Georgina Howlett jets off on a deserted island adventure for this review of Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons hit store shelves on March 20th, just prior to COVID-19 sending many countries into lockdown. For its players, New Horizons has been an escape and distraction from the ongoing worldwide pandemic, with its cheerful graphics, peaceful gameplay and day-by-day playability offering a thoroughly engaging escapist experience. Here, thanks to Nook Inc.’s “Deserted Island Getaway Package”, you’re given the chance to jet away to a deserted island and start a new life alongside two random animal neighbours.
For the first time ever, you’re able to choose your preferred island layout from four available options, and also select whether you live in the Northern or Southern hemisphere – meaning you can experience your real-life seasons and weather in-game if you so wish. Eight skin tones are offered at character creation for the first time ever, too, allowing players to choose an in-game avatar that represents them as closely as possible. After choosing your name, date of birth, appearance and what you’d most like to find on a desert island, you fly away to your new island home – and there’s no turning back.
Your first night is spent introducing yourself to your neighbours, deciding where you all should live, and getting to grips with the game’s controls. One of the game’s new central mechanics – resource gathering – is also introduced here, with Tom Nook enlisting your help to collect branches and fruit to create a communal bonfire and celebratory drinks. This sequence acts as a neat introduction to what the new furniture and tool crafting systems require from you, while also giving you a brief glimpse at what your island looks like. Once you have chosen the name for your island and earned the title of “Resident Representative” (a.k.a. the only person who actually pays for anything), you hurry away to bed to begin playing the game properly, with its real-time mechanics, daily visitors and timed events kicking in as soon as you wake. Armed with the knowledge that gathering materials and resources, crafting items and tools and engaging with your neighbours is of paramount importance, it is then time to explore and enjoy your island.
Island life starts off slow – arguably too slow – with only a portion of the full island accessible to you to start with. Very soon, though, more and more areas open up to you, with plenty of new tasks from Tom Nook to go along with them. For your first few days, you’re living out of a tent, busying yourself with the staple Animal Crossing activities: gathering materials and branches, shaking trees and running from bees, selling fruit and shells, bug-catching and fishing, fossil-hunting and flower-planting – and, of course, chatting to your neighbours and the Nooks. Paying off your first home loan soon becomes possible, and you’re upgraded to a small humble house, to be expanded upon and built up as you see fit. This first loan is paid in Nook Miles, introducing players to the new Nook Miles system.
Nook Miles are a much-welcome addition to the Animal Crossing franchise that are awarded to players for completing incremental daily and long-term goals. They are also earned by completing all sorts of simple tasks, including (but not limited to) shooting down balloons, hosting visitors and visiting other islands, buying items from the shops and playing for a certain number of days. While the beauty of Animal Crossing is that you can truly play it in any way you like – with no expectations as to what you should achieve – Nook Miles reward you for doing basically anything, and encourage you to engage with all the activities the game has to offer. You can either complete the objectives given to you, or ignore them and play your own way – it is entirely your choice. With new neighbours like Judy, Raymond and Audie winning over the hearts of players, Nook Miles Tickets – bought for 2,000 Nook Miles from the Resident Services ATM – have also become a premium currency in the online Animal Crossing community, regularly being bought and gifted in order for players to try and track down their neighbour “dreamies”.
Your continued investment of time into the game and your hard-earned Bells into the local economy leads to key structural developments; Resident Services upgrades from a tent to a proper town hall, Timmy and Tommy open their own store, and Blathers opens a museum after receiving ten donations of fossils and specimens from you. This gives players a true sense of involvement and importance in the process of transforming their island into a bustling community. Island visitors – including Flick, CJ, Celeste, Saharah and Kicks – soon flood in on a random basis, with further establishments – the Able Sisters’ shop and the campsite, for instance – eventually opening as well. Some returning locations see the introduction of new features in New Horizons, such as the Able Sisters’ fitting room (where you can try on colour variants of each available item, for instance, and all purchases are immediately transported to your home storage), while others expand over time – such as the Museum gaining an art gallery, and the Nooks’ shop upgrading to a department store.
While these developments are exciting, it is disappointing that other fan-favourite outlets – like Brewster’s Cafe, Shampoodle, Kicks’ Shoe Store and the Police Station – have not made their return. Many staple characters are also missing, with Daisy-Mae replacing Joan, Label taking on the role of Gracie, Tortimer nowhere to be seen, and old man Resetti completely out of a job now that auto-save has been implemented. Players can only speculate as to whether any of them will make a return, though at this point, it seems highly unlikely.
While preparing your island for that all-important visit from the legendary K.K. Slider, you may find yourself getting involved with the all-too-attractive turnip market, or island-hopping using Nook Miles Tickets in search of crafting materials, rare bugs and fish, or new dreamy neighbours. Neighbours are much more engaging in New Horizons than in previous Animal Crossing titles, not only speaking to each other and interacting with each other without your prompting (e.g. visiting each other’s houses, and taking part in yoga outside together) but also being much more present around the island, using placed furniture, and enjoying a cheeky Vacation Juice or sandwich every so often. As well as buying your unwanted items and giving you random gifts, they are also responsible for teaching you Reactions as opposed to Dr. Shrunk this time around, running up to you in earnest whenever they have a new one to teach you.
The completely customisable gameplay experience that New Horizons offers is one of the best things about it. There are the small things of course, such as designing your passport (where you can display a profile image, title and catchphrase of your own choosing), changing your hair colour and (finally!) being able to place furniture outside, including moving your mailbox around – but these pale in comparison to completely revamping your island through the island designer app, using the custom design system to reupholster and revarnish your furniture, and giving your island flag and paths a new signature look if you wish.
With the island designer app, you can build and knock down cliffs, fill in or expand waterways, and completely change every aspect of your island’s layout if you want to. Paired with this, all buildings except Resident Services can be relocated, allowing for your dream village layout, and there are a wealth of different options even for your house once your loans are paid, including roof colour customisation and exterior customisation. While at first exploring the island and getting to grips with the chilled Animal Crossing lifestyle are your priorities, all of these customisation options mean you’ll soon find yourself developing your island into an idyllic paradise of your own design. As frustrating as the island designer tools (and regular tools, due to the introduction of durability) can sometimes be, and as exhausting it is to repeatedly thumb the A button to craft each square of your island exactly how you want it, is an undeniably exhilarating process that, once completed, gives a thrilling sense of accomplishment. That is, of course, until you decide you hate it all and want to start from scratch.
No matter what you get up to in New Horizons, it is impossible to ignore how gorgeous the game looks and sounds. Animal Crossing veterans like myself will fully appreciate the dramatic step-up from New Leaf, while new players are in for a treat. The graphics are polished and refined, the background music calming and inviting, and the sound effects – of the movement of the ocean waves, of weather effects during storms, and tree leaves rustling in the wind – really heighten the immersion.
Perhaps some of the most noticeable graphical improvements are exhibited by the museum’s interior, and the fancy pocket encyclopaedia for bugs and fish. There are fully-explorable interactive environments for the bugs, fish, and fossils in the museum, with pathways through exhibits to traverse, and isolated displays you can circle and photograph using the brand-new photo mode if you wish. In the encyclopaedia, you can choose to view either the cartoon-y versions of the bugs and fish that appear in the game, or else transform the view into a realistic one, with the real-life appearances of the same bugs and fish displayed – giving it a whole new educational value for younger players especially.
Though at first you might find the background music repetitive, and you can’t enjoy K.K.’s dulcet tones on a Saturday night, fear not; a change of pace soon comes when Resident Services gets a fresh lick of paint and K.K.’s first visit is over. You can safely look forward to ambient hourly tunes and performances from K.K. that will leave you saddened when they’re over, but excited to hear what’s next. These hourly tunes in New Horizons are, however, a little disappointing. Unlike in previous games, they do not sound as unique, and if you find yourself picking up your Switch at the same time every day to play, you may soon find yourself bored of them. If you play for extended sessions each time, this isn’t as much of a problem, but for the casual player, it will be noticeable.
Online multiplayer returns in New Horizons, boasting the ability for up to eight players to play together on each other’s islands. This (and the custom design machine in the Able Sisters’ shop) requires a Nintendo Switch Online subscription to be used, with the subscription also granting access to exclusive in-game items. When visiting another player, you can purchase from their shops and travelling merchants, trade unused DIY recipes, buy and sell turnips for good prices, catalogue each other’s items and more. Need some help with landscaping? Simply make your visitors “best friends” in your friends list, and you can all get right to work with your shovels and axes. Getting everyone together for a cute photo session has never been easier than now, too, with the new photo mode making it easy to capture those perfect moments together. While visiting others is enjoyable, and the new Dodo Code system makes visiting strangers’ islands even easier, it is a shame that much of what made the multiplayer in New Leafso special is lacking. Tortimer’s Island – with all its minigames and rare species appeal – is absent, as is the swimsuit, making frantic swimming races around the island with friends impossible. While fans predict that future updates may reintroduce these features, and also add new multiplayer activities, for now, online play is sadly limited to the fun players can invent for themselves.
Multiplayer is just one feature in dire need of some quality of life improvements, however. As mentioned previously, the island designer tools are clunky, as is crafting; resources in storage are inaccessible from crafting tables, and quick recipes like fish bait cannot be crafted in bulk. Purchasing several of the same type of item, as well as variants of the same items, from the Able Sisters is a chore, requiring the player to leave the changing room between purchases. You are limited to five catalogue orders a day, making island development and trading items with other players much more difficult, and you still cannot place fish and bug containers for other players to pick up despite this being a long-desired feature for many Animal Crossingveterans. Looking to the future of New Horizons, it certainly looks bright in terms of new content and events, but it will be the little improvements like these that would really make the game shine brighter.
In spite of its flaws, I have no qualms about calling New Horizons the best instalment in the franchise to date. Even if it does need some quality of life improvements and upgraded multiplayer offerings, its gameplay loop is satisfying, its graphics and music are bright and engaging, and the regular updates promised by Nintendo for the game going forward mean that there will always be new content to enjoy even when your museum is filled, your dream island has been carved out, and your bank is bursting from the seams with Bells after copious amounts of successful turnip sales. If you’re looking for a relaxing, no-pressure game with a lot to offer its players by way of choice, customisation and creativity, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is definitely the game for you.
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