In 2001, Nintendo launched Animal Crossing: Population Growing, a small social simulation game where players could interact with animal characters in their own village environment. 19 years later and the Animal Crossing franchise has grown stronger with (almost) each release. The franchise has changed locations, but the main concept of the game has stayed relatively the same over time and the latest iteration, “New Horizons” stays true to the original ideas of the first game. For any hardcore fan of the series, you will still find something new, hopefully within this review. But for those who have never ventured into Animal Crossing… you are in for a real treat!
New Horizons expands from it’s direct predecessor “New Leaf” which saw you as the mayor of your own town. This time however Tom Nook, the tanuki businessman quietly profiteering from your endeavors, has designed a getaway island adventure for the player. This creates the first change from previous AC games. Character creation has moved from being determined by answering a series of personality quiz style questions to simply being able to select your facial features yourself. The added bonus to this is you can also do this anytime, once you have the desired piece of furniture to do so.
After an opening cut scene where you arrive at your chosen island with two other randomly chosen characters and enter what can only be described as the tutorial section. Setting up home for yourself and your other companions while you get introduced to your new features. The idea that you are going to be doing a lot of the leg work yourself quickly becomes apparent. Could this be your own personal castaway paradise?
The design of the game has always been to promote your own path. You do what you want, when you want it. But as always there are some helpful hints to guide players into certain aspects of the game. In New Horizons not all of your island is accessible to you at first. But following the goals laid out, this quickly changes. You are introduced to the basic controls and how to collect various items scattered around the island. These will form the basis of the games newest mechanic, crafting! Using Tom Nook’s crafting bench (and for free I might add) you are able to build flimsy versions of staple tools such as the net and fishing rod.
As the game progresses you will uncover more and more resources, as almost everything you interact with on your island now has a purpose in game. Whether it’s as a crafting item or something that can be sold, you will quickly fill your inventory with items. Your tent has the ability to store more items and you can sell items to Timmy and Tommy who first set up in the resident services tent but eventually move into their own premises, with homage to the original game included.
The crafting system links the items you collect, with DIY cards that instruct you how to build certain items. These cards can be bought, found or gifted by characters and cover a wide range of furniture and clothing items. Taking the requisite resources to any crafting bench, be it Tom Nook’s or one you fashion for yourself, enables you to fashion whatever items you have access to. You can then use these to decorate your home, the wider island or simply sell or gift them to others. Once your shop is established, some crafting items earn double their value when sold as a “hot item”. If you collect enough of certain items you even start to come up with your own DIY recipes.
Eventually as time and confidence builds you will be able to design and customise items in order to make your own personalised items which you can sell or gift. This has quickly blossomed into a huge area withing the New Horizons community and there and many people sporting their nods to popular culture in their clothes and homes, their patterns can often be passed on using QR codes or by simply looking very closely while copying the pattern.
The staple mechanics of Animal Crossing are still well and truly established within the game though. You use the tools you have crafted to catch insects, fish and dig for fossils and buried treasure. Again, what you collect has a wide possibility of uses. Keep what you catch and build your own personal aquarium in your home, donate the insects and fossils you collect to Tom Nook, who passes them onto his owl friend Blathers, eventually persuading him to move to your island and finally to set up his museum (more on that later). Or simply sell it for your own gain.
A big issue early on is your inventory. Whilst a limited inventory is common in Animal crossing games, it still creates issues early on when trying to clear out and collect resources for crafting. A big part of this is the limits on how many of each item you can hold in each inventory slot, for example 10 pieces of fruit, before another slot is used. The reason for this becomes clear when you go to sell items, there is no way that i have found to sell 1 piece of fruit and save the remaining 9 for example. This means you can sell your items in set numbered blocks, but means your inventory fills quicker than you would like. there are also items such as fish, that don’t stack at all. This means frequent stops to Nook’s Cranny or the museum to drop off your latest finds. The addition of a dropbox feature allows you to skip the dialogue of selling items, but at a cost of reducing the value of your items by 20% and not being paid until the following morning.
Selling items is however a big part of the game, as you quickly discover when you realise you are living in constant debt to Tom Nook. Whether it is paying off your initial island getaway fees, or upgrading your tent to a home (or indeed subsequent renovations) you are bound to his debters log for all eternity. Unlike real life however, there is no interest on the loan, and no pressure to maintain payments, so if you are happy with what you have, then so is he.
Eventually you unlock the ability to explore more of your island, acting as a level progression of sorts. During the narrative, you develop the ability to vault over the river that, no matter which island you choose, intersects your paradise and makes it difficult to explore further. This opens up a wider area of forest, lakes and beach in which to gather and collect, but it also provides opportunities to test further features, such as the glowing spot. This progresses further when you are given the ladder, enabling you to reach higher areas and again more resources in the island.
The game offers the minimum of hand holding throughout. You’ll often see a present flying by, held up by a balloon for example. Those uninitiated in the ways of Animal Crossing would struggle to immediately realise what item is needed to retrieve it and will only find out by talking to residents, gaining the knowledge needed to craft a slingshot, and then use it to retrieve said present. This is just one example, but there are other areas of the game where some of the fun is finding out the secrets, especially for those new to the franchise. Discovering how to grow a money tree for the first time, or what to do if you see a shooting star, or a washed up character is all part of the game’s experience.
Another hugely popular aspect of the game is the museum. This has to be one of my favourite areas of this particular game for the sheer beauty of what Nintendo have put together. The museum becomes unlocked after donating so many specimens to resident curator Blathers. Who in return for your charitable donations, gives you a museum that wouldn’t look out of place in one of the major cities in the world, let alone a small deserted island! The three categories are still present, display bugs, fish and fossils in their relevant areas for the wider community to enjoy and increase the cultural capital. As you wander through the building each area has it’s own unique charm, the bug area is like walking through a botanical garden and the fishing area an aquarium that would put most real life establishments to shame. Each donated animal credits the player with their donation and you can spend hours simply watching the surroundings. In fact a number of friends in this current world climate have taken the opportunity to treat the museum as a day trip in itself.
The game does so much without having to do much at all. You are so quickly immersed into the environment that your only limit is your imagination and the required resources to complete the job. Whether your goal is to create the most beautifully floral landscape for your community, or to harvest fruit trees, or decorate your own home, there really is an aspect of the game that anyone can take and make it their own. The residents joining your community are regularly wandering and often will want to talk, share DIY cards or pass on hints and tips to progress your game, and if you are still struggling for ideas, Tom Nook provides a “what do I do now” function to remind you of the current goal and give you suggestions of how to complete the objective. You are frequently visited by characters whose goal is to introduce something new to the player, or to provide some distraction from the main game and all of these are rewarded in some way to encourage interaction.
Where the gameplay lets itself down here, and this is a minor issue, is that there is a lot of in game conversations that are repeated, but unable to get through quickly. A good example of this is when talking to Blathers to donate fossils. There is no quicker way than talking to Blathers, asking him to assess a fossil, him telling you that you have something he wants, engaging in dialogue again to donate the fossil, selecting the fossil and listening to him tell you he is accepting the fossil. This dialogue is very tedious after the first few times and takes you out of the experience while you wait. This also comes into play when trying to set up some online play, but again, more on that later.
This leads into the reward system in game, which has been crafted by some genius mastermind to almost perfect efficiency. On arrival at the island you are informed of Tom Nook’s latest reward program, “Nook Miles.” An obvious play on the Air Miles reward scheme, Nook Miles rewards the player simply for playing the game, catch some bugs – here’s some miles, catch a specific fish – here’s some miles, log into the ATM machine in resident’s services every day – you guessed it, Miles! But the beauty of the scheme is in what Nook Miles can unlock. Besides the usual Nook themed apparel and furniture, it is possible to spend Nook Miles on a wide variety of items, including Bells (the in game currency), upgrades to your inventory (this is a must, get this upgraded at your earliest convenience! You have been warned!) or, the crown jewel in the games reward system, a Nook Miles Ticket.
Handing a Nook Miles ticket to the Dodo Airlines rep allows you to visit a randomly generated mini island. similar to Tortimer island in New Leaf, this island gives you the ability to collect items that your own island does not generate. On my first trip this meant I was able to collect cherries from the islands trees, chop the trees for wood, gain ore from the rocks etc. Later on I realised that no only could you harvest, but you could bring items back to your own island and use this to improve your own space. The themes of the islands change each time and can range from trees to minerals to animals. Each provides a different incentive for the player, and possibly the opportunity to visit tarantula or scorpion island and cash in on the venomous little critters.
The gameplay of new horizons hasn’t changed drastically from previous games, more the gameplay has been tweeked, improved and polished. The tools you use break, similar to breath of the wild’s item system, creating a greater reliance on the crafting system, but the functions of each tool are still the same. The economics of the game still work as they always have, with objects of higher rarity commanding a higher price and the use of turnips to potentially turn a profit give the player chance to expand and improve on their own space without it feeling too easy. Every aspect of the game feels like it has been worked for, without making the player feel like they are grinding too much. The main drawback from earlier games was a feeling of repeating the same tasks over and over on a daily basis until you had amassed enough to progress the next works project or pay off the latest renovation. Now however, even with the store closing at 10pm, there is so much to do that building up your income is not the only focus of the game. Developing the museum, or trying to create hybrid plants to attract different butterflies, or trying to catch the elusive oarfish (there are others, but spoilers) means that there is no natural end to a day. Combine this with the incentive of completing tasks for Nook Miles so you can visit other locations to improve your island further and you have a game that is completely addictive in the same way that other simulation games have been in the past, without feeling like a carbon copy of other titles.
The game will never challenge for the same graphical accolades as the latest RPG or FPS game, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a stunning game. The cartoon aesthetics of the game have clearly had a huge upgrade in polish from New Leaf and the leaves on the trees are a great example of a game that doesn’t have to be realistic to have a great level of detail. The lakes and rivers show the reflection of the sun and the movement of the wind rustles the trees and sends cherry blossom across the screen. Leaving tracks in the sand and your general footfall contains different animations depending on the weather or previous weather throughout the day and the attention to detail is beautiful. The buildings themselves have a high level of detail both inside and out and the beauty of the game is only enhanced once switching into docked mode. The game’s audio is also highly prized by some, with the majority of music provided by the famous KK slider, modelled on famous game composer Kazumi Tokada. On arrival to the island you receive a radio which cycles through the various tracks at random, but these tracks can also be purchased and played on various record players and stereo systems that are crafted. The album art can also be displayed on your home walls so everyone can know what song is playing as they enter for example.
Where the game lets itself down is in it’s multiplayer modes. Many fans will talk about the issues around cloud saves and not being able to transfer islands etc. But these issues are something that veterans of the series desire to make an experience more appealing to them. The true let down in New Horizons is that playing with friends and family is more hassle than it should be, a common theme across many of Nintendo’s IP’s. The game supports local multiplayer, indeed my daughter enjoys following me around as I play, but the second player has no inventory and therefore can’t fully experience the game as the main player can, with items going into the recycling, it makes the experience feel like you are giving away a controller to keep your younger sibling quiet while you play (which is indeed the true strategy behind handing my daughter a joy-con) although this can be changed by switching the leader of the group to give them the chance to experience your island. The game does also support online multiplayer, using the airport as a conduit in which to allow players into your island and to visit theirs. The issue with this comes when wanting to visit a friend’s island. The friend has to “open the gates” to their island and allow visitors to enter, thereby making it an experience that has to be pre-planned to a degree, there is no dropping by. Doing so also causes that players island progress to be paused while your player is loaded into the game. The online feature also relies heavily on the use of the online mobile app. Whilst this is a minor issue, the annoyance of having to go through a dialogue wall, feel like you are disturbing a friend’s gameplay in order to join their game, mess up their stuff and then run away all “KTHANXBAI” and vice versa certainly put me off at first and is a barrier to over come. But this is slightly better once you accept each other as best friends, but be warned, choose your best friends wisely as they have full access to hack and slash through your perfectly crafted environment!
In summary, Animal Crossing New Horizons is a must own game for anyone who has a love for life simulations games. For those who are new to the franchise, or life simulation games in general it is still a must own game! But be warned, these games are often very addictive without the added incentives of Nook Miles and other micro rewards. The gameplay is fun and enjoyable with little incentive to stop, indeed the game has optimised itself to have something to do regardless of the day or season. The graphics are crisp and the soundtrack is both varied at times but also able to blend into the background without becoming irritating. It is a fun game to play on a couch with friends or online and with regular content updates scheduled, Animal Crossing New Horizons will be a popular purchase for months, and probably years to come. Get it at your earliest convenience!
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review
Gameplay - 9/10
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Replay Value - 10/10
The latest game in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series is finally here. Live your castaway getaway on your own, not so deserted island while still paying off debt.
- Crafting system means you will never run out of tasks again.
- Goal orientated tasks help to focus new players and those who prefer some structure.
- Nook miles….
- The museum is a thing of beauty.
- Online isn’t what it could have been.
- Repetitive text conversations that you can’t get out of.
- Stacking of items in your inventory is still not where it should be for a game like this.