If you had asked me a couple of weeks ago what Animal Crossing was all about, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Now, after many hours with the game, I am beginning to understand why others seem to be so obsessed with it. Those people, of course, have no need for this review, so I’ll be looking at New Horizons from the perspective of ‘what is all the fuss about’?
So what IS Animal Crossing?
This is the perhaps the trickiest question to answer. The only game I’ve played that’s really similar is Stardew Valley, which itself is fashioned after a game called Harvest Moon. However, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a lot less goal-oriented than Stardew Valley, and the game day doesn’t end when your character runs out of energy, it ends when the real-life day ends. This means you may reach a point in Animal Crossing where you feel like you’ve run out of things to do and the only thing to do is wait until a new day. As a gamer used to spending countless hours in a game, often in long play sessions, this was a difficult concept for me to grasp. Many players simply change the time on their Switch so they can move ahead in the game. Naturally, there is a fair amount of friction in the community between these “time travellers” and those who believe the very essence of Animal Crossing means it should be played at a leisurely pace. I reckon whichever you personally find to be the most fun is most certainly the correct way to play.
Now to actually answer the question. Animal Crossing: New Horizons starts you out with your choice of deserted islands on which to set up a new home, along with a handful of other villagers. You are, for reasons that remain unclear, the only human in a community of talking raccoon dogs, bears, hamsters and sheep. You start out with a humble tent and are introduced to Tom Nook, the genius entrepreneur who wants to grow the island’s population and status – with your help.
Thanks to Tom Nook’s generosity, you’ll soon be saddled with a large amount of debt as you improve your home and the island. Fortunately, you can pay it off by earning the two currencies in the game: bells and Nook miles. Both can be earned fairly easily as you play the game, which generally involves fishing, catching bugs, growing and harvesting fruit and flowers, and smashing rocks. With the resources you’ll collect from these activities, you can craft items, donate new bugs, fish and fossils to Blathers at the museum, and sell everything else for a tidy profit. All the while, you can befriend the other villagers (or be mean to them in the hopes they’ll leave), decorate and expand your house, and improve the island by helping bring in new services like a general store, tailor, and more.
On top of all this, you also get the option to visit the islands of your friends, where you can collect flowers, fruit or bugs that you may not have on your own island – especially if your friend’s island is in a different hemisphere to yours! You can even fly to mystery islands, which are randomised and can offer a range of mundane resources, as well as a few that contain large numbers of rarer resources, like scorpion/tarantula island, money rock island, shark island, rare flower island, and many more. All of these will give you more resources to use for crafting, donating or selling.
What’s your aesthetic?
As you can probably tell from the screenshots, videos and advertising material, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is adorable. Absolutely everything is cute, from the trees to the flowers, from the houses to the shops. Heck, even the fish and bugs are pretty cute, and this is coming from someone who is a fan of neither in the real world. You can dress up your villager in an overwhelming number of cute outfits, or even design your own, or download the impressive designs of others. There seems to be a huge catalogue of items to craft, ranging from practical items like beds and bathtubs to all sorts of decorative ones, all of which can be placed just about anywhere on your island. And as the seasons change in the real world, so too does the game world reflect this, with trees blossoming in spring or snow covering everything in winter (yes, even in the southern hemisphere).
So you might ask, what is the ultimate goal of Animal Crossing: New Horizons? I’m not sure there is one. Like The Sims, things are quite open-ended. Maybe you want to complete the museum collection. Maybe you want to have the biggest and most spectacularly decorated home on a perfectly landscaped island. Maybe you want a field of flowers covering half your island. Maybe you want a specific villager to move to your island and be friends with you. Perhaps you’re really into designing your own outfits and sharing them with the world. New Horizons is not an ‘end goal’ kind of game, it’s a daily experience. And it’s a game that couldn’t have come at a better time, when many people are stuck at home. We can escape to our very own island where you can make bucketloads of money selling scorpions to adorable animal-people, pay off loans that charge no interest and have no time limit in a place where everyone is nice to us.
Frustration in paradise
There are some niggles, to be sure. Anyone sharing a Switch with a family member will soon discover that the game allows one home island per Switch, meaning you’ll have to communicate pretty clearly about how you each want to develop the island. It’s hard to fathom the reason for this beyond trying to increase sales of Switch devices.
In addition, there are some really, really irritating and downright tedious aspects of the user interface, from only being able to craft items one at a time, or not being able to access the materials stored in your home storage while crafting at home. Hopefully these and some of the other rather awkward UI things will be fixed in a future patch, but for now, prepare for a few frustrations in this area.
It’s also worth noting that the online play aspects require a subscription to Nintendo Switch Online, which is expensive as a month-to-month subscription, but really isn’t that pricey as a yearly one.
It’s easy to get swept up by the apparent popularity of Animal Crossing: New Horizons on social media, but I think the hype might, for once, be deserved. The game is both addictive and relaxing. There are some niggles as I mentioned earlier, and the first seasonal event leaves something to be desired, but I’ve really enjoyed my time beautifying my island, talking to those super nice villagers, and collecting rare bugs and fish. I don’t know if it will keep me playing for months, as seems to be the intention with the real-time clock. Some days those daily ‘chores’ of picking fruit, watering flowers and hitting rocks feel a bit like the daily check-in requirements of mobile games, but most days it’s nice to hop on, do a few things, make some progress, and then hop off again. I can see Animal Crossing: New Horizons being popular across a wide range of age groups, and even among those gamers who perhaps don’t consider themselves gamers at all.