iím also looking forward to how much this game will grow and change and hopefully improve over the next few years.
Featured community review by jerec (June 13, 2020)
On very rare occasions, Jerec finds a game that inspires him to write stuff about. The rest of the time he just hangs around being sarcastic.
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