Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)
Nintendo Switch | Nintendo
The last mainline game in the Animal Crossing series was New Leaf, way back in 2013. Needless to say, with all the years, change in consoles, and major graphics overhaul, New Horizons was highly anticipated by fans and newcomers alike. It also happened to come out at a great time, right before the COVID-19 quarantine set in – I suspect this game is responsible for keeping a lot of people (myself included) sane at home. If you’ve been living under a rock, or are maybe secretly just 9000 bees in a trenchcoat, you might not know what Animal Crossing is; the core of the series sees you living in a town full of cute animals, running in real time. Your only goal is making your town the very best it can be. New Horizons sees you jetting off to a deserted island, and building up your town from scratch. It’s the most wholesome take on a resource-stripping-shameless-capitalism-simulator that you’ll ever experience. With bug net, and/or fishing rod in hand, you’ll have to earn bells, make friends, master the art of DIY, and most importantly, pay off your debts to that pesky raccoon.
The “gentle progression” style of New Horizons (and the series generally) is one of its more notable aspects – each day, there will be new options available to the player, as they continue to grow their island community. The beginning of the game can feel a little slow, when you’re living out of a tent with only two villagers to interact with, but this changes quickly with effort and patience. Though the struggle to get 30 Iron Nuggets is very real, once you start upgrading Nook’s Cranny (your local shopping center) and get the museum on its first legs, a plethora of new avenues begin to open. You can start choosing plots for new villagers, upgrading your humble abode (for an arm and a leg) and funding public projects, like bridges and inclines. While these forced waits may be frustrating for some players, I personally didn’t mind the slow progression, and waking up each morning knowing that something new would be waiting in my village, Windfall, for me.
The core gameplay of the series hasn’t changed much beyond catching fish and bugs, but thanks to a multitude of improvements, these pastimes can prove to be a lot more rewarding. With the addition of the Nook Phone, and Nook Miles system, the player is presented with more incentives to engage in these activities around the island. Nook Miles are earned by completing significant tasks around the island, and are earned slightly less often than the Nook Miles+. The constantly changing list of daily Nook Miles+ (smaller goals), like selling fruit for bells, or talking to neighbours, will earn you a smaller amount of Miles per task. These Miles can be exchanged for DIY recipes, items to place around your island, or tickets to visit far-off Mystery Islands. Mystery Islands are crucial for collecting building resources, like wood, and Iron Nuggets, as well as other island necessities, like fruit, flowers, and of course, new villagers. Being able to choose which villagers to invite back to your island is exactly the level of obsessive, micro-managing control I needed out of this game.
In order to prove to said villagers that your island is a hotspot for animal living, you’ll have to decorate your island because #aesthetics. Building DIY projects is a huge part of New Horizons, and a staple in this particular title. With a seemingly neverending list of DIY recipes to find, you can craft anything from fences and benches, to clothing and items, like a literal moon – because why not? As long as you have the resources, that is. Collecting these recipes is a pastime in and of itself – anyone still looking for that Ironwood set? But being able to craft your own furniture and clothing is a huge step-up for the series. It encourages interacting with villagers (who will share their recipes), combing the beaches, and shooting down those elusive balloons for new things to craft. The DIY recipes add an entirely new element to the vanilla gameplay of Animal Crossing. The only misstep here is the lack of a “craft multiple” option; while at a DIY bench, you must craft each recipe individually. So when I need to make 15 bags of Fish Bait, I need to go through the process 15 separate times, which is fairly frustrating. This seems like a bit of an oversight, and would certainly have made the crafting process a bit more streamlined.
Despite these few hiccups, the majority of New Horizons is better than any Animal Crossing title before. The sheer amount of customization options in the game is phenomenal. Everything from the fabric patterns on your beds and chairs, to the wood colour of your benches can be changed using customization kits. The creativity this allows for is staggering – you only have to check social media to see players posting tours of their islands, or custom designs to get inspired. I can’t imagine any two islands or houses looking even remotely similar, and it blows me away what some people are able to accomplish. The huge graphical step-up since New Leaf truly highlights the atmosphere of the game, and makes decorating and exploring even more enjoyable. Interacting with your villagers is just as fun as it always has been (my new favourites are Dom and Sylvana) and they’re cuter than ever before.
Another way to customize your island comes with the addition of terraforming – the ability to change the cliffs, and waterscapes of your island. Terraforming adds an incredible amount of options in terms of creating your dream island layout. Adjustable rivers, ponds, and cliffs add a whole new dimension (pun intended) to truly making your island your own, and is a feature that seems sorely lacking in older titles. Though the actual mechanics of adding cliffs and rivers is quite tedious (it involves adding every square slowly, and painstakingly – and god help you if you’re accidentally looking the wrong way and fill in the puddle you’ve just created) but it’s a welcome functional overall. Along with terraforming comes the ability to select where your stores, museum, and villagers have their housing plots. No longer will your villagers destroy that flower plot you’ve been obsessively tending, or take over that space you’d been saving for a fountain. You can also go back in later (for the modest sum of 50,000 bells) and move their houses, if you change your mind. Unlimited power!
New Horizons functions similarly to older titles, in the way it incentivizes players to spend some time on their island each day. There’s a special character around that changes daily, from Label, to series-staple Gulliver. There’s messages-in-bottles to find, new things to buy, and islands to visit. If you’re subscribed to the Nintendo Online service, you can even play with friends, and have them over to your island, or visit them on theirs. Unfortunately, the Island mini-games from New Leaf are missing in this title, so you won’t have quite the same number of options for entertaining your guests (you can’t travel to Mystery Islands together either) but it’s still nice to have these connections. You’ll also have to depend on friends to trade with, as some specific items cannot be customized and are set in colour, unique to different islands. If you want all the fruits, flowers, and more item options, you better convince your fellow players to lend you a hand.
While New Horizons does have a few disappointments, where the gameplay doesn’t quite go the distance, it’s an overwhelming improvement for the series. Graphics, gameplay, and mechanics have all stepped up for the Nintendo Switch generation, and it’s truly stunning. Just check out the museum! Though the slow and measured real-time gameplay may prove frustrating to some players, it’s a forgiving and encouraging way to experience everything your island has to offer, day by day. The new inclusions of terraforming, and customizing furniture ensures that the possibilities for molding your home and island are nearly endless – I’m still blown away (overwhelmed, occasionally) by the sheer amount of options. The control players now have, by selecting the locations of villager plots, and choosing who to invite, is a very welcome change. With new updates and inclusions being added in future, for holiday events, and the return of old characters, New Horizons can only get better. I’m looking forward to how this game will evolve (vive la hedges!) and how my island can improve. I have tiny animal villagers counting on me, after all.