It has been two weeks since my Villager, a frog named Diva, and a hippo named Biff landed on a so-called “deserted” island with Tom Nook and his protégés Timmy and Tommy to eventually sculpt the wilderness into a getaway resort for the sake of Nook Inc.’s stock value and the relaxation of the island’s adorable colonists. The island now houses a museum, general store, and a clothes shop and has evolved into such a fine destination, a certain musician has decided to hold regularly scheduled performances in front of the resident services building. It’s been a labor of love as my Villager, the Resident Representative, molds the island to their will. However, alongside sugar-coated colonialism, Animal Crossing: New Horizons truly succeeds in offering relaxation for those who crave it and the intoxicating fantasy that one’s labor does add up to, rewards both in capital and personal fulfillment.
These rewards aren’t all handed to you at once. Animal Crossing has always been a franchise for which many of its mechanics depend on the passing of real world time. New Horizons is no different, as the time and date on the island are dictated by the game syncing the player’s Switch to their actual timezone. This is a game designed to be played across a year, minimum, as special celebrations are held somewhat in parallel to real world holidays. Because of this, the game rolls out it’s initial progression points gradually, across a couple weeks or so depending on how quickly you meet certain criteria laid out by your tanuki CEO, Tom Nook. (He is a tanuki, by the way, not a raccoon.) Some players may be frustrated by how gradual the progression is at first as the mechanics unlock across your first few days on the island, but even on Day 1, I never ran out of things to do between each milestone. If ever I tired of chopping wood or catching fish, I found myself content to have my Villager take a set and soak in the natural beauty of the island. Check out my first impressions piece for more on my Villager’s early days on the island!
Animal Crossing has never before presented so much beauty in which to bask in. The visual fidelity of the game has never been higher and I couldn’t help but exclaim with glee the first time I noticed individual leaves on the trees dancing as the wind blew through them. Water shimmers in the sun and even splashes as it churns around corners of rivers. Moonlight casts an almost eerie glow on the grass and insects meander around with more animation than ever before. New Horizons presents a customizable diorama of nature which you can tweak and polish to aesthetic perfection, capturing it all in easily shareable moments through the game’s photo mode.
As I mentioned, not everything in the game is handed to you at once, as you gradually gain access to how much of the island you can explore. Initially, there are no bridges or vaulting poles, limiting your Villager’s reach to about a quarter of the island. From there, you learn how to make a vaulting pole and ladder which lets you leap across rivers and climb cliffs to elevated land ripe for plunder. However, while the game rolls out progress like this gradually, there is almost always a way to take things at your own pace, even if that pace is quicker than what Mr. Nook planned for. After a tutorial day on the island, Dodo Airlines opens for business and there’s nothing stopping you–save the subscription fee for Nintendo Online–from hopping over to friend’s island and having them craft you the aforementioned tools early, thus allowing you to explore every inch of the island on Day 2 (far earlier than you could if you had stayed put).
This approach to traversal is one of my favorite things about New Horizons. Gone are the days of hoofing it from one end of town to the next to find a bridge or ramp to get from Point A to Point B. The ability to travel in a straight line, vaulting over rivers or scaling cliffs as needed, cuts down on a ton of travel time and I can’t imagine going back to New Leaf or Wild World where the player is more at the mercy of geography. During those first couple days, each time I wanted to explore the other side of the river, it felt like I was setting out for the real wilderness, further from the initial trappings of Nook Inc.’s business venture. I’d double check my tools and pocket space, making sure I had whatever provisions I needed, then vault across to the wilds beyond my home. I had a similar feeling when first using a ladder to climb up to the higher levels of the island. After previously having to force my Villager to hug the cliffs, desperate for a peek at whatever could be at the island’s higher altitudes, I found the first time I used a ladder to be exhilarating. That first climb left me with the same feeling as when I first vaulted across a river; like an explorer setting out to find what no babbling animal person has found before.
These ideas of exploring “deserted” lands tie into the colonialist fantasy underlying the main thrust of progression in New Horizons. I delved into this a bit in my first impressions piece, and have already, but one major feature which ties into both ideas of colonialism as well as the game’s approach to taking things at your own pace is the Island Tours. With enough Nook Miles, Nook Inc.’s company scrip, you can cash in for a Nook Miles Ticket which lets you hop on a plane and travel to a randomly generated island. These islands exist to be mined, deforested, and otherwise plundered to the player’s heart’s content as you will never return to the same island again. Though the game pulls from a set number of layouts for the islands, once you leave, the island is effectively deleted, so there’s no need to clean up after yourself once you’ve covered the land in holes, chopped down every tree for lumber, and maybe even convinced a camper visiting the island to become on of your neighbors instead of returning to their own home.
As I mentioned, the colonialism in the game is sugar-coated. You don’t have to completely cut down a tree to harvest its lumber, nor do you have to strip islands bare of every flower or piece of fruit. If you’re willing to wait a little longer, you can simply harvest lumber from the trees growing around the island you settle on, sell the fruit from those trees, and wait for more flowers to bloom by watering the ones you already have. What the Island Tours provide is a quicker way to get more of each crafting material faster. Rocks are the only resource you can’t find more than enough on around the Nook Inc. sponsored island. In constantly rewarding players with Nook Miles for every activity though, the game tantalizes the player into cashing in for one of those tickets and really stock up on more than enough wood so they can craft eight tables, sell seven to Timmy and Tommy for a profit, then decorate their home with the one they wanted in the first place. Again, the player chooses the pace. Slow down and harvest materials over time for a project, or plunder an island and build several of that project immediately.
The crafting system is what I was most worried about going into the game and I’m happy to report it’s a lot of fun. I had some anxieties about tools breaking in the style of Breath of the Wild weapons, but I always find myself with enough materials to immediately replace them. There’s still plenty of cool furniture and decorations to be bought with Bells at Nook’s Cranny, but crafting items myself makes me feel a degree more accomplished for having made them. Something about deciding on a project, running out and gathering the materials, then building it myself adds a new flavor of satisfaction from previous games where the victory was in lucking out and finding an item in stock in a store. Cyrus, like a lot of people right now, is out of job, as customizing furniture to change its color and sometimes add extra elements is as easy as buying customization kits and popping over to the same workbench at which you craft. Every time I get a new item I immediately check to see how I can customize it to best fit the color scheme of my house. It used to take days to get a coordinated room together and while it still might take that long to find the pieces, making them all match is quicker than ever. Sometimes you can even add a custom design from the Nook Phone app to a piece of furniture which means I’ve put my cat’s face on everything the game will allow.
Admittedly, there are some aspects to the crafting which could be more convenient. You can only craft with what you have in your Villager’s pockets and it would cut down on several button presses if the DIY app in my Nook phone pulled materials from my home storage as well. I also wish you could craft more than one of an item at a time. When hunting down the super rare stringfish before it went out of season at the end of March, I went through over a hundred packages of fish bait and crafting each of those one at a time was a pain. You can speed up crafting by quickly pressing the A button, but being able to craft even ten at a time would’ve cut down on a lot of busy work that didn’t feel rewarding.
There are also some items which require other crafted items to build. For example, to build a standard durability net, you must first craft a flimsy net, then add a bit of iron to build the higher level tool. I wish there were some functionality that let me just click the standard net and essentially skip construction on the flimsy net if I had the materials to make it anyway. It just adds more steps that don’t feel rewarding aside from the fact that there are achievements in the game which reward Nook Miles for things like crafting a certain number of items. Then again, if I wanted to skip that first step, I could always use bells to purchase the flimsy tools and immediately upgrade them. The game almost always provides some alternative method to everything you do if you find yourself not enjoying one method or another.
The one area of the game that’s less flexible is in critter collection. Just as in old games, bugs must be caught by sneaking up on them with a net and fish must be plucked out of the water by aiming your fishing pole at shadows in the water and pressing A when you feel a bite. You cannot trade fish and bugs with your friends, so these creatures must be caught on your own. What is new is the detailed encyclopedia app on the player’s Nook phone. There is now a little owl icon next to each creature indicating whether or not you’ve already donated them to the museum as well as information regarding where to catch more of each species. The app even lets you know what month and time of day the bug or fish in question is available and kindly adds a little marker on the time graph corresponding to the in-game clock to let you know if you can run out and catch the beastie immediately. The other truly great addition to fishing is being able to re-purpose any trash you fish up into items you can either decorate with or sell to the Nooklings for a few bells. No more paying a fee to dispose of trash!
After you’ve donated all your fish and bugs to Blathers, you’ll want to talk a walk through each wing of the museum, because the displays are breathtaking. Walking around massive dinosaur fossils in the paleontology wing or sitting in the middle of a fluttering swarm of butterflies in the insect wing is a literally jaw-dropping experience for me. Standing in a clear tunnel surrounded by water in the museum’s aquarium as fish swam all around my Villager was the moment I felt New Horizons was ushering in the next generation of Animal Crossing, even in a game where you can shape the rivers and cliffs to your liking.
The space we’ve always been able to shape to our taste is the interior of the player Villager’s home. Thankfully, gone are the days of dragging furniture around by your Villager’s fingerless hands. New Horizons brings forward the decorating interface from Happy Home Designer, letting you click and drag furniture more in the vein of The Sims. A lot of furniture comes with extra animations or sounds when you click it, like a skeleton that holds its arms up in a funny pose or a peach that, when clicked, emits a giggling sound as a baby Momotaro on a spring jumps out. I also greatly appreciate how you’re quickly gifted a radio that plays random K.K. Slider hits so you never have to sit in your home in silence even before you’ve started collecting his music. The updated interface to changing clothes also makes it super easy to get a look together and express yourself to the fullest, as I detail here!
I’ve only just gained access to the game’s terraforming mechanics and again, the thematic implications are fraught, to say the least. Nevertheless, the moment my villager cracked open the edge of a cliff, letting a rush of water spring forth as a new waterfall was born immediately overwhelmed me with possibility in the best way. From roleplaying and aesthetic perspectives, carving rivers and molding cliffs to the player’s liking offers so much potential. I can finally expand one of the high cliffs just enough to move my house up there! I can use rivers to make a little island for Coco to move to to give her more space for her yard! These tools literally grant power and a supposed ownership over the land to us, the settlers, to shape nature to our benefit, but it’s all good! There are no environmental surveys to worry about. Bulldozing cliffs doesn’t make the land barren of trees or flowers. It’s all in service of the unprecedented level of customization and freedom New Horizons offers to create your ideal diorama of island life.
I’ve saved my favorite aspect of the game for last: animal neighbors! The neighbors in New Horizons seem to lean much harder into their eight personality archetypes than in New Leaf. In New Leaf, peppy villagers were upbeat, social, and would occasionally gossip about the other villagers in town. In New Horizons peppy villagers are dead-set on becoming pop stars and will bring it up in conversation constantly. You also can’t get two words out of a jock type villager without one of those words being the name of a muscle group.
At first, I wondered if these hyperbolic personality types would make the characters feel flatter, but as I talk to them more, their dialogue has revealed itself to be as varied–and at times, nuanced–as I hoped. My wolf friend Audie may want to be a pop star, but she will also occasionally mutter something under her breath which undercuts whatever idol-centric dialogue she just exclaimed. Though Biff is a jock of a hippo, he asked me what I liked to read the other day and even though I told him about my love of manga (I was able to input my own answer, as the three options he gave me weren’t my thing), he admitted he didn’t like to read anyway, but was glad to get to know me better. I was genuinely moved when Coco, a “normal” type rabbit who appears to be an autonomous, rabbit shaped gyroid, told me she’s here for me if ever I’m having a hard time. The characters voices are more specific to personas, but that doesn’t mean they fail to connect with the player just as well as they have in past games.
What makes these characters all the easier to connect with is how the animal neighbors feel more alive than ever. One breezy afternoon, I found Audie sweeping the plaza in front of Resident Services. After a couple minutes of cleaning, she put her broom away, did some stretches, then walked over to a tree where she plopped down in the shade for a little break. In past games, you would occasionally find characters watering flowers or fishing if you got far enough away from them and then returned so the game could load up a different animation for them to perform. Being able to hang out with my neighbors and watch them live even fuller lives than before makes the island feel like a real space in which these characters are living. I feel even closer to them as friends as I start to pick up on little things like which spot on the beach is Biff’s favorite for cooling down for his workout or how Ava likes to sing to herself at the bend of the river behind the museum. Animal neighbors have always moved in and out of their homes in this series and I think I’ll be more heartbroken than ever to see some of my new friends leave if they vanish without giving me a chance to convince them to stay.
My biggest qualm from the game is also one that may be amended over time. New Horizons has made excellent additions to the cast of special characters. Flick the punky artist who waxes poetically about bugs and Daisy Mae, Joan’s granddaughter and turnip selling protégé are super charming and have more than filled the shoes of characters like Joan and Nat whom they’ve replaced. However, there are several characters who, as far as anyone can tell, are not in the game as of this writing. Brewster has always been my favorite character in the series and his café and the barista mechanics it brought to New Leaf were my favorite element of that game. The realization that Brewster was not in this game when I saw the results of time travelers on Twitter jumped to the end of the main progression track was the most miserable I’ve been playing the game. However, as we’ve seen with Bunny Day, Nintendo is going to be regularly updating the game with new holidays and events. It’s completely possible that Brewster might show up for some coffee-themed holiday or, better yet, come with an expansion to the museum as he has in past games. Other characters like Katrina the fortune teller and infamous con artist Crazy Redd have also not been spotted in the game. With everything added to this entry in the franchise, it feels a little greedy to bemoan the exclusion of one handsome pigeon. However, these characters will be sorely missed until the possible future when they appear in an update. Also, why is Lloid the only gyroid in this game?!
If it wasn’t clear from this review, there is so much to cover when talking about this game and there will only be more as the year goes on. Based on my first two weeks on the island, New Horizons managed to assuage any hesitation I had about the game in the weeks leading up to release. I was worried things like crafting or the island’s setting would change too much about the game, thankfully New Horizons has more than proved I have nothing to worry about. The level of freedom to explore a variety of aesthetics both in my character and decorations and a crafting system that only makes it all the more fun to develop those aesthetics has only elevated the franchise for me rather than changed it for the worse.
More than any mechanical implementation, what makes New Horizons the game to beat for my 2020 Game of the Year are the moments when I’m not fishing, or terraforming, or acquiring Bells. As I wrote in my first impressions piece, the best moments in the game are the quiet moments of sitting with an ocarina and playing a little tune as wind passes through the trees. It’s listening to Ava sing as the river splashes and Audie does yoga a few feet away. Animal Crossing has always been a series that allows true relaxation for its players and New Horizons has allowed more relaxation than ever. I’m not the type of player who typically just chills out with a game. I’m always working towards some bit of progression so I can “finish” the title and move on to the next thing. Animal Crossing is my escape where I can put my tools away and just talk a walk around the island, vibe to the hourly changing music, and wave to my animal neighbors as they saunter by. It’s been two weeks since my Villager landed on the island with a hippo, a frog, and some tanuki. I can’t wait to see what the next weeks, months, and years bring.
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