How do you revitalize Animal Crossing? Many may argue that this question is built on a false premise and that’s fine. For me, every gimmick they’ve bolted onto each subsequent release couldn’t mask the fact that I’m still catching fish, talking to villagers, and paying down a mountain of debt in the same ways that I did on the GameCube decades ago.
Much of what’s defined the franchise still persists in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, right down to how annoying it can be to cast your lure at the exact angle. Even so, I find myself completely enamoured with this Switch iteration thanks to a host of quality-of-life improvements.
Traveling to islands isn’t necessarily a new concept within the world of Animal Crossing. But in New Horizons, you, Tom Nook, and a pair of NPC villagers take on the challenge of settling down in a deserted island. Riddled with weeds and completely devoid of infrastructure, you’re tasked with building just about everything, right down to the tools you use on a regular basis.
You get an unprecedented level of control for an Animal Crossing game. You can choose between different island layouts before settling down. Build bridges in spots that make sense for the way you traverse the map. Control where every house and shop will be built. Eventually, you’ll unlock the ability to terraform the vast majority of the map to your heart’s content. All of these additions are fantastic additions that make sense within the context of the game’s overarching plot.
Beyond the macro changes to the island, you’ll have the ability to make tools and decor thanks to its crafting system. Foraging for wood, sticks, and rocks among other resources, you’ll ultimately build tools that help you build items that will make your own house pretty while helping others get started on their new life within the island.
Further strengthening the urge to craft and engage with everything the game has to offer is its Nook Miles mechanic. Basically everything you do in the game is tracked within its in-game achievement system. Each time you complete an activity, you get Nook Miles, which can be used to buy items or take one-off trips to even more exotic islands. Traveling to different islands is a great way to gather resources that aren’t native to your place. You might even meet new villagers that could move to your island. Over time, the allure does wear a bit then when you start to see new things less frequently with each visit. Even so, it’s a great way of generating more money and gathering more resources.
One aspect of this crafting system that may be a point of contention is the fact that almost all of your tools are breakable now. Though your starting axes, nets, and shovels aren’t quite as flimsy as your starting swords in Breath of the Wild, you will be breaking and rebuilding tools every time you play. You can unlock recipes for better tools and you can eventually buy flimsy tools and strengthen them vs. foraging for branches every time, but I can see this being a divisive inclusion.
Even with its quirks, the combination of crafting and Nook Miles goes a long way towards fleshing out the Animal Crossing gameplay loop. When I would play these games, I was done after 15 minutes of talking to my neighbours and gathering things to sell. New Horizons introduces more to do while providing players with a whole host of quantifiable goals to work towards beyond completing your house and collecting one of everything.
More quality-of-life updates go a long way towards ironing out longstanding issues within the franchise. Using the D-pad, you can quickly grab your desired tool instead of fishing it out of your inventory every time. Extra pocket storage can be unlocked, giving you even more room to carry things. Being able to place items outside gives players way more opportunities to decorate and style the entire landscape however they want. And thank goodness that a specially-designed room editor is finally in place, allowing players to quickly move items around their rooms with a pointer vs. Having the character drag everything around.
Multiplayer isn’t necessarily new to the franchise, but there is a new way to play thanks to local multiplayer. Up to four local players can live on the same island and play at the same time. It’s a neat inclusion, but it does have serious consequences beyond being having help in scavenging wood.
During the first week-or-so of play, there are a few “story objectives” that must be completed to unlock the next phase of the island’s initial development. This includes tasks like building the museum and providing furniture to new arrivals among others. Only the first player who set up the island can partake in any of these tasks. For Steff and I, that meant she would gather resources or build furniture when she played, at which point I would jump in on my account and complete the rest. It’s unfortunate that this key content is gated off in this way for the sake of maintaining a one-island-per-console structure.
You can also play online with friends, though the system is pretty clunky. At first, you have to share a Dodo code with those you want to invite to your island, as apparently the standard Nintendo Switch friend code isn’t enough. Then players fly into your island one-at-a-time, pausing everyone’s progress as you watch a friend fly in. This gets even sillier when your session is over as guests can only leave one-at-a-time as well.
I find that communication is paramount for having a good time playing Animal Crossing online. You get access to an in-game chat feature, though typing is a bit clunky using the controller. If you happen to have the Nintendo app on your phone (which is handy for scanning custom designs into the game), the in-app voice chat is actually pretty decent. Odds are, you’re better off with an external solution such as Discord. I wish there were more ways that players could directly interact with each other beyond hitting each other with nets, but being able to host your own impromptu fishing competitions, trade furniture, or gather resources as a group is neat.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t exactly a dramatic shake-up to the formula. Most of what you’re doing is the same stuff that players have been doing since the GameCube games. But with the addition of a few more major things to do, an extra level of control, and an overarching achievement system that provides constant direction and rewards, this is hands-down the best entry in the series to-date.
Clunky aspects to the experience at almost every turn, but it finally feels like Nintendo found a framework that makes New Horizons feel like a complete game in ways that its predecessors didn’t. Sessions that used to run for minutes at a time can easily got for hours now. if you decide to take the one-way trip, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is bound to keep you engaged for many months to come.
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