The slightly late, slightly on-time review of New Horizons!
With everything going on right now, it’s good that we have videogames to turn towards. It’s definitely a beacon of hope to me that so many people are willing to look aside the perception that gaming is just for adolescence, and instead embrace the connection they can provide. There’s no better example to this than the reception for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. People have been going wild over the newest iteration of the (almost) two decades-long franchise, and it’s not just children or young adults. Animal Crossing provides the unique experience that seemingly captures every generation, and we’re going to talk about those parts below. First, however, I’m going to give you guys a bit of an explanation: I’m scoring this review, and all my future reviews. I don’t inherently believe in review scores, and I’ll be writing a more expansive blog post about that. However, writing my Wolcen review shed some light on the aspects of gaming that I like to touch base on. With that in mind, I realized that rating individual aspects of game can help those looking for a visual display of how a game may feel. From now on (until I panic and change my mind), I’ll be giving each of four categories a numerical judgment to better facilitate my reviews. Anyway, sidenote… aside, let’s begin!
Part One: Story
Those familiar with the franchise may be wondering what story has to do with any of this. Animal Crossing doesn’t really hold itself down with any overarching narrative or thrilling conclusions, and most people wouldn’t say this game is any different. However, there’s always at least some goal in these games, and I believe New Horizons does have a somewhat structured bit, even if it’s largely a tutorial for the full experience.
You begin the game by flying to a “deserted island”, having fallen for another one of Tom Nook’s (the lovable shopkeeper/banker/capitalist) money-making schemes: a vacation getaway package! You’re greeted by Tom Nook himself, along with his little Nooklings and two bright-eyed villagers. He then passes all responsibility for the maintenance of this island onto you, including naming the island itself, building up everyone’s shelters, and working off the expenses through manual labor. From here, the game proper begins, and you’re quickly shuffled through the motions to establish shops, a town center, and houses for more potential inhabitants.
Your goal, story-wise, is to garner the attention of K.K. Slider, the biggest musical sensation since Beyoncé, and convince him that your dump of an island is worth visiting. This may prove difficult at first, given your island is hardly accessible from the start. Luckily, Mr. Nook has thought of everything, and provides access to his knowledge of pole and ladder making, and soon you’ll be uprooting weeds and planting flowers everywhere you can imagine! Once you’ve passed the island evaluation, you get to hear a wonderful performance and watch as the credits roll.
Now, this story isn’t bad. It’s not Skyrim, obviously, but it never needed to be. I appreciate the lack of focus on it, and it shifts the player along nicely to gaining access to all the tools needed to play the game. My only real complaint is the length of the goals. Tom Nook has a dialog option for asking himwhat you could be doing, and I was hoping there would be at least a decent laundry list of side activities. We open up a campground for all of a day, and that’s about as side-tasky we get. I’d have maybe liked to have seen more fanfare for the Able Sisters shop, or more enacting of ordinances like in prior titles, but that shifts a little bit too much into gameplay to worry about in this section. Speaking of…
Part Two: Gameplay
The core gameplay loop of New Horizons has been copied over from previous games, with a few new twists. Bug/fish catching, flower-tending, fossil digging, and more abound, with the added Mystery Island feature providing a much needed vacation from your ‘vacation’. DIY crafting has been added, providing a new level of depth when it comes to procuring furniture, although the initial offerings are rather bland. With crafting, however, comes resource collection, and this one is tough for me. I’m not really a fan of resource collecting, and I’m definitely knocking off ‘fun points’ for item durability in yet another Nintendo title that didn’t need it . The durability here takes the forefront, seeing as every tool (sans the ladder and pole) will break moderately quickly. The requirements to make new ones aren’t particularly challenging to obtain, but that almost makes it worse; I don’t want to waste so much time crafting tools, especially when it’s so trivial to make them in the first place. Infinite durability would be a wonderful tool upgrade, but unfortunately even the Golden Tools have a limited amount of time before they poof right out from under you. Ultimately, some people may not mind this, and I’ve had a few friends argue that it helps add a bit of complexity to gathering (especially on Mystery Tours), but I’d argue against anything that creates a roadblock in an otherwise functional gameplay loop. We already had a stopgap in our collect-a-thon: inventory space. Now, beyond running out of space to carry things, we occasionally break flow because the bug net broke, or because our shovel split in half.
Now, if I could craft these broken tools from my inventory, I’d be less frustrated with this cute little shit of a game, but instead I have to drop whatever I’m doing, go to a crafting bench, and then craft. Unless, of course, I don’t have my iron nuggets/hardwood/stones/branches, to which I have to go home, open my storage, and use my station. Then I have to deal with my biggest complaint with the game: the UI is absolutely unchanged from the original game, which is 19 years old. This UI is on par with Borderlands in unwieldiness. If I could rip this UI out of the game, burn it to the ground, and stomp on the ashes, I absolutely would. Every time you want to do anything with an item, there is a contextual menu that changes its order dependent on your surroundings, leading to endless frustration (damn, I meant to eat the fruit, not drop it). When you want to craft something, you have to activate the desk, confirm that you want to craft something, find the item, click the item, click the item again, and then sit through an animation that takes 2-5 seconds to finish, depending on if you break your A button tapping it to speed the process. Then you go through that process again for every tool you craft, since you have to upgrade them. Talking to Tom Nook and Isabelle is a chore as well, as is donating fossils, or accessing the ATM, or paying someone, or anything involving dialog.
If the dialog was really nice, though, I wouldn’t mind. However, the villagers have definitely gotten a bit more homogenized recently. Multiple villagers per day will offer up the same lines, and I never really get the feeling like they need me around, except to pay for construction costs. It bugs me that we still don’t have a “Looking for Work” option after it got removed in Wild World. Don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff to do, but I never really have a sense of objective outside of one feature. And since I’ve spent two paragraphs tearing into this game, let me talk about said feature.
Nook Miles. These are probably the best thing to happen to Animal Crossing in a long while. Nook Miles are an alternative currency used for unlocking new mechanics, travelling to Mystery Islands, and decorating your town. They are gathered through fun little challenges and achievements, each of which are scored in a little scrapbook-esque app on your NookPhonePod™. This is the absolute best way to cement the need to check in every day, as you get tons of little challenges alongside the bigger achievements. Furthermore, as you complete these bigger achievements, you get a little stamp that’s personalized to that event, with a cute graphic and the date you completed it. It’s an absolutely wonderful addition, and I can’t wait to finish out my scrapbook.
Terraforming is nice as well, giving you more control than ever over your town. While it can be a bit too rigid with diagonals and curves, the pathways, cliffs, and rivers being made by you adds a certain charm to your home, and it really excites me every time I get invited to someone’s own custom land. Combined with the amazing array of flowers, shrubs, trees, and furniture, it really feels like a unique experience on every island! I’m also excited to see additional shops and merchants opening up down the line, as even though it’s a bit of a paltry affair right now, it’ll feel really great to see where it’ll go in the future (and we’re already seeing progress in this area with the addition of Redd and Leif).
Part Three: Presentation
Now, this is where you’ve got me. I’ve complained a bit about the gameplay, and praised a few points, but otherwise I’m left with a great need to see improvement. However, the one thing I can’t complain about is the sheer charm of this game’s presentation. Every tune, every blade of grass, every villager looks absolutely stunning in both handheld and docked play. My girlfriend is finding it difficult to get rid of the weeds on her island because they look so darn cute, and I’m inclined to agree. The flowers are absolutely gorgeous, and I always look forward to my Saturday evenings with K.K. and the rest of my town.
All of the critters have wonderful looks, as well, and the amount of detail gone into the encyclopedia is incredible. I can’t even begin to describe my level of approval for the updated Museum design, and it’s gotten me determined to fully furnish it throughout the years. I really don’t know what more to say on this part, it’s just an absolute treasure to watch. Everything is bright, colorful, and full of a vibrancy that I’ve come to expect from the franchise. Even the atrocious UI is beautifully rendered, which almost infuriates me more. Every part of the looks and sounds of this game have been expertly polished, to the point where you know the telltale sign of floating presents, bugs falling from trees, or villagers running up to greet you. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself at this point. Let’s talk about the final aspect:
Part Four: Cohesion
It took me quite a bit of time to decide how I wanted to score this one. On one hand, I have more than a few complaints about the gameplay design. On the other, it’s such a pretty game and such a satisfying gameplay loop that it’s hard to ignore.
End the end, I looked at it from the perspective of my playtime combined with my regularity of play: Even though I have issues with the game, I wake up every morning at 8:00am, do my morning chores while I wait for Able Sisters to open, and then go about greeting everyone. I tend to my flowers, dig up my fossils, and plan fun activities with my girlfriend. We both have our own little islands going and we enjoy every moment of our time playing side by side. So with that, I gotta give it up to Animal Crossing: New Horizons for bringing every piece of the puzzle together in the perfect way to keep this thing cohesive enough to ignore the flaws.
My one niggling concern with cohesion is less to do with the game, and more to do with Nintendo itself: everything runs well together except two people running the same island together. Having multiple people on the same Switch might as well be the worst possible thing you could do, and I feel strongly about my annoyance with Nintendo on keeping certain ancient systems in place out of sheer bullheadedness. The UI was the tip of the iceberg, as having only one Island per Switch is a disgrace to family play everywhere. It gives a four-person household the biggest middle finger there is, as it means there’s one player in charge of three followers, and in a game about individual freedom and personalization, being forced to follow a leader is the antithesis of that individual freedom.
Alright, slight anti-Nintendo rant aside, I can honestly give this game my seal of approval. I don’t know if it’s the quarantine talking, or the fact that I now have friends that enjoy the game as well, but this is the first Animal Crossing that I’ve played for longer than two weeks. I usually don’t go for games like this, and my girlfriend/mom/friends were shocked that I couldn’t put it down. If that doesn’t show what a showstopper this game is, I don’t quite know what does!