Review: Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)

The perfect game at the perfect time.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 04/09/2020 00:07 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
Editor's Choice
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Serene gameplay is transfixing; open ended objectives allow for incredible freedom to the player; tons of items to buy and arrange; crafting and customization; multiplayer is smooth and fun; wonderful score; beautiful aesthetic
Poison Mushroom for...
Crafting multiple items takes too long; breakable tools; missing premier characters like Brewster

According to the activity log on my Switch, I’ve spent a cumulative total of more than 125 hours playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild since its release in March of 2017. Apparently, in the 20 days since Animal Crossing: New Horizons has launched, I’ve roughly equalled, if not surpassed, that total. Three years versus two and a half weeks to amass the same playtime of a game as epic as Breath of the Wild says something about the compulsory nature of New Horizons. It sucks players into its world and never lets go.

There’s no possible way to extricate the circumstances of the release of New Horizons from the current pandemic sweeping the world. The planet presently finds itself in the grips of a virus that has confined the vast majority of people to their homes with nowhere to go and no clear end in sight. To say that New Horizons came at the right place and time would be an understatement. It’s a game whose gameplay loop and content is so perfect a fit for quarantine that it’s rather impossible to imagine a more serendipitous release for any publisher now or in the future.

Still, it’s not like there aren’t plenty of other simulation games with which people can occupy themselves with this eternity of free time now at their command. As any Animal Crossing fan can attest, however, there are many things about the series that sets it apart from virtually anything else on the market. Perhaps its most intriguing characteristic comes from the fact that Animal Crossing is a lot like the Seinfeld of video games. Like that famous TV show, Animal Crossing is a game about… well, nothing.

Animal Crossing is about living life at the player’s pace. There are no required objectives to complete, nor is there any explicit demand of the player to do much of anything. That could be a recipe for disaster, but the genius of Animal Crossing is that it’s not as though players are being plopped into the confines of the Mushroom Kingdom with no Goombas to stomp or flag poles to climb. This world of “do as you please” is one rife with natural beauty, friendly faces, and a whole host of activities to take part in as players see fit. It’s about leisure, not haste.

This tradition continues with New Horizons. After a brief introduction to island life with resident tanuki mensch (or gonif, depending on who you ask) Tom Nook and his sons, the player is set loose on their tropical paradise. The tutorial is brief and effective, rapidly teaching the basics of the game without overstaying its welcome. Once freed to explore all of the shores and peaks and babbling brooks of the land, players are able to spend their time accumulating shells, fruit, and other resources to either be sold, traded, or crafted.

While the objectives in New Horizons aren’t required, they’re certainly worth expending the effort to complete. Interestingly, the game has introduced the concept of two forms of currency in Bells and Nook Miles. Bells are ostensibly just straight cash, earned via selling virtually anything to Timmy and Tommy (and others). Nook Miles, however, are earned as part of a sort of meta game within New Horizons. In a clever twist, Nintendo has taken the various tasks of a day like fishing, chopping trees, talking to neighbors, and so on, and gamified them.

Thus, if the prospect of earning Bells for selling shells isn’t enough to prompt players to action, perhaps the idea of being paid to accumulate and sell said shells in the first place will do the trick. Really, anyone who’s signing up to play an Animal Crossing game is likely going to want to do these tasks regardless of whether or not they’ll earn Nook Miles. For the more sedate players it’s a great call to arms, and it also serves a secondary function which is illustrated perfectly by the first mortgage from Tom Nook.

When players get their first home, Tom Nook declares that rather than spend Bells to pay off the debt, they’ll be spending their miles, instead. This is significant because as is typically the case in Animal Crossing, New Horizons is a slow burn to start. By allowing players to use Nook Miles to pay their first mortgage, it removes the tug of war that usually exists in the early stages of building a town between saving Bells to pay for the house versus a tatami rug. With such a small home in the beginning it’s a slightly moot point, but I was grateful nonetheless to be able to lean on Nook Miles at the outset and throw my Bells around a bit more liberally.

New Horizons brings other changes to the table besides Nook Miles. The most important of which is terraforming and path creation. Players have previously found clever workarounds for the latter by using the in-game pattern designer, but the extent to which players have been engendered to create and customize in New Horizons is staggering in comparison to Animal Crossings of yore. Granted, it takes a couple weeks of dutiful playing to unlock these features, but once able to carve mountains and pave roads, the fun becomes exponentially more so.

Crafting is the other substantial change New Horizons introduces and it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that it allows for the creation of so many different items; from wallpaper to bags of garbage to countless things in between, there is a ton to make. All of this cobbling is accomplished by getting ahold of DIY recipes. They’re sold, shot out of the sky, taught by neighbors, and wash up on the shoreline in bottles, so the opportunity to learn new things to make is frequent. Still, for as fun as it is to gather supplies and build stuff (as well as customize it), the whole process is slightly sullied by the relative scarcity of certain material drops.

Perhaps the biggest mark against crafting is that it extends to the player’s suite of tools, all of which must be hewn by hand. They also, frustratingly, break. The mechanics certainly fits the theme of living on an island, and at first it’s not too much of a headache. With not a lot to spend money on in the early part of the game, the demand on tools is moderate. As New Horizons progresses, however, the need for Bells skyrockets and proportionally so too rises the use of shovels, axes, and so on in the effort to generate funds. Having to stop to make a new slingshot for the thousandth time really begins to grate. It also doesn’t make much sense— my island has paved roads and a fire-breathing kaiju, yet even at this advanced stage my bug catching net can only ensnare so many moths before it turns to dust? Why? I have failed to divine a reasonable answer.

There are some other blemishes in the form of New Horizons‘ UI that also can’t be overlooked. The game is perplexingly arbitrary in how it handles inventory. Adding rooms to the player’s house increases inventory space, but putting on a backpack, somehow, does not. Frankly, why there’s a limit on inventory at all is unclear. Crafting multiple of a single item simultaneously would be a welcome quality of life adjustment, as well, as would being able to see what items have been purchased and are on the way in the mail. Predominantly, these complaints aren’t game-breakers, but if corrected they would serve to make New Horizons an even better time.

Even with these quirks, New Horizons remains a great experience; in fact, it’s more accurately described as an incredible one. The aesthetic is stunning. From the smallest of details like water pouring from a faucet to the larger ones like the translucency effects on the ocean water lapping at the shore, all of it is lovingly rendered. New Horizons is not a visual powerhouse like Luigi’s Mansion 3, for instance, but the care with which the game world has been brought to life is undeniable. I’ve spent many an hour appreciating New Horizons‘ glorious sunsets and marveling at the clusters of items lining my utility shelf. There’s also an enormous array of clothing articles to buy, much of which I would actually purchase in real life if given the opportunity.

Multiplayer is arguably one of the strongest achievements of New Horizons. Since we’re both confined to our homes, my girlfriend and I have gone on multiple virtual dates on each other’s islands. I’ve also spent a ton of time traveling to visit the islands of friends and family, chatting with everyone using the Nintendo Switch Online app. During these troubled times, it’s been a godsend to be able to connect to others through New Horizons. From a gameplay perspective, it’s also a tidy way of getting ahold of items that haven’t arrived in my island’s store, as well as exchange items and resources directly with other players. It can be a trudge waiting in line to fly to someone’s island, but the process is easy and smooth, otherwise.

A couple lingering thoughts about New Horizons before signing off: I miss the marquee characters like Brewster, Cyrus, Booker, and many others that have yet to appear in the game. There are rumors about some of them coming back as DLC, but until then this talk is purely conjecture. As it stands, there are too many classic faces missing. There’s a lot of incredible work being done with the design tools in New Horizons; I’ve loved seeing famous developers like Matt Bozon (Shantae) and Jools Watsham (Mutant Mudds) creating and sharing designs on social media, for example, along with the incredible fan contributions, too. The overhead editing tool from inside the player’s house should have been incorporated outside, as well. The score is sublime.

I could go on and on about New Horizons‘ numerous virtues, but I have fruit to harvest and islands to visit. I look forward to spending the next year, at least, building up my community. With additions like terraforming and crafting, the player’s capacity for expression and customization is greater than ever. Coupled with a huge array of neighbor animals to form bonds with, as well as activities to partake in, New Horizons will keep players busy for a very long time. Times are tough for many right now, but perhaps a trip to this digital world will be enough to offer some respite from the storm that is reality.

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