Animal Crossing: New Horizons marks the latest entry in Nintendo’s almost twenty year old life sim franchise Animal Crossing. As with previous games, you’ll create a digital avatar, move into a town filled with talking animals, and carve out your place within it. Collecting endemic life, befriending the locals, and paying off your mountain of debt become core parts of a daily routine that you’ll obsessively adhere to while your real life falls into shambles. This time around however, you’ll be colonizing an island turning it from an uninhabited wasteland into the town of your dreams. So, how does New Horizons stack up? Let’s find out.
Release Date: March 20th 2020
Reviewed on: Switch
Available on: Switch
I want to begin this review with a walk down memory lane. There is a point to it, so please indulge me for a few paragraphs.
I first played Animal Crossing in 2003 following its North American release on the Gamecube. I couldn’t articulate why I enjoyed playing it so much, but there was a sort of mindless pleasure to collecting endemic life and selling it to slowly pay off your crippling debt.
The follow-up, Wild World, was the reason why I wanted a Nintendo DS. I had far more fun with this title as it managed to improve on everything that made the original so fun. It worked as a great sequel to a game I already held in fairly high regard.
City Folk was the first time I finished paying off all of the home loans. Changes had been made to reduce the amount of resource grinding that individual players needed to do, which led to me not giving up before the finish line. Despite that, this was the weakest entry in the franchise for me. The city gimmick didn’t change the flow of Animal Crossing enough. It was more of the same, which was fine but I’d hoped for a bit more.
Then there is New Leaf. This game has the honour of being one of the only games that I’d play instead of MapleStory while I was in college. It managed to integrate the city element from City Folk in a more meaningful way, while also re-introducing lapsed features like the tropical getaway island. It should go without saying that I have a very high opinion of New Leaf for doing to City Folk what Wild World did to the original Animal Crossing.
I have a very long memory filled history with Animal Crossing. However, there is a recurring theme here: each new game introduces a handful of features while attempting to iterate on the previous. This rather conservative approach to sequels has lead to a franchise where the gameplay hasn’t meaningfully evolved in the past twenty years. It’s still satisfying to settle into a routine of chores, but those with existing biases for or against Animal Crossing aren’t likely to have their minds changed by New Horizons as it delivers largely the same experience.
When it comes to new features New Horizons falls on its face, especially when compared to its predecessor. Let me explain.
In an effort to shake up the formula, like so many other games, New Horizons has added crafting. You’ll collect various resources and then use them to construct a variety of items like tools and furniture. While crafting manages to give players another activity to fill their time, I feel it was implemented in an annoying way.
Wherein other games you’re able to craft items once you gather the necessary materials, in New Horizons you’ll need to find a blueprint first. You’re able to purchase a few to start, but the overwhelming majority of blueprints are unlocked at random. Everyday you’ll find a bottle washed ashore in your town which contains one and villagers will readily provide blueprints for items they’re crafting. Unfortunately, you will obtain duplicates and the frequency with which this occurs makes learning new recipes an enormous pain. Far too much is left to chance making this delivery method unintentionally frustrating.
The crafting UI is also handled poorly. If you want to make multiple copies of an item you have to craft them individually. In addition, you have to completely exit the crafting menu to apply alternative colour schemes to the different items you’re making. Why customization isn’t integrated directly into crafting is baffling. This clunky UI, in addition to how blueprint acquisition was handled, demonstrate a surprising lack of forethought from Nintendo with how they’ve chosen to implement crafting in New Horizons.
Another new addition is Nook Miles, which feel like a carryover from Nintendo’s foray into the mobile gaming market. These are tasks, both daily and long-term, which tally up progress toward goals and provide a secondary in-game currency when completed. This currency is needed to unlock many of New Horizons’ town customization options, as well as additional inventory space making them essential upgrades for your island life.
Unfortunately, while Nook Miles were implemented to guide new players and push veteran players away from established habits they fail to do so in a positive fashion. Picking thousands of weeds and chopping thousands of pieces of wood, to name only a couple examples, are mixed in among more attainable and engaging long term achievements. There is simply no reason to partake in some of the activities within New Horizons for as long as the game wants outside of mindless grinding. Nook Miles feels like a mobile gaming grind fest that utilize rewards and experience bars to trick players into completing tedious, repetitive activities.
While on the topic of Nook Miles, I’m of the mindset that this feature is responsible for the thing I found most frustrating about New Horizons: tool durability. In previous games you’d collect tools to make use of in your daily life. In New Horizons all of these tools are constructed, which fits nicely into the new crafting system. But they break. Often. It feels like the limited durability of your tools was made as such specifically in support of having several arbitrary goals around the number of tools you’ve made and broken. This is especially frustrating as your flow state is interrupted continuously to make additional tools, which proved a continuous thorn in my side.
The final grievance I have with New Horizons comes from the number of features that were cut when compared against it predecessor New Leaf. Art collection, multiplayer mini-games, a handful of event based NPCs, diving, and decorative bushes were absent from the game at launch. I’d not have had a problem with this, except many of these features returned in content updates shortly after New Horizons launched. It feels suspiciously like the content was withheld so it could be used as advertising material to keep players invested for longer. While I don’t expect this will bug many, I found it pretty insidious and would hate to see other games follow a similar structure because of the success New Horizons has enjoyed.
Okay so what do I actually like about New Horizons? I’m glad you asked.
House customization is the area where I think the biggest improvements have been made. Lessons appear to have been applied from spin-off title Happy Home Designer and now players have an editor for laying out their house. No longer do you need to shuffle items around in your inventory or play a painful game of Tetris as you orient everything. You can now freely place and move furniture on a whim until you achieve your desired house layout.
Town customization has also seen a huge improvement. Players are given much more freedom in terms of how they customize the layout and visual appearance of their town. Just about everything can be freely moved, including trees and flowers, and you’re also able to place furniture throughout the town. In addition, you can now change where rivers and cliff exist with terraforming. This gives players a lot of freedom to express themselves making a wholly unique island to show off to friends and family.
My only gripe with town customization is that I wish the home editor was also available for customizing your town. You’re unfortunately made to do all town customization manually with your character, so getting everything just right can be a bit of a pain.
On a more personal note, I also like the changes to the museum, though I don’t feel like that significantly improves the experience. Filling your town’s museum with all the different endemic life has been an enjoyable side project amidst the ho-hum of daily life in previous games. However, in New Horizons things are laid out such that the museum looks like an actual museum from the real world instead of a video game collection of crap you’ve found. Exploring it was an absolute joy.
Other than that everything still feels fairly faithful to older entries. As previously stated, Animal Crossing hasn’t ever taken large leaps forward. It is, however, nice to return to the simple day-to-day life of a world wherein the worst thing that can happen is your animal friends don’t like your outfit very much.
All said, I don’t dislike New Horizons, but I do have a lot of problems with the majority of the newly introduced features. The way crafting and Nook Miles were implemented really rubbed me up the wrong way, and tool degradation seems to be the one thing that is ubiquitously hated. If you enjoyed older titles in the franchise I’m sure you’ll enjoy New Horizons, though the new systems may take some getting used to. However, New Horizons feels like it will be easily superseded by a more polished sequel much in the same way some of the older games have been.
Notes: all screenshots used herein were those provided as press images prior to release. I still have no idea how to get screenshots off the Switch.