Animal Crossing: New Horizons review – life in paradise
The Nintendo Switch invites you to get away from it all on a deserted island, in what is the ultimate Animal Crossing experience.
For almost 20 years now Nintendo has been selling essentially the same game every time a new console comes out. That’s a complaint some, who don’t play them, make about most of their titles but with Animal Crossing it’s always been true, to the point where even the most recent 3DS version was clearly still using assets from the original N64 game. But Animal Crossing: New Horizons is different. In fact, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is one of Nintendo’s best sequels ever.
The underlying gameplay is the same as always, but for the first time ever a genuine attempt has been made to expand the original idea into something like its full potential. The premise is that arch-capitalist Tom Nook has convinced you to relocate to a deserted, randomly-generated island. There is no overarching goal, other than perhaps to expand your house to the largest size possible, and instead you’re free to potter about living a happy, stress-free life on an island with your friends – both the real and the virtual kind.
To many, that no doubt sounds impossibly boring and pointless but the fact that the game has gone this long without any major change is proof enough of its appeal. Animal Crossing is essentially a life simulator, but unlike The Sims you’re controlling a single character rather than imposing your will, god-like, from above. You’re encouraged to beautify the island, make friends with the animal inhabitants, and fill out the museum with fish, insect, and fossils but the real allure is living in a world without conflict, hardship, or global pandemics.
Actually, whether there’s no hardship or not is open to interpretation, as you turn up to the island penniless and with not much more than a sleeping bag to your name. In the traditional manner of Animal Crossing, you earn money (bells) by collecting and selling fruit, fish, and anything else of value you can find. That’s still true in New Horizons but now you can craft things as well. So while the more complicated high-end goods still need to be bought you can make most basic furniture and tools yourself by using a DIY recipe and chopping wood, mining rocks, and acquiring other more unique resources.
Not only are you making many of the basic items yourself, but everything is much more customisable than before. Many objects have multiple variations in terms of colour and design and, because human characters are more realistically proportioned, clothing now has many more options and alternatives. Your home can also be customised more exactly, with a simple 3D interface that lets you place objects with a cursor – closer to how The Sims works.
You’ve more options to do the things you usually do in Animal Crossing but for the first time there’s some proper structure to your virtual life. If you’re stuck for inspiration you can go and talk to Tom Nook and he’ll usually have a suggestion, and, especially in the first few weeks, what amounts to missions. For example, at one point he asks you to choose plots for new homes and fill them with specific items, in order to try and entice more people to the island; all of which involves many happy days of building and foraging.
On top of this is a wide range of in-game Achievements that reward you with Nook Miles. This is essentially a second currency which is used to purchase rarer and more unique items; so even when Tom Nook doesn’t give you a specific idea you’ve always got something to aim for.
We’ve had the game for just over two weeks before writing this review and unlike the glacial change of previous titles it really has been a new thing almost every day. That surely can’t continue, but we’ve gone from an island with a couple of tents on it to one with multiple inhabitants, a museum, various shops, a camping site, and more. New people either move in or pass by every day and the pace of revelations has been surprising and highly satisfying (cockney nipper Kicks turned up today for the first time, as we write this, from who we bought a crossbody bag and a pair of paw slippers).
Because the game is locked to a real world calendar and clock (you can choose north or south hemisphere but still everything happens in real-time, so it’ll be December till it starts snowing on our island) we couldn’t physically get any further in the game but at a preview event at Nintendo we saw glimpses of how you can terraform the layout of the island itself, although we’ve already got to the point in our own game where we’re trying to fund a new communally-paid bridge.
Another big change to New Horizons is that you can now set-up objects wherever you want outside. There was a move towards this in the 3DS version but now there’s no distinction between what can be set up inside or outside your house. This greatly expands the scope of what you can do and the degree to which you can personalise your island, especially given the design editors that let you make your own patterns (but which weirdly refuse to use the touchscreen even though you can type by touching the screen in handheld mode).
We’re not ones to usually be bothered about video game spoilers but we really would try and stay away from the flood of YouTube videos that are going to start appearing this week, as meeting an unexpected new character or obtaining a previously unguessed at ability or item is a significant part of the appeal. For example, the official trailer at the bottom of this review is from an island that seems to have been going for months – much longer than we’ve had – and while it gives a good indication of what’s possible we would advise caution before viewing it.
As for multiplayer, that wasn’t switched on before launch, but we did get a chance to try it at the same Nintendo preview event. You can have up to eight people living on the same island, with up to four playing at once in co-op (one person acts as leader and the others get teleported back to them if they wander off). You can also have up to eight people online, although you must be designated a special friend before you’re trusted to start landscaping someone else’s island.
There’s no voice chat except via a smartphone, which is very Nintendo and one of two areas where the game still has obvious room for improvement. The other is the animal inhabitants, which are the one element of the game that doesn’t seem to have changed much at all. You have only very limited communication options with them and they don’t have much in the way of artificial intelligence, so we found ourselves paying them relatively little attention most days – as charming as their dialogue can often be.
The only other flaws are that the fishing seems to have got a bit too easy (or maybe we’re just too good at it now) and the irritatingly long load times when entering or leaving a building. Which is a shame as otherwise the game is a lot more technically impressive than you’d expect, with genuinely good graphics and some very impressively detailed objects.
Animal Crossing started off as essentially an offline games as a service title, decades before such things were even thought of. Despite the promise of live updates that’s still essentially what it is now, and we know we’ll be playing it for months, perhaps even years, after launch. New Horizons is easily the best entry in the franchise but more than that it is also, purely by coincidence, an extremely well-timed game.
As so many face the prospect of self-isolation and months of worry this is a game that concerns itself only with the opposite. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is about being a good neighbour and improving the world around you, while enjoying the simple pleasures of companionship and artistic expression. It’s only a video game, but the wholesome ideals it promotes are portrayed with such earnestness they may even inspire you in the real world.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons review summary
In Short: Animal Crossing finally gets a sequel that moves the franchise forward, in a surprisingly timely release that is perfect for this year in terms of both its gameplay and its philosophy.
Pros: The crafting is an excellent addition, as is the greater control you have over the landscape. Structural additions work well and the mountain of content is consistently charming and surprising.
Cons: Even with co-op the multiplayer seems underdeveloped and the animal inhabitants haven’t changed much. Long loading times and strange touchscreen restrictions.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Release Date: 20th March 2020
Age Rating: 3
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