Confusing moments aside, this is the refresh that makes the franchise tick. UPDATED: review score and final verdict!
The Animal Crossing series is one of my absolute favorites. Ever since the west got the Nintendo GameCube version, I was totally engulfed by all the little things you could do. Wild World and New Leaf are games that I couldn't stop thinking about, even when I turned them off for the day. New Leaf felt like the series' logical end point, at least in its current form. Many of the systems that we already knew never felt better, creating a point of no return. The task ahead for the developers was to create something that took gameplay in a new direction, that both newcomers and veterans could get behind. The aptly named Animal Crossing: New Horizons manages to hit all those important notes, even if it does hit some snags along the way.
In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you take control of a player avatar who heads off for a deserted island. Tom Nook, who guides you through the game's opening days, is here to help with all your basic needs. With a tent and your brand new NookPhone at the ready, you are going to try and make the best of things. I quickly realized how fast the opening moments of New Horizons move along. The tutorial, which is more guided than previous entries, is swift and entertaining. You find places to live, collect materials and name your island. The player and their new friends have a big celebration, and then the regular flow of time begins.
Your big first task, getting 5000 Nook Miles to pay off the Getaway Package, isn't as difficult as you might expect. The barriers have been left low, and help the player to ease in. The way you approach these Nook Miles tasks is left completely in your hands. You can catch a bunch of fish or bugs, interact with the islanders, learn DIY crafting and so much more. The space you can move about in is restricted until you get a true feel for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It does take a little while longer before you get access to the vaulting pole or a bridge. In the first number of days, you get tasks to complete that will broaden your horizons and make the island a far more enjoyable place. Even in those early moments, you are never left without something to rely upon.
I think that is what strikes me the most about Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In the beginning there is always a task that you're made aware of. Whereas the second half of my time on the island is currently being spent raising the island's image. You do that by attracting new villagers through a campsite, selling land, building infrastructure and putting furniture items everywhere you can. The ones found within Nook Terminal at the Resident Services Buildings are particularly useful as they can be paid for with Nook Miles. Quickly, I found myself invested in creating zones flowers and fencing, which I hope is something others get invested in as well.
All of these proceedings created a different flow when it comes to the gameplay. Outside of the usual tasks like looking for fossils and talking to villagers, I found myself heavily invested in enriching the town itself. One way of doing that is clearing as many Nook Miles tasks as you possibly can. When you pay off the Getaway Package, you get access to Nook Miles+, which spits out five tasks at random. By completing one, another option gets added to the mixture. In the moments that I felt everything was done for the day, these tasks reeled me back in and made me easily play for another hour. They force you to take note of crafting, customization, or seeing what your animal friends are doing. You are never left without a purpose.
That being said, Animal Crossing: New Horizons doesn't explain everything. When it comes to upgrading your town or getting new services added, it leaves you in the dark a lot. For example, it took several visits at Mabel's tailor plaza shop until she brought up the idea of setting up a full Able Sisters shop. During my entire review period, I've only seen a handful of special characters and that is on two different save files. Saharah and Gulliver, for example, popped up two times in both saves. Celeste only appeared on my Northern, while CJ and Flick only made appearances on my Southern hemisphere save. Not for tournaments I might add, they were interested in purchasing bugs and fish from me for more than Nook's Cranny would pay. That was extremely handy to get my first house debt paid, but it came out of the blue without any announcements from Resident Services.
Another point of slight irritation is how often tools break. While I totally expected the flimsy tools to break quickly, I was surprised by how the regular tools are impacted as well. As I like to tend to flowers a lot, the moment my regular watering can broke, my mouth was locked into a blown away state. Outside of the ladder and vaulting pole, no tool is safe from eventual wear and tear. You will run into it quickly if you are hunting for a specific creature and constantly rely to catch as much as possible. Now this isn’t the end of the world as you can remake them, but I’d rather use those materials to enhance my town. I just became slightly bummed when something in my inventory broke down.
When it comes to Animal Crossing's day-to-day moments, I never stopped enjoying myself. Every day I would walk through town, talk to the villagers and look around for something to take care of. With the DIY recipes and the materials needed on that front, there was an urgency to collect as much as you possibly can. I would find myself using a Flimsy Axe for wood, hitting my shovel against rocks or removing potential weeds. Everything counted this time to a common goal, which made the collector inside of me go full on mental. Every time a DIY recipe was found or given to me, I wanted to go and make the item in question. Sometimes to hand something fun to a villager, other times to place it inside my house or town. While the system depends on what you want out of Animal Crossing, I was happy to keep my bells in my pocket and use them for the more serious matters.
I found myself bug catching and fishing in those empty moments. Not only was it a perfectly relaxing experience, but it served one of two purposes for me: preservation or making money. If the creature was new, it created an entry in the Critterpedia. At that point, I would be better to donate to the museum, which is totally worth it. The museum in Animal Crossing: New Horizons is an absolutely highlight for me. Every section feels like a playground in itself, with spots to profoundly see creatures roaming about. The fossil side of things has bigger displays with dynamic camera angles to revel in every bit of the splendor. The breathing space in the rooms is super lovely, allowing you to really take in the sights.
When it comes to spending money, there is a larger selection of options from an early point in the game. You can purchase items in the Resident Services Building as well as through the Nook Terminal, which offer a variety of items, regardless of the stores that are in your town. Later on, however, the Able Sisters and Nook's Cranny join the mixture. I really appreciate the effort put into the Able Sisters. These tailors immediately give you more options right from the start, with full outfit options available at the left-hand side. There is also a dressing room at the right that allows you to go through all the options, and see how they suit your character. Nook's Cranny has a similar set-up, with a few items on display plus more available in a specific cabinet. Something I was very impressed by is that you have multiple wallpaper and flooring options to choose from. Sadly, I haven't really seen any Nintendo related items in the game so far, which is how I really want to pimp up my town.
The Island Designer application is likely my highlight of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Once you reach a certain point within the game, you are basically to do three things: creating waterways/land, laying down paths and removing or expanding cliffs. In my humble opinion, this is one of those crucial building blocks that will keep me playing for a long time. Every quickly after obtaining the functionality I found myself creating clusters where villagers could live, enjoy and breath in nature. I spent hours creating a full on tree park with multiple Nook Miles objects in the middle of it all. In addition, there grew a dumb smile on my face as I removed part of a river and moved it closer to the cliff. The only knock against Island Designer is that it takes time. You really have to go piece by piece, and slowly get the job done.
With Island Builder, creativity is well and truly alive in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In a couple of months time, I really look forward to seeing everybody’s islands and seeing how unique they are. People will completely flatten their islands, recreate their favorite video game map or theme it in a specific way. In that sense, I would love the Dream Suite feature from New Leaf to be back in this game. Even no one is on, I want to see what everybody is creating over the course of the next few weeks.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons looks absolutely stunning. The subtle things like the tree leaves moving in the wind, the weeds jittering ever so slightly, and the far more expressive characters all captured my attention. Everything about New Horizons is colorful and really pops right in front of you. Regardless of how you play and experience the title, it has an incredibly sharp eye for detail. The villagers in particular really made me smile as they have more animations, fun dialogues and roam more freely across the town. You can even see them doing aerobics, fishing or just enjoying their life on the island. They also have full on outfits now, which make them even more blend in. What blends in well too is the music. While in the opening days, the variety of music is limited, this increases once the game opens up. Hourly music slowly starts to return, and with music tracks being a purchasable item early on, you can have different zones with their own tracks.
A fun way to experience Animal Crossing is playing with others. New Horizons let’s you play locally and online with up to eight people. In all these different kinds of set-ups, I found the experience I had to be rather pleasant. Obviously, there might be a waiting line to enter buildings and the like, but this isn’t something you can overcome. That being said, my problem with the online is that you’re almost forced to start using Dodo Codes. This allows you, regardless if someone is on friends list or not, to visit someone on a whim.
When I had my gates open, people wouldn’t stop coming in. Every time someone enters or leaves, you are stuck in a cutscene that takes honestly forever. Now, not everyone will run into the same problems as myself, but the whole process still takes way too long. The game loads, saves and only then carries on where it left off. Considering how the rest of the game runs, I am a little surprised on this front.
With the recent update, it is also possible to use the Nintendo Switch Online application. This is the most novel usage I’ve seen of the thing, allowing you to use your touchscreen keyboard to chat. The in-game keyboard is sort of abysmal, so connecting an USB keyboard or this method are an absolute must. Sadly, you can’t use the phone keyboard to write letters to others, which I use to send gifts to my online friends. In addition, you can scan in QR designs that were created with the Nintendo 3DS games. The library of designs is available, so the fact that you can bring them in is rather incredible. In-game, you can share your new creations as well. Once you get hold of the Able Sisters store, there will be an online portal where you can search for creators and specific designs.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a whole new approach to the series. While it has created some downsides, I can't understate how great this game has come together. The overall flow has been expanded with Nook Miles goals, DIY projects, and very lively animal friends. What I'm impressed by is how I was never left without something to do, and how I could see the world improve around me. There are a few things that New Horizons could have explained better, but they are also part of the more free flowing future that the franchise wants. Even after all these years, there is a daily routine that I hold dear and makes me adore the various elements that glue this game together. It has been sharply dialed up to eleven, without disagrading any newcomers.