Nintendo, since the dawn of the Switch, has set a precedent for how to reintroduce franchises to the masses. Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey, Luigi’s Mansion; all these and more were given a revitalized surge of old and new. Lo and behold, Animal Crossing has joined the fray after taking a decade-plus home console hiatus. The hype behind the announcement was palpable, cranking expectations to levels not seen since City Folk in 2008. Considering first-party Switch titles typically review wonderfully, it wasn’t out of the question to believe that New Horizons would be the best Animal Crossing ever.
What separates New Horizons apart from the entire franchise is the desolate setting. Sure, the idea of starting from scratch was always prominent, but here, you aren’t just building up your own success. The island getaway is nothing like a true vacation; work shall follow, albeit asked nicely. Much like New Leaf, the goal is to establish a community, one grown through your efforts to solidify a space of home that brings comfort to all that inhabit it. While the desire to escape from reality is almost a necessity for most at the time of writing, that immersive quality will end up being the determining factor to how much one gets out of the most anticipated Switch title of 2020.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is available on Nintendo Switch for your regional pricing.
A standard review for Animal Crossing: New Horizons probably wouldn’t hover around its story for very long. This one will be little different. Much of the player’s understanding of the story is meticulously elaborated upon after simply booting up the game. You are the latest villager to take part in Tom Nook’s Island Getaway Package, where you and two other random animal villagers will get to fly to a random place on the globe and cultivate it. You state your name and birth date, edit your appearance, and off you go.
Sticking to Nintendo tradition, this game’s idea of a “narrative” is pushed aside for whatever random events should occur on a (generally) linear basis. Life is what you make of it, which embodies the core of the franchise’s spirit. Here, the island life is a tad more stilted than in previous iterations, if only for the transparent system of daily activities one is stuck with in the first week. One can warp through this should they choose to, but if sticking to the internal schedule that parallels real time, good things come to those who wait.
I should note before continuing that I did not time-travel whatsoever for the purposes of this review. My belief is that Animal Crossing peaks in immersive quality if you play it within a consistent sense of logic. While I don’t considering it “cheating” if one time-travels, as the game doesn’t chastise you for doing so, my preference is in keeping things as realistic as possible.
Making its debut in Animal Crossing: New Horizons is crafting—something that, in retrospect, probably should’ve been added at some point earlier. Much like the nature of the game, its necessity is casually suggested for an efficient workstyle. One is required to craft at certain points, but once the player has settled in, crafting is almost reserved for those most driven. Ingrained in the daily routine, I often make use of overcollecting material to ensure I never have to scavenge excessively later. Tools are no longer forever sturdy, requiring the player to pay active attention to their inventory and status. If nothing else, crafting allows an extra additive of work-based bliss to those most fond of working towards rewards.
Terraforming is a control freak’s dream come true. Not just this, however, as the amount of freedom that accompanies Animal Crossing: New Horizons may have one review their options just to ensure they read it right. At some point, players (assuming they’re the island representative and not sharing an island) will be given power over almost anything. Moving buildings, customizing their homes, building bridges/inclines, paving roads, editing terrain; just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. There’s so much that eventually comes with being the island namesake that it almost feels like playing a metroidvania. Building to gain those features to make island living all the more fun, that gradual effort is the prime motivation to continue playing… if not for collecting every conceivable item possible. It’s what makes this game, and almost every Animal Crossing title, so addicting and accessible.
New (Leaf) Activities
For the fans of New Leaf out there, New Horizons decides to act as an enhanced port. Deserted island setting notwithstanding, the “goal,” should one exist, involves building a community from the ground up. Complete with a town hall, an Isabelle appearance, and an eventual residence ranking system, the only substantial difference is that Tom Nook technically owns everything. To some degree, this gives this modern game a vintage feel, with all the pros and cons that come with it. Players with a preference for the past with settle in nicely. Those looking for a little more—and the crafting/terraforming don’t satisfy—may find this too keen on keeping safe.
With this in mind, one may come to a concerning conclusion: “This is just New Leaf with crafting on a deserted island.” Plenty of evidence supports this, such as the community projects and the first player getting all the responsibilities. Again, some may not have any issue with this, as New Leaf was very well-received for the effort taken in adding more to the Animal Crossing formula. Yet for a new generation, the results of New Horizons have me less than overjoyed to be back with the franchise. Just over a week, and the inevitable recession of interest is beginning to creep forward. Unforeseen options may wait around the corner, but for now, it’s a modern Animal Crossing game.
Something I was really looking forward to seeing was how interesting speaking to your villagers was. Old screenshots and memes give evidence to just how ruthless villagers in past games were to the player character. While the company’s track record suggests they wouldn’t be anywhere near vile, I resigned myself to dedicating a portion of my Animal Crossing: New Horizons review to the enjoyment of actually being neighborly. The result: mixed. Starting off, one’s animal villagers will dedicate themselves to spamming the same three or four topics ad nauseam. With enough days past and consistent interaction, they begin to open themselves up tremendously. Certain personality types are more personable, but there’s enough variety to keep the general player satisfied.
Another returning quality that has improved drastically here is the museum. Collecting fish, insects, and fossils was always an enjoyable venture, but with the improved visuals, Nintendo went above and beyond. The interior of the town museum is as detailed and visually captivating as an Animal Crossing game has ever been. Combined with various, almost haunting remixes of the museum theme, each of the dozens of rooms available to explore hold their own unique charm. Seeing the extravagance of the museum build with content is far more motivating than a simple checklist, or a single room filled with stuff. At least in this small capacity, New Horizons lives up to its name.
Quality of life additions are something that can be divisive among types of players. I think this game strikes a decent balance between being accessible and allowing players their individual freedom. Outside of time-travel antics, one will constantly be waiting for new events to occur, with very little simply being handed off for nothing. Even the more substantial features, such as building bridges or moving structures, cost an enormous amount of Bells to do. While cozy in appearance, the heart of these games is to work towards what you will eventually own. Had they gone against that, it may destroy the foundation of the franchise itself!
Graphics & Sound
Has the graphical presentation of Animal Crossing ever struck you before? If so, you’re in luck: New Horizons looks nothing different! Given an HD makeover, things have never looked more colorful, crisp, and cute—let the museum be the selling point. The expressions given to villagers seem more active than before, with a cartoon-ish exuberance that matches the tranquil atmosphere. With an extended roster of villagers to discover, one’s town may never look the same no matter how many islands are created. And the aforementioned freedom via terraforming allows players to shape the landscape to degrees far beyond what was possible before. If that doesn’t entice on-the-fence players, I’m not sure what will.
Initially, I was devastated to learn that hourly tunes weren’t a thing upon starting the game. Those soothing tracks add so much personality to Animal Crossing that it feels naked without them. Listening to the same generic jingle—day after day, after after hour—grew to be a monotonous anxiety of playing. Thankfully, upon the arrival of one Isabelle, hourly tunes make their very welcome return, and they’re generally pretty good. I’m quite fond of what plays between 9 and 11 a.m., but most do a commendable job of observing the atmosphere present in a given day.
Other auditory notes include the ambiance that surrounds the town at all times. Outside the hourly tunes, the manner of walking over terrain, catching fish and insects, among others, creates a realistic setting that helps the player get lost (in a good way). Some of the magic of getting better at daily tasks is in simply listening for the right sounds. Is the wind blowing all of a sudden? Look to the sky. Hear some chirping, but see no source? Try digging. Subtle cues through listening is a wonderful touch that a lot of games don’t necessarily take advantage of. Immersion is about adhering to the senses, and while vision is well and good, there are other aspects that are just as effective.