Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review
A beautiful game at just the right time
Nintendo’s bigger franchises usually only hit once a console cycle, so when a new one arrives it’s a big deal. This has been true of the Animal Crossing series, though lately it has dabbled in spinoffs that only feature smaller portions of the overall whole. Now, with Animal Crossing: New Horizons we receive our first full AC title in eight years. More than that though, this is the first title for a home console (or console/handheld hybrid in the Switch’s case) since City Life on the Wii. So with all those expectations riding on New Horizons’ shoulders, could it possibly live up to the hype? Yes. It even finds ways to exceed them.
Explaining Animal Crossing is an excercise in futility. As a fan of the series since its inception on the Gamecube, I have tried for decades. I know from experience that it’s tough to describe to your fellow high schoolers why they should care that your turnip price was high today, or how your rhino friend gave you a cool shirt. None of it makes sense, especially to gamers trained in how a video game is supposed to work. “What do you do” they ask, as though not shooting people in the face for hours on end is odd in its own way. “But what’s the objective” they scoff as they earn achievement points that give them nothing but bragging rights.
Basically Animal Crossing is about simply having fun in whatever way you decide is best. Acting as a sort of life simulator, the series places you in a villager full of fun characters and interesting things to do and then just sort of lets you go. It operates off of a real time clock and calendar, so each day is different, and there’s usually reasons to hop on a couple of times throughout the day. What will you do during those gaming sessions? Maybe chat up your villagers or do some chores for them. Shop. Pay down your home loan and plan for a future upgrade. Rearrange your furniture. Shop. Write letters. Visit a friends island. Grow flowers. Fish and shop.
To say that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a chill and relaxing game is a massive understatement. It is one of the most chill and relaxing experiences in all of entertainment. You can do whatever you want at any given time and the game never overtly punishes you for doing it, aside from perhaps seasonal events and items that won’t be back for months if you miss them. And the things you do in the game are all enjoyable on their own. I’ve always been a fishing fan, but lately I’m digging into flower breeding. Most of these activities have been in the series for a long time, and indeed New Horizons doesn’t remake the wheel, instead opting to fine tune most systems. It does make some huge, franchise changing alterations though.
To say that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a chill and relaxing game is a massive understatement
Terraforming is clearly the biggest, but beyond that the player also shapes their island experience in many new ways. You can build bridges and slopes, choose where your residents live, and move almost any building. However, these newer and more expansive features are doled out at a snail’s pace even by series standards. Working off that real time clock, each major change won’t be seen until the next morning. And the highly anticipated terraforming feature only unlocks weeks after players first step foot on their deserted island. This does make it so you grow to love the island as it is, but it can feel quite restrictive, especially as you gaing more abilities and thus have to wait longer and longer to accomplish more grandiose goals.
And that is likely the most arguable criticism of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The game does expand and improve on player choice, but it also restricts; sometimes in very confusing ways. Why can’t I place a bridge here? Because the shore is one block too short. Why can I move every building except Resident Services? And why don’t my paths that I worked weeks to unlock not connect to the pattern on that important building, or other types of paths? These are all small things in and of themselves, but as you grow to build and love your island each little one you encounter will feel monumental as it dampens enjoyment of what should be a very personal experience.
Likewise, as we’ve seen with other Switch updates to Nintendo’s biggest properties, many things seem to have been removed with nothing to take their place. The café and a few other shops seem to be gone. There are theories of how they may get added later on, with New Horizons already showing itself to be an evolving game experience, so don’t fret too much yet. But after weeks with the game it feels like there should already be more buildings and services available at all times, rather than on the random day they decide to show up in your town.
But with these restrictions comes a renewed sense of calm. At least that seems to be the goal. You can’t speedrun Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and you shouldn’t try. Want to explore all of your island? That’s at least a few days away, so why not chat with your villagers instead. Want to terraform? Well that’ll be a few weeks so you might as well start making the current island work. You might even find you like it once you do. But occasionally you will hit a wall that you either don’t like or can’t tolerate, which is also true of some of the smaller design decisions.
While quality of life seems to have been a huge focus in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s a long way to go. Crafting is brand new and while it adds something to the game, tool durability is a clear detraction. Tools break far too often and no unbreakable model has been discovered yet. And once you realize how many shovels, axes, and fishing rods you have to make you’ll start to wonder why you can’t make multiple items at once. More little things like this add up over time to the point that you wonder how these things made it through development. Perhaps they’ll be ironed out in future updates, but some of them shouldn’t have been in the game in the first place.
But all of these complaints are nothing more than quibbles in the face of a game that will sap dozens or hundreds of hours out of you. The charm and beauty of the game is simply amazing, delivering moments that will live in your memory for years to come. You’ll make new friends both in the real world and the digital. You’ll explore islands and immediately have new ideas of what to do on your own. And you’ll spend hour after hour fine tuning every tiny facet of the experience, smiling the whole time.
It’s difficult to separate a piece of art or entertainment from the time in which it is created. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was surely developed over the previous years with one goal in mind: delivering joy to players around the world. Given the current circumstances, that goal has become more important than ever. And that joy seems to have been delivered, with the game succeeding across the board and allowing quarantined individuals a chance to experience a level of normalcy that only a deserted island full of animal villagers can deliver. So while we typically try to craft objective analysis of games with these reviews, it’s important to realize that Animal Crossing: New Horizons has arrived at the exact right time and in the exact right way. It’s an exceptional game, with few faults to speak of, and players who have even the slightest inkling of interest should check it out as soon as possible.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
- Available On: Switch
- Published By: Nintendo
- Developed By: Nintendo EPD
- Genre: Social Simulator
- US Release Date: March 20th, 2020
- Reviewed On: Switch
- Quote: "It's an exceptional game, with few faults to speak of, and players who have even the slightest inkling of interest should check it out as soon as possible."