There’s no doubt that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is one of the best games you’ll play this year. That being said, the game isn’t quite as perfect as we had all hoped it would be. Design decisions for the game’s multiplayer, and even the local co-op systems do leave a bit to be desired, and terraforming can be a bit of a headache. Despite that, Animal Crossing: New Horizons manages to capture the formula that has made the series so endearing perfectly, and the ability to play on your TV or on the go help make it the best in the franchise so far.
A much-needed escape
I could sit here and go on about how Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the perfect game to play while in self-isolation. In fact, I could probably write paragraphs or even pages about how New Horizons will keep me sane throughout the coming weeks or months that we find ourselves dealing with the coronavirus. But let’s face it, you’re not here to listen to that.
Instead, let’s approach Animal Crossing: New Horizons in a different light. For the past several entries of the series, players have spent their days managing villages. Helping to run things alongside iconic characters like Tom Nook and Isabelle. To call New Horizons a much-needed escape isn’t just a connection to the things going on in real life right now. It’s a connection to the entire Animal Crossing series as a whole.
New Horizons starts off a bit differently than previous games in the franchise. Instead of coming to an already established village, you’ll begin the game bare, on a deserted island: armed only with your tent and your wits. It’s an interesting change and one that makes for a much slower start than previous iterations of the formula. While some might not agree with these changes, they really help to flesh out the world a bit more and give you time to get to know your island before things start evolving too much.
Back in my day
Like most entries in the franchise, Animal Crossing: New Horizons focuses heavily on building up your island. Expansion plays a key part as usual, with more portions of the island becoming available to explore as you unlock access to new tools. Unlike previous iterations, though, the tools you unlock will deteriorate over time, breaking after several uses. It’s a new mechanic very similar to that used in Breath of the Wild, and one that adds a bit more variation to how you gather and mine for materials.
Of course, you’ll always unlock the option to craft better tools down the line, but at the start you’ll need to make do with your flimsy tools and their limited durability. This might seem like a weird change for those who have spent many years living in the Animal Crossing universe, and it’s definitely one that takes a little getting used to. Overall, it makes for an intriguing change that helps to curate how you’re progressing by limiting the amount of use each item has. Important tools like the Vaulting Pole and Ladder don’t appear to have any durability stats – across 50+ hours of gameplay these tools have never broken for us – so players won’t have to worry too much about becoming stranded in the wild. The new tool system also plays in very well with the game’s crafting system, which offers plenty of unique items for players to build.
Terraforming and the building of inclines and bridges are also new additions to the game, and they really help change up how you approach expansion on your island when you’ve unlocked them. Being able to change the fundamentals of your island’s layout by moving rivers around, or even changing up cliff locations opens an entirely new set of options for long-time fans, and it’s a welcome addition despite the fallbacks that the system has. We’ll talk about that a bit more later on.
Despite the changes, though, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is every bit as much an Animal Crossing game as any that have come before it. The basic formula hasn’t changed with these tweaks, and to be honest, I’d say that this version of the formula is the best we’ve seen to date, and it’s one that I’m looking forward to exploring more over the coming weeks and months.
One day at a time
While the ability to time travel has always been a staple of the Animal Crossing series, playing the game one day at a time does have its perks. Celebrations for completed projects, and special fishing and bug catching events often crop up on your bulletin board, allowing you plenty of chances to chime in and compete with your villagers.
Playing one day at a time also allows you to sit back and take everything in, allowing you to talk and grow closer to your island’s residents. While many of the daily tasks in Animal Crossing might not appeal to some, it is often the much-needed escape that many of us seek after a long day of work. Sure, fishing and catching bugs might seem like work to some, but for Animal Crossing fans it’s just another task that needs to be completed. A steppingstone in the journey to get their island where they want it.
It’s this almost daily ritual that becomes haven for fans of the series. A safe space to just get lost in and explore. Adventure islands add even more to this, allowing players to venture off the beaten path to special remote islands that they can only visit once. You can meet new characters here, or even discover new fauna and flora.
There’s no arguing that Animal Crossing isn’t for everyone. But, if you’ve been a fan of the series before, and you’re looking for something juicy to sink your teeth into, then New Horizons is everything you could ever want from the franchise and then some.
Where did we go wrong?
But alas, no thing is perfect. Where Animal Crossing: New Horizons succeeds, it also tends to fail somewhat. The game still makes use of the dated multiplayer feature that has plagued previous games. This makes for an intrusive multiplayer mode that is honestly more annoying to deal with than anything else in the game. Long loading screens offer a cute reprise from fishing and gathering, but after seeing the screen three or four times the game’s cripplingly bad online features bleed through with every flight to another player’s island.
Limits on how much mail you can send other players is also disappointing, especially when you consider that myself and the group of friends I play with often like to share furniture and other items between ourselves. I get why the features are there – to avoid players spamming others – but there are already so many hoops to jump through before you can send anyone items in the mail that it just seems trivial to make it even more annoying in the process.
The limited features in party-mode – like the first resident of the island being the only one that can make big changes – and the fact that you can only have one island on each Switch is also a bit disappointing to see, as the game could really benefit from more multiplayer-friendly features.
Despite the issues, though, being able to connect with others on their islands and show off the hard work you’ve done is still fun. Holding fishing or bug catching tournaments with friends – all while chatting in a Discord room or even in the Switch App’s voice chat – can also lead to a number of much-needed laughs. I’ve even seen some people setting up trading posts and selling off various goods. It’s great to see the community coming together, but I just wish the multiplayer worked more smoothly and wasn’t so intrusive.
This land is my land…
Perhaps the most anticipated feature with New Horizons is terraforming. Showcased early on after the game was revealed, terraforming is a complete game-changer for Animal Crossing fans. This feature allows you to remove cliffs, rivers, and make your island as unique as you want to. But there are a few limitations.
First, you won’t get terraforming until you’ve completed the “story”. This means you’re going to need to play through upwards of 40-50 days or so if you don’t do any kind of time traveling. Once you do unlock it, you have to purchase the various “permits” or modes with Nook Miles, which if you’ve already spent them on things will require even more time to farm.
Once you have the modes you need, you can activate the terraforming feature and start customizing your island – except you can’t change where the plaza is, or how the outer edges of the map look. So, if you don’t like that beach down on the left corner of your island, tough cookies, because you can’t get rid of it.
Despite these limitations, there is still plenty of room to work. Of course, nobody said this was going to be easy, and to call the terraforming system in Animal Crossing: New Horizons a logistical nightmare is probably a bit of an understatement. The game utilizes a simple one-button system, where players will simply look at the square of land they want to edit and then press A to either dig it up or build it up. This often leads to you digging up and refilling the same hole ten times in the process, which can get frustrating – especially if you plan on doing a full-island renovation.
It’s not a game-breaking issue, but it’s definitely something that leaves the terraforming system feeling a bit like a letdown. Still, if you can look past that annoyance, you can easily change up how your rivers and cliffs look, giving you plenty of access to the rest of the world that you now call home.
As the sun sets…
Sunsets are some of the most beautiful things in the world, and there’s nothing like watching the sun set over the bustling town that you’ve built on this deserted island. While there are some missteps, Animal Crossing: New Horizons almost improves on everything that the series has done in the past. With a little bit of polish, the terraforming could be infinitely better and more user friendly. While it might take a lot to fix the multiplayer issues, being able to connect more fluidly or even visit your Best Friends’ islands when they are offline would allow for a more connected experience.
If your Switch has been sitting in the corner collecting dust since the last big Nintendo release, and you want something to sink your teeth into, I highly recommend picking up Animal Crossing: New Horizons and getting lost in the beautiful – if not sometimes menial – work that Tom Nook has waiting for you.
This review is based on a digital code provided by the publisher. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is available exclusively on Nintendo Switch.