I unfortunately must discuss reality at times in order to properly write this review for Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
At the time of this writing, the COVID-19 outbreak has officially reached the height of pandemic status while my city urged people to stay indoors for an indefinite amount of time. I am about to enter my third week of self-isolation since my job has mandated working from home.
The outside world has become pretty despairing right now, and for many, such as myself, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the sort of reprieve we all desperately needed as its release date drew near. The fandom never died, but it certainly found a resurgence the moment early teasers of New Horizons dropped during E3 2019. Animal Crossing discussion threads were brimming with active life once again. The memes grew more and more unhinged with each passing day, and the spicier the hot takes became the more unwanted and off the deep end they were.
It has been about eight years since the last release of a game in the main series with Animal Crossing: New Leaf in 2012, so it is no wonder Animal Crossing fans were getting thirstier for something new. Happy Home Designer downplayed the traditional game’s wider open simulation by only focusing on its sandbox and crafting elements, but its legacy at least lies in the fact that some of its mechanics that ended up getting re-translated for New Horizons. Other than that, the game has been critiqued as a very shallow interpretation of what makes Animal Crossing successful. Pocket Camp had done its job for some by filling a void, but it was simply not enough, being the hollowed out shell of a much fuller game. In addition, microtransactions being a huge component of the gameplay was a huge hindrance, a system for some reason Nintendo continues to consistently not improve upon across its other mobile IPs.
It was finally the day of reckoning when Animal Crossing: New Horizons internationally released on March 20, 2020 (and well, also Doom Eternal if you’re one of those other people). Gamestop and its subsidiary EB Games had no shame in being absolutely heinous during a distressing public health crisis just to take advantage of the expected high sales of the highly pre-ordered game. Some customers even received the game early in hopes that it would be a “smart” strategy in staggering the amount of people who would physically show up to the respective stores. At the very least, the moment anyone got their respective copy of the game, you can bet that is all they have ever been investing their time into since.
Spoiler warning: This review will discuss and show mechanics and characters that do not get introduced until after more than 24 hours of average playing time.
As with any Animal Crossing game, you assume the role of a human in a world filled with anthropomorphic animals. You move to a deserted island after purchasing a getaway package from Tom Nook, a business-dealing tanuki who has been a staple character throughout the series. This is not just another simple vacation however, as you are handed the task to build up a community from scratch. You are then taken through a character creation process that involves choosing the general layout of your island and deciding on your character’s appearance. Unlike previous games in the main series, the customization of your character is more versatile than ever, finally addressing a particular, recurring complaint where you cannot get darker skin unless you naturally tan during a sunny, summer day. (The spin-off title, Happy Home Designer, gets credit for introducing this concept to the series.) You can freely change your character’s appearance any time later on with the ability to wear anything liberated from two gender constraints.
Jumping right into the game, what stands out the most with New Horizons up front is having to endure a very linear, progressive set of steps to properly develop the foundation of your island. This may span across a week in real-time, provided that you are playing the game every single day. Many of the basic resources and NPCs classic Animal Crossing games are known for are not readily available, such as a general goods store or clothier. In addition, although your character typically does not have a proper home up front and will be stuck with a dinky tent for some time, even the villagers that you start off with in the beginning do not have a proper home yet either. Many of these things will change and develop with time based on what your character does. Temporarily, basic amenities and other residential services are instead provided by Tom Nook and his nephews at the island’s makeshift plaza.
Nook guides you through much of your first several days on the isle, tutorializing how to gather materials in order to craft them into things like tools and furniture. Once you learn how to make basic tools, you can use said tools to gather even more resources that were previously inaccessible to upgrade them. However, you still need to earn the recipes to make something at all, either through buying them or by other means. You will be eventually tasked with even greater endeavors, such as providing your villagers proper homes and supporting new institutions in an effort to grow the island.
This newly engineered crafting system is truly one of the most immersive new features in an Animal Crossing game. It is a reiteration of an already existing crafting system that appeared in the spin-off games, Happy Home Designer and Pocket Camp. Not only is the barrier of having to buy basic tools now removed since you can now make them, but you can pretty much now make anything that has appeared across the series to display them anywhere you want to your heart’s content. Later on, you will also earn the ability to repaint and reskin most of the things you can craft through customization kits that can be bought. The public works project feature from New Leaf is minimized now that almost everything from the game’s catalog can be planted anywhere, a feature that many have found to be too time intensive and laborious if you wanted to transplant something as little as a traffic light near the railroad. Public works projects are otherwise still necessary for major land development features that would be unlocked later on, such as building structures that would end up terraforming the map. This system also prevents a potential issue of getting “stuck” if you lose or break an item with no access to retrieve it. One of the newer tools introduced in New Horizons is a pole vault to leap over rivers into parts of the island initially inaccessible without bridges. A literal helicopter rescue system—suggested to be a service now run by our favorite angry mole Mr. Resetti—can be triggered to spawn you right back in front of your house if anything goes awry. And of course, the ability to make patterns and your own original, custom designs returns, paired with an even more advanced drawing system.
In order to download custom designs from other players, however, you need to download the Nintendo Switch Online app. New Horizons carries over the QR code system from New Leaf, and thus many designs that were created in that game can be carried over as well. This also creates an array of ways for you to transfer images created outside of the game to be easily imported right back into it. Whereas previous games take every pixel bit into account to be translated literally on the drawing canvas, New Horizons blurs and smooths out your final image for it to be rendered properly in-game. This can be a give or take depending on what you want in the end, either improving the image to smooth perfection, or creating a blurry, indistinguishable, fake-oil-paint-filtered mess. At the very least, everything is always editable. It would not be surprising if the latest Animal Crossing might have taken cues from other games with similar open simulation systems, such as Minecraft and Stardew Valley, taking note that the greater freedoms they have provided their players are popular.
The staples of catching bugs, reeling in fish, and collecting fossils remain, all wildly enhanced because the crafting system now adds a reason to everything. Many items that were previously useless, like weeds, now have purpose in building some recipes. Eating actually now has substantial effects on your character, providing a stamina meter that will prove itself useful when using tools. (Also, try using the toilet, trust me.) Nook Miles, a new, in-game currency earned by completing various tasks like a punch card system, can be used to purchase premium items, new abilities, and provide incentives. For example, Miles are needed to get a special ticket to travel to a remote, randomly generated isle that might be filled with exotic items or creatures that may not be initially accessible on your home island. Players familiar with Animal Crossing: New Leaf, would recall the bawdy sailor tunes sung by Kapp’n the Kappa as he drove his boat to these islands. Instead, you are now drifted off via flight through Dodo Airlines. New Horizons keeps and enhances the numerous Easter eggs and fun tricks Animal Crossing vets would know all the while staying fresh for new players eager to learn. It gamifies the Animal Crossing experience in far more ways than it ever has.
It would not be Animal Crossing without the stylized anthropomorphic variety of animals to support its largely, cute aesthetic. The series’ literal, colorful cast of characters is its most defining visual trait from its recognizable NPCs and variety of villagers that you can possibly obtain when you develop your town. From Bob, the meme-famous lazy cat that sports an iconic, flowery dress, to someone as divisive as Pietro, a sheep that literally looks like a dolled up rainbow clown, everyone has their likes and dislikes out of hundreds of generated animals. New Horizons ups the ante in fleshing out these characters with just a sprinkle of more expression in their day to day routines. Your villagers can now be sometimes seen changing their wardrobe or doing mundane tasks such as cleaning or foraging their own materials for their own personal reasons. Although in past games I may see someone fishing, I would have never seen someone actively working at a crafting table, doing yoga in a leotard, or singing a tune to themselves until this game. Giving gifts to them is also a more flexible option when you talk to them, making it easier to influence what they display in their house in an ode to your friendship.
Only so many words can stress how beautiful the game is, further enhanced by a weather system that is even more dynamic than previous games. The weather adjusts to the seasons of the Northern or Southern hemisphere, depending on your real-world location. All the subtleties of the elements are taken into account, from the winds fluttering tree leaves and the cloth of your villagers’ clothing, to the wetness absorbed in the ground and the droplets hanging off plants during rain. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is drop dead gorgeous, and the developers certainly knew who to pander to when including the enhanced in-game camera feature.
Much of the menu interface is now translated through apps you can look at on your Nook Phone™, a specially programmed smartphone granted to you by Tom Nook. From here, you can access numerous directories, such as the crafting recipes you acquired or custom designs. Most importantly, the updated camera now includes different filters and effects to create the perfect picture you want to capture—essentially providing you an even more extra process of screencapping beyond the Switch’s default camera. From faking the look of old film or adding a minimalistic, solid frame, anyone can be well on their way to being a social media star. You can move your character in a scene’s composition, all the while the false lens takes into account effects like blur focusing and forced perspective as if a real-life camera. Suffice to say, you cannot record video through it.
To the dismay of many, the game only supports one island per Switch system, which was a previous staple in previous games in which one system could only support one town. Many were hoping that the newest title in this generation of games would be able to support multiple isles. Both local and online-co-op are supported, granted that you are subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online. Again, another flaw people have considered given previous Animal Crossing games is that they did not require players to pay anything to use online features. This can be discouraging since the heart of New Horizons encourages a lot of online play for an ideal experience, especially when it comes to the utility of sharing items and designs. This is even more egregious given local co-op is barely robust with a lot of the resources shared due to the one-island-per-system rule. Animal Crossing: New Horizons now uses an autosave function which prevents soft game resets, but the game does not support Switch Online cloud saves. Although Nintendo had hinted at the possibility of being able to recover save data, nothing has been set in stone yet as to when that will happen.
With the new crafting system, hoarding items as is can get even more reckless than usual for anyone who is trying to be strategic in recipe prep. The game would benefit a lot if it had a few more streamlined features and quality of life improvements, such as being able to bulk craft and store. At the moment, you can only produce things one at a time, so it can get pretty monotonous if you know for a fact you need to craft multiples of the exact same thing. It would also aid immensely if the crafting system was also able to use things in both your inventory and storage, as opposed to forcing you to constantly run home to get the ingredients you need, but already have, just because they are not directly on your person.
Regardless of a few of these minute issues, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been far exceeding the equivalence of Pokémon GO’s unifying hype in the summer of 2016, slipping itself into the conversations of mainstream media and many non-gamers alike. There is nothing more poetic than a game revolving around outdoor exploration in finding its glory in a time when everyone is forced to be stuck inside.
The concept of a deserted island is an unattainable fantasy in a world like ours where any piece of land categorized as deserted is bound to have groups of uncontacted life or the slowly receding footsteps left behind on the sand by some self-serving influencer that recently encroached upon it. Many of us at times may have wished to whisk ourselves away to a solitary paradise confined to nature, but humanity’s own difficult, inescapable, and tumultuous relationship with the earth in itself makes such a vision a pipe dream.
Where Animal Crossing: New Horizons thrives not through its immersion or the concept of “realism”, but because of the fact that it knows it is in a universe so displaced from our own and wholly embraces that. Are the only things everyone eats fruit? Is there a hierarchy of animals in the evolutionary line that divides talking ones to the regular ones? Do interspecies relationships happen? Tom Nook often assures you that foraging and hunting bugs does no damage to the natural ecosystem of the island, a small reminder that illustrates the fantasy of a moldeable paradise far removed from potentially colonial and imperialist implications. My family hails from an archipelago that has had immeasurable amounts of trauma toiled upon it in its history, and these sorts of things are inescapable to ignore when considering these things.
What New Horizons provides is a rhetorical, developing island with inhabitants that are invincible to danger and toil, because such bad things do not even exist. Instead of spending too much time musing what potential historical disasters have never happened in the realm of Animal Crossing—and yes, I’ve seen those circulating posts debating about the aerosols restriction sign in the Dodo Airlines port, which was a regulation that always existed for a long time in flight travel, you conspiracy fiends—New Horizons is the perfect example of escapism in video games, enabling you to create a literal utopia free from the side effects or harming yourself, or anyone. It provides the very foundation and safe space for the socialist-hippie-commune we all wanted to shelter us and our friends from oppressive forces, when such expectations do not exist in reality. (Though at some point, you meet Harvey, a dog caricature of a late-60s era hippie that made his first appearance in the Welcome amiibo update of New Leaf. He invites you over to his private island in hopes of recruiting models for his photo studio. Take caution, kids.)
It is through New Horizons you can make decisions to defy the norms. Your island and the liberties you can take are free as they come without real consequence, because no one can hurt you here, and no one can make you scared. Playing something like Animal Crossing right now in a time of troubles, is honestly an act of self-care, and that is quite revolutionary. (You are also doing your part by staying indoors.)
Nintendo promises that New Horizons will receive frequent post-release updates and events to flavor life on the isle, but just as the games revolve around the premise of community-building, the series has always thrived thanks to its own fans. Even before the game finally landed on shores, there was always sustaining horniness for K.K. Slider while others have been busy concocting the most out-of-character, asinine things Isabelle can possibly do. All you need to do is take a quick search at all the extremely inventive and wacky custom designs already floating out in the aether for anyone to use and reshare. If for some reason you run out of things to do, the game is further enhanced by sharing the experience with others.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons can make things a little less lonely in an isolated world. Plant some trees. Tend to a garden. Talk to your neighbors. You can take things slow, one day at a time, or if you are being honest with yourself, speed things up to your comfortable place (you dirty time traveler). Although there are a few tiny setbacks that I anticipate may be addressed in the near future, this game is all about you and what you make of it, Hideo Kojima’s tweeting voice bridging and building the community you always wanted as with others. Although I can definitely say Death Stranding is another game that is oddly specific and unfortunately fitting at this point in time, does the game grant not-Norman Reedus the ability to trade and plant peaches that look alarmingly too close to actual butts? I don’t think so.
As I look outside, through the one and only window that is accessible to me in my apartment, there is a huge wave of uncertainty radiating in the air. I am unsure of where things are going to go from here, but at the very least, I know my friends are going to be online playing New Horizons for quite some time. If anyone needs, I would be more than happy to open my island’s gates.