Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review – Island solitude or beach party?

Reviewed on March 30, 2020

Platform:

Switch

Released:

March 20, 2020

Publisher:

Nintendo

Developer:

Nintendo Entertainment Planning & Development

Animal Crossing is one of those series that’s hard to describe. I mean, it’s a game that consists of wandering around a small map while collecting fish and bugs to pay off your home loan. Trying to explain why it’s so fun to others can be hard. Animal Crossing is just… a little bit of everything. A bit of exploring, a bit of fishing, a bit of life simulation, and a lot of home design. But all those little bits fit into something beautiful, with ongoing entertainment that lasts months, even years.

New Horizons brings everything we loved from the previous Animal Crossing titles to the Switch, with some upgrades and new features that (for the most part) blend seamlessly with what was already there. What’s more, it paves the way for an online community for players to share their creativity and help each other develop their islands.

Animal Crossing titles have a recurring starting formula: arrive in a new town, get a house, and introduce yourself to the animal neighbours. From then on, the world is your oyster: apart from the vague goal of fully upgrading your house, there really is no win state for the game. Simply play until you’re satisfied. New Horizons expands this formula in a way that improves on almost every aspect of the experience, making for what is perhaps the perfect laid-back life simulation game.

Unlike in previous titles, you don’t buy your bug net, fishing rod, or shovel – you make them from the materials found around your new home. You’ll soon build up a repertoire of “DIY recipes”, allowing you to craft a broad range of furniture and homeware items. And with the new customisation options, there are now more ways than ever to ensure that your home and island is totally unique. But there’s still heaps of fun to be had in scouring through your shops for those rarer items that are swapped out daily.

Crafting keeps itself simple, with most items only needing materials that can be readily found on your island. The rarer items are more complicated, but it never gets too complex. My fear that crafting would make the game lose focus from its shopaholic roots proved unfounded, as there’s still plenty to spend your bells on.

Almost every aspect of the series has been given a facelift, in both graphics and gameplay. The game looks and feels great, and with the power of HD your dream home can be fully realised with full-size, detailed furniture. Surprisingly, the prize for best glow-up goes to the critters you can catch across the island, in particular the sea life. I took many a trip to the museum just to look at them, something I’ve never done before.

Villagers look like adorable stuffed toys with their colourful and vibrant designs. Until New Horizons, you would find villagers simply wandering around the town, sometimes holding a fishing rod or net. While there’s still some aimless wandering, they’ll also chill out under trees, appreciate the flowers, read a book, and plenty more. Though they’re still sorted into a few personality archetypes, they don’t seem like the same 5 characters with a different face slapped on like they used to.

“Spending only a week with New Horizons has allowed me far more control over my town than what New Leaf provided in five years.” 

As for the meat of the game – designing and decorating your island – well, it’s simply fantastic. It’s as if Nintendo looked at the previous titles and thought, ‘let’s give ’em everything they asked for’. You can finally place furniture and items virtually anywhere outside. You can choose where each building is built, including the houses of your future neighbours. You can even change the landscape of the island itself to your vision. It’s the most control we’ve had in the series ever, and it feels great. Spending only a week with New Horizons has allowed me far more control over my town than what New Leaf provided in five years.

In spite of these major upgrades, there are still some irritating aspects of the older games that feel outdated. Animal crossing still clings to its infuriating “pockets” inventory system – if your pockets are full, you can’t pick anything up or make anything new until you dump some of your stuff. Animal Crossing: New Horizons gives us more space than any previous game in the series, but it remains irritating. And given that a hefty portion of your pockets must now be used to house various crafting materials, it doesn’t take long before you have to pause the fun to empty your pockets. Your house has a bit of extra storage space, but you’ll take frequent trips back to your house just to craft another fishing rod, which is a loading screen I just don’t want. A limited inventory plus crafting mechanics just don’t mix, and I can’t help but feel like the whole inventory system should have been ditched in favour of something more suited to the new mechanics.

I have a similar problem with the two new tools, the vaulting pole and the ladder. What begins as a novel way to scale rivers and cliffs soon becomes an annoyance when you have to change tools constantly just to get around. New Horizons introduces the Tool Ring as a quick method of swapping between tools, but it doesn’t have enough slots to fit everything you’ll likely be carrying. And until you can build bridges and inclines (which will take some time) you need to use them constantly.

These are mere gripes, however, and are quickly forgotten in the face of everything else that makes the game great. Here’s something else worth a mention:

While the initial character creator directs you to choose between a typical male/female appearance, the game never alludes to this as a choice between genders: it’s purely about looks. Eye shapes and hairstyles are open to all players, and NPCs won’t so much as bat an eye if you choose to go around wearing an article of clothing that doesn’t happen to align with your outward ‘gender’. New Horizons simply lets you be you, which is incredibly refreshing for a Nintendo game.

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Is it best played alone or with friends?

Animal Crossing: New Horizons recommends you play alongside some friends, but it’s totally possible to go it alone too. A lonesome experience with just yourself, the ocean breeze, and some fuzzy NPCs may be just what the doctor orders if you need to take some time off. Or you can turn your island into an open party, a playground for you and your friends. Both are valid ways to play, each with their own benefits and downsides.

If you choose to indulge in island life all on your own, you can tune out the outside world and forget that anything but your little patch of sea exists. You don’t need to worry about how other people are playing the game, what their turnip prices are, or if they’ve ‘cheated’ by changing the time on their Nintendo Switch. It’ll take longer, but you can still get your hands on all the different types of fruit, bugs, and furniture your heart desires. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing that everything on your island was made, collected and paid for by you alone. This is how I played New Leaf, and it was a cathartic getaway for a stressful time in my life.

But I will admit, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was definitely intended to be played with others. Simply racing about each other’s island and discovering what they’ve decorated it with is fun all on its own, and the new photo mode makes snapping photos of your shenanigans a breeze. Playing side by side with a group means you can share resources and send each other crafting recipes and items, making for a great communal experience. There’s always something to do on your friend’s islands, be that buying from their shops or making a wish on their sky of shooting stars. Basically – no matter how much fun you have playing alone, playing alongside at least one or two friends will double it.

On the other hand, more friends means more of a time sink into what is already a game made to be played daily. You can start to feel pressured to play every day just to check your shop, check your turnip prices, collect enough materials to make that one item for your friend – and it also means having to battle with Nintendo’s online system.

As is too often for Nintendo, online sessions aren’t exactly smooth. Visiting someone’s island takes several minutes of saving and loading – something everyone else needs to suffer through while they wait for you to arrive. Nintendo hides it well under a cute cutscene, but it doesn’t take long for the distraction to wear thin. And woe betide anyone who accidentally puts their Switch in sleep mode: you’ll be kicked from the session and everyone else will lose their progress. Luckily, I have too much fun playing online for this to bother me much.

Special mention must be made of the unique community created by Animal Crossing fans. In the hours after launch, social media was alive sharing pictures of their islands, and excitedly discussing what villagers, fruit and flowers their island had generated. The excitement was infectious and has encouraged a steady stream of conversation, memes, and content on Twitter (possible spoilers on this link).  A week past launch and a plethora of player-made designs have hit the internet for anyone to scan into their game, including clothes, paintings, and custom footpaths for your town.

So give the Animal Crossing: New Horizons social experience a try. Look into the community and discover a whole world of inspiration. Compare turnip prices on a message board and take a trip to a stranger’s town to sell your turnips. Download some QR codes that inspire you to make your town even more unique. Talk to your friends about your vision for your island, and enlist them in tracking down the items you need to make it happen. Return their favour in kind, and send them a cool item. I promise you won’t regret it.

9

Amazing

Positive:

  • The best Animal Crossing to date
  • Fantastic all-round improvements
  • Looks and sounds great
  • Great to play alone or with friends

Negative:

  • Some annoying holdouts from previous games
  • Nintendo still hasn't figured out online play

Animal Crossing: New Horizons sets the bar for casual life sim games. If you’re after heart-pounding excitement, this ain’t it (except when you shake down a wasp’s nest). If you want to get the blood pumping, maybe try the other big release of the week, DOOM Eternal. But if you want a relaxing lifestyle experience that’ll last you years, I can’t recommend this enough.

In these difficult times we’re in, I’m glad Animal Crossing: New Horizons is there to help me hang out with my friends and loved ones. It’s the perfect game to play if you’re going to be stuck inside for a few weeks. There’s always a reason to switch it on, whether that be shopping, crafting, or getting silly with some friends. Happy relaxing!

Animal Crossing: New Horizons