Though they’ve been around for almost two decades, the Animal Crossing games are admittedly a bit of a hard sell. For the uninitiated, Animal Crossing is a life-sim game that invites you to trade in your humdrum existence to live in the woods among adorable, talking animal critters. It sounds cute and cuddly, but before long, you’ll find yourself scrambling to repay a raccoon loan shark and mercilessly hunting down that one piece of furniture to complete your virtual kitchenette. Animal Crossing: New Horizons takes that heartwarming gameplay loop away from an established town and asks you to plant your roots on a deserted island. For series veterans like myself, it’s familiar territory, but I soon discovered that a lot of the joy comes from not only soaking up the sun but also digging into the many new features New Horizons has to offer.
I’m a Survivor
A short tutorial sequence helped me generate my island and taught me the basics, but after that, I was on my own. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that New Horizons started me off with no shops, no town hall, and even entire parts of my island that were locked away. For the first time in franchise history, my town truly was a blank canvas for me to play with, and that made my mind giddy with possibilities.
Like other entries in the franchise, progression is dictated by the in-game clock which moves in real time. So when Tom Nook announces that a new building will open tomorrow, you really gotta wait until tomorrow. Progress comes at a snail’s pace, but that’s kinda the point. Every day is an opportunity in New Horizons, and by withholding so much content early on, it felt monumental when I finally had something new to experience. Checking my island every day became a part of my real-life routine to the point where even sleeping became exciting; after all, Nook’s Cranny may stock my dream wallpaper tomorrow. I’m 50 hours in, and I still feel the pull to return to my island and see what’s new.
In keeping with the island survivor theme, crafting makes its debut appearance in the franchise. Trailer footage admittedly made me a bit sceptical about this inclusion. Crafting has become a tired game mechanic recently, and frankly, the last thing Animal Crossing needs is more busywork. To my surprise, though, I was quick to embrace this feature thanks not only to how easy it is to gather resources, but also how much it gave value to my creations. Furniture no longer felt like trinkets I was lucky enough to spot in a sale; they became symbols of pride. Like a piece of home-constructed IKEA furniture, I found I’d made an unlikely attachment to the bookshelves and hanging baskets that adorn my home.
However, my eyes rolled at the new breakable tools. Only a few swipes of my bug net caused it to crumble in my hands. If I didn’t have a spare, I had to go back, gather resources, head to a worktable, and craft a new one. This layer attempts to give tools a sense of value, but more often than not, it hurts the flow of gameplay, especially when I just want to kick back and fish without interruption.
Past the game’s tutorial, it becomes clear that this new Animal Crossing is designed to give the player a wealth of brand new customisation options. For the first time, I can paint my furniture and easily arrange items around my home thanks to a full-fledged interior design mode inspired by The Sims. The radical ‘Island Designer App’ even lets me reshape my island’s infrastructure and layout at my will. Perhaps the new addition I appreciate the most is the ability to furnish the great outdoors. I’m currently in the process of recreating the Teddy Bear’s Picnic deep in the woods, something I could only dream about making in past installments.
The design thread that binds these new features together is how they offer a newfound sense of agency. I was only a guest in previous Animal Crossing games, quietly living in someone else’s town, but in New Horizons, I’m an architect, an ambassador, and the master of ceremonies for my own little island. The control this afforded me meant I became truly invested in the development of my town, and it’s immensely gratifying to know that every single element exists as a direct result of my actions. When I’m tired of building, then I can relax and marvel at what I’ve achieved over the long haul.
For all its new bells and whistles, the franchise has arguably lost a small part of itself in this latest installment. Several of the weirder elements that cemented the series as a cult hit have been sanded away as Nintendo double-downs on the game’s cute factor, which occasionally registers as a little one-note. Omissions of familiar faces like the stern policeman, Cooper, and the java-obsessed pigeon, Brewster, hurt the most, though. The world feels decidedly emptier without them. It’s like going to a birthday party then hearing that my best friends weren’t invited. New Horizons is still a unique experience, but its personality doesn’t shine as brightly compared to the previous games.
What does dazzle is the presentation. The Animal Crossing games have seldom been lookers, but New Horizons stuns in handheld mode and on the big screen. Individual leaves rustle in the morning breeze, and marmalade sunsets bathe the evening skies in warming hues. This is a good-looking game, and it knows it. The new camera function urged me to oggle every blade of grass, and once I took that magnifying glass to the world, plenty of pleasing details revealed themselves to me.
Never before has an Animal Crossing game given me so much creative freedom. At all times, I felt I had total authority in deciding what kind of home I’d create for myself and my animal neighbours. Gratification didn’t come immediately, though. Like growing a real-life garden, the process of developing my town from the ground up was slow but wholly fulfilling.
I still bemoan the absence of mainstay characters and how the franchise’s personality has homogenized. Without question, players will get a different, rather than a definitive, Animal Crossing experience here. But over time, I came to realise that change isn’t something to fear. The island getaway package provides a refreshing change of scenery for the franchise and a perfect excuse to layer in new bits of gameplay, so much so that once you accustom yourself to the island’s pace of life, you’ll find it hard to leave. My advice to series veterans and newcomers alike? Don’t just pack a suitcase, rent a moving truck, ‘cause you’ll be playing New Horizons for years to come.
This review of Animal Crossing: New Horizons is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game.
Wholesome and endearing, Animal Crossing: New Horizons provides the player with a refreshing level of flexibility while delivering non-stop smiles. Plant your roots on this deserted island - you won’t regret it.
Writer of words for tired eyes and lover of games that make me smile. Blogger and YouTube content creator who can’t keep quiet when it comes to gaming. Don’t like my work? Fight me IRL in Smash Brothers.