Animal Crossing: New Horizons walks on an unlikely tightrope: on one hand, developing a barren island into a charming village is time-consuming; on another, its relaxed pace and incredible customization options make it universally appealing
As the Animal Crossing franchise evolved from the original GameCube release, the first installment of the series to be made available all around the world, to New Leaf, the Nintendo 3DS effort that predates New Horizons by a whopping eight years, it goes without saying that the introduction of improvements on established features as well as the creation of refreshing mechanics have happened with pleasant frequency. So much, in fact, that trying to list them all would be a daunting – or perhaps even impossible – errand. However, if pressed into trying to either pinpoint a specific area in which the saga showed the greatest progress or summarize the journey of the property ever since its inception, most players would likely point to how – as new entries came – gamers were given an ever-expanding power over what they could control in the virtual village where they would inevitably spend hundreds of hours throughout the year.
Although excellent, the first Animal Crossing did not bless its residents with too much room for customization. Sure, they had total freedom to decorate their homes, but the village itself could not be altered in the slightest, with the exception of some light gardening achieved via planting trees and flowers. Fast-forward a decade, passing through both Wild World and City Folk in the process, and by the time Animal Crossing reached New Leaf, its forth entry, players could do so much more within that digital world that they were awarded with the position of being the town’s mayor, exercising – thereby – the prerogative to fund the construction of decorative features, functional buildings, as well as bridges, and earning the right to do whatever they saw fit.
If customization power is indeed the best way to measure the evolution of the Animal Crossing franchise, then New Horizons is – by a landslide – its greatest leap forward. In previous installments, whenever players were done setting up their character and general details of their village, they were kicked into a location that was pretty much neatly established. Infrastructure elements such as bridges, ramps, and a Town Hall were set up; a handful of villagers already roamed the place as if they had been living there for quite a while; and a tidy, albeit bare-bones, landscape existed. In New Horizons, though, Tom Nook – the series’ central entrepreneur – has a novel business, and upon signing up for it, players are stripped away from any sort of comfort and thrown into the most isolated of settings: a deserted island.
After choosing a map whose river and elevation configuration is to their liking, gamers will quickly find out that life in such a scenario is both far more interesting and far more demanding than the ones they experienced in the towns of prior entries. Amenities like a general store and a tailor shop are nowhere to be seen. The poor and small starting houses of the past are replaced by even humbler quarters, as players and the two animals that follow them there have to sleep in tents. Weeds, one of the nightmares of those trying to maintain a perfect town, are so abundant they are present in the hundreds. There is no museum, as Blathers – the owl curator who traditionally runs the institution – is not even aware the island exists. And basic features, like bridges that allow one to cross rivers and inclines that pave the way to reach higher plateaus, are obviously out of the picture.
There is no denying New Horizons begins awfully restrictive and basic. The biggest example of such nature is in how, during the first couple of days on the island, players will be bound to a small region of the map – consisting of less than one-third of the total landmass – because they will not have the vaulting pole that lets them cross rivers without using a bridge. Furthermore, it takes a few extra days on top of that so that one can acquire the portable ladder that will allow them to reach higher ground and, finally, explore the place completely. However, not only is that roughness part and parcel of tackling the challenge of living in an isolated place, but it is also a considerable part of what makes New Horizons so remarkable, as it leaves it up to players to – little by little – walk the steps that will make the desolate island grow into a village that is bursting with life and beauty; a prospect that gets even more alluring when the visual splendor of the game’s graphics is taken into account.
New Horizons is Animal Crossing as the world knows it, but with a revitalized luster that comes from the setting it embraces. As usual, following the system’s internal clock, with the in-game date and time always replicating those of the real world, the game primes in renovating itself constantly: the products that are for sale at the local store change every day; available resources are renewed after twenty-four hours; planted tress and flowers grow slowly until they bloom in maturity; villagers arrive and move out as time goes on; bugs and fish appear according to the month and period of the day; the environment changes as seasons shift; unique visitors, carrying exclusive items that can be bought or acquired in some other way, show up almost daily; large infrastructure projects are completed overnight; four new fossils to be dug up and donated pop up when morning comes, and so does the mail; popular musician K.K. Slider holds a concert on Saturday nights; turnips are sold on Sundays before noon; special events celebrating major calendar dates are held accordingly; and so forth.
It is a very unique configuration. On one hand, it forces players to simply wait for a new day to come so they can get to a task or see a project materialize, which may cause anxious folks to either become frustrated or change the Nintendo Switch’s internal clock to skip ahead in time. On another, it extends the game’s life to hundreds of hours that are scattered across one or more years, and it turns every day into a series of small pleasant activities – such as fishing, hunting bugs, acquiring resources, shopping, paying the mortgage, gardening, talking to villagers, running errands for them, donating creatures and fossils to the museum’s collection, and developing the island – that gamers can carry out as they feel like it, given Animal Crossing has no ultimate goal.
Save for a few minor differences, most of the core mechanics retain their state as seen in New Leaf. The types of fossils, fish, and bugs have been expanded, but getting them works as usual. Paying one’s debts to Tom Nook causes the house to progressively go from a tent to a six-room mansion. Trees, bamboo shoots, and bushes are available to be planted. Flowers, of which there are two new kinds, can still be bred to produce the coveted mixed colors, but thankfully – this time around – they do not need to be watered daily and also do not disappear when trampled over. And the existing villagers, more than three hundred, draw from the same pool of thirty-five species and eight personalities, but show a slightly different behavior in how they, disappointingly, do not ask for favors as often as they did, and in how – on a brighter note to those who care about the ten animals that live on their island – they always ask for permission before moving out.
That stability in design leaves the improvements carried out by New Horizons to emerge from other areas. And, in that regard, it does not disappoint, mostly because it gives players a previously unseen amount of power to control the development of their island. With the exception of the Town Hall, gamers can pick the exact position where all buildings will be placed, including villagers’ houses; and once that is taken care of, they also have the ability to move those structures to new locations.
Likewise, since the island starts out with no bridges or ramps, it is also left up to players to choose where they are going to be, how many of those will be created (with the limit being set to having eight of each), and how they are going to look, a choice that will affect the price of their construction. Yet, when it comes to town customization, that power – though appealing – is not the most significant one, as two new features surpass it with ease.
Firstly, there is the decoration. In New Leaf, players already had some say over what projects their town would display, like a fountain and a park clock; the options, however, were limited to a relatively small list. New Horizons kicks that barrier down by allowing a dozen different types of fences as well as nearly all pieces of furniture – of which the game has more than 1,000 – to be placed outside.
Consequently, where in previous games making one’s house look great was the game’s greatest aesthetic challenge, in New Horizons gamers will see that task expanded to the extent of the whole island, and the variety of items available will let their imaginations run wild, whether it is in creating their own takes on traditional scenarios like parks, gardens, yards, and housing complexes or tackling more outrageous environments like diners, fishing spots, outdoor fossil exhibits, star-gazing areas, haunted forests, and whatever else they can come up with.
Secondly, there are the terraforming tools. With them, players will be able to not only lay down paths (an activity that was achieved in previous games through other means that were not as accessible and visually pleasing), but also actively shape their island’s rivers and mountains. Working as the ultimate customization feature of New Horizons, terraforming displays Nintendo’s willingness to give gamers as much control as possible over what their town will look like, opening up the gates to an unpredictable amount of possibilities and inevitably generating marvelous showcases of design prowess that will only be reached after hundreds of hours.
However, even to those who are either not too creative or lack the time to go for that threshold, the game will remain a pleasure nonetheless thanks to the neat little projects that can be taken on and the warm satisfaction that comes when they materialize. Even if wonderful, these steps taken towards deep customization offer a few quirks that end up being questionable.
The status of the Town Hall as the only building that cannot be moved comes off as odd and will block some players from fulfilling certain landscaping desires. The same applies to the limitation that dictates beaches, peninsulas, and river mouths cannot be terraformed. Moreover, it is painfully frustrating how it is impossible to relocate buildings a couple of squares away from where they are, since the area in which they will be placed has to be completely free; because of that, such action requires two steps (and as a consequence two payments and two days) to be completed, as players will have to move the structure far from where it is and then back to its original slightly adjusted placement. Likewise, the fact neither inclines nor bridges can be moved, having to be demolished and rebuilt somewhere else instead; and the limit of only being able to move one structure and construct one bridge and one incline per day also emerge as attempts to pad the process of development.
Finally, there are three minor complaints that can be directed towards the terraforming feature. The first is that some sort of cursor could have been implemented to tell players the exact square they will transform and how it will change, as it is often easy to terraform an unintended unit of the map or achieve an odd result, especially when one is still getting the hang of the skill. The second is that, in that sense, the addition of a button to undo a previously applied change would have been wonderful. And the third comes in how terraforming is unlocked a bit too late, as it is only made available when the island reaches a three-star rating, an achievement that lies behind more than two weeks of gameplay.
In that final issue, the problem rests in how – by that time – most players will already have put many buildings around the island and terraforming the place according to their wishes will end up – most of the times – entailing many relocations that would not have been necessary if terraforming was accessed earlier.
Alongside those powerful landscaping elements, the other major feature introduced by New Horizons is one that walks hand in hand with the independence required to live on an isolated island. The crafting system has players collecting a wide range of materials from the nature that surrounds them – be them different types of wood from trees, unique ores from stones, shells, fruits, twigs, weeds, and flowers – and then taking those to a do-it-yourself bench to create items.
Consequently, differently from its predecessors, in which all furniture and tools could be bought, in New Horizons there are literally hundreds of those that can only be acquired through crafting. Before those items are made, though, gamers actually have to learn the recipes that will produce them, something that is achieved by finding villagers who are executing do-it-yourself projects, checking the beach for a message in a bottle that washes ashore daily, or simply slowly executing the tasks Tom Nook hands out in the early stages of the game and that work as a minor tutorial in which one learns how to craft and use tools like the shovel, the net, the rod, the watering can, the vaulting pole, and the ladder.
From a practical standpoint, what crafting does is adding yet more daily activities to the fabric of Animal Crossing, as looking for resources and recipes become as integral to one’s everyday routine as finding fossils, checking for hybrid flowers, and shopping. From that standpoint, it is an utterly wonderful addition to the saga, one that gets even brighter when one considers that many items – be them crafted or not – can be taken to the do-it-yourself benches to be customized with new colors or user-created patterns. However, as it seems to be the case with most of what New Horizons does, there are tiny bothersome problems.
For starters, crafting in bulk is not possible, which means that if gamers want to create multiple instances of the same item, they will have to press A and watch the building animation repeatedly. Additionally, it is disappointing how some pieces of furniture that have multiple colors are not customizable and have to – instead – be tracked down through shopping. To make matters worse, a few items actually have colors that are locked to the game, which will force players to do online trading if they want to have a specific variation.
Lastly, and perhaps worst of all, Nintendo takes advantage of the fact tools can be crafted to give them a durability threshold; in other words, they break, with the worst versions of the fishing rod and the bug-catching net bursting after less than twenty uses. Although the durability system clicked in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, when swords could be found in the dozens with ease, in New Horizons that trait comes off as an annoyance that makes players abruptly stop what they are doing every once in a while to craft.
Much like the crafting system, there is another new feature of New Horizons that greatly contributes to extending the game’s daily legs while also giving extra rewards for those who jump into their virtual island a little bit every day. The Nook Miles Rewards Program is a pompous name for a clever, and lengthy, list of achievements that awards players with points as they complete tasks. Smartly, while dozens of them are only cleared in the long run, like crafting more than three hundred items or participating in all seasonal fishing tourneys, a group of five concerns little daily tasks like watering a handful of flowers, talking to three villagers, catching a specific bug, or chopping some wood, with an achievement that is cleared being replaced by a new random one immediately.
What the program does is further push players towards remaining hooked to the Animal Crossing gameplay loop, as the points they accumulate can be traded for rewards like exclusive furniture and do-it-yourself recipes, upgrades to one’s inventory space, and more. Given that the list of goodies that can be bought is very limited – at least in the state in which the game is one month after its release – the main draw of the program ends up being the achievements themselves (especially the big ones that require a lot of effort) and a specific reward called a Nook Miles Ticket.
With that item in hand, players can head to the airport and catch a plane to one random deserted island. Truthfully, many of the destinations end up being rather dull, serving mostly as a way for gamers to either find extra trees and stones from which they can extract materials or perhaps dig up a new fossil. That reality – in turn – shows Nintendo could have done a better job creating a wider and more appealing assortment of islands. However, there is a dozen of them, which appear relatively rarely, that offer great surprises, like one that has numerous hybrid flowers for the taking, another that holds only large fish, a coveted treasure island that has a bunch of money-producing rocks, one that spawns valuable (and dangerous) tarantulas or scorpions, and a few others.
The airport also serves as the gateway to a competent online system that lets players travel to other islands or welcome visitors. Its highlight comes in how ridiculously easy it is to visit the islands of strangers, a quality that greatly smooths out the process of making trades. All that it takes for that to happen is for one player to open their gates and write down a temporary five-digit code. By passing it to others, they can head to their own airports, input the combination, and fly. Despite that positive note, the online mode of New Horizons is hampered by how, when someone is either arriving or leaving, all players that are on the island have their gameplay interrupted by a notably long animation that showcases the arrival or departure of a player.
There is no denying that New Horizons boasts the frustrating habit of coming up with absolutely bright features only to then slightly diminish their impact by either overlooking small details or implementing questionable ideas that produce minor annoyances. In a direct comparison with its immediate predecessor, New Leaf, that duality itself becomes rather obvious, because while it absolutely trumps that already excellent game by giving players an unforeseen level of control over the development of their village, it simultaneously leaves a bit to be desired due to how various of the marvelous features present in its predecessor get left behind for no clear reason whatsoever.
Although they may be added in the future via updates, it is a shame elements like the Dream Suite (which allowed players to upload their town to the internet so it could be visited at all times), the paradise of perpetual summer of Tortimer Island, the pawn shop, the café, and dozens of unique classic furniture sets are nowhere to be seen. With them, New Horizons would have been a mighty juggernaut of a game. Without them, it absolutely stuns, but it may cause those who are more demanding to feel like it could have gotten some extra development prior to release. Nevertheless, thanks to its customization goodness, never has a game in the franchise been more satisfying than this Nintendo Switch installment.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons walks on a tightrope whose existence is utterly unlikely. One will have a hard time finding, in the entirety of the Nintendo canon that existed prior to its release, a title that can extract as many hours out of players that go into it. Simultaneously, even though a time-consuming nature is often reserved to games that appeal to few, Animal Crossing: New Horizons carries an allure that is universal. The usual premise of living and taking care of a little virtual village filled with lovely characters has been expanded to the concept of developing a barren deserted island into a charming little town floating in the middle of the ocean.
It is a process that takes weeks, progresses slowly, requires patience, and features a great deal of grinding. But it is also a journey that lets players perform tasks at their own pace and, thanks to the marvelous customization powers included in New Horizons, exercise their creativity freely and without any pressure, carefully building a personal virtual paradise that has the potential to keep producing joy for a good number of years. Such is the magic of Animal Crossing, and in New Horizons it is better than ever.