Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review

Tom Nook is on the run! Well, that’s one potential explanation for the raccoon racketeer to have hoodwinked players into departing for a deserted island with him, starting life anew far from the authorities of New Leaf village. Whatever the actual reason for Nook, Inc venturing to distant climes, you’re along for the ride – and you’ll be in hock to old Tom as soon as you pitch your tent on the first night, saddling you with the first of many debts you’ll need to pay off as you do all the work developing the isle.

It’s tough to explain Animal Crossing’s allure to anyone unfamiliar with it – “OK, so you go around picking up sticks and gathering fruit, sometimes you catch fish or bugs, then you sell them to buy a nice hat” – but it’s precisely those low stakes that make it such a joy to play. It’s a series that’s effectively always been gaming as meditation, the player having to accept that some things simply are. There’s no threat to be found, bar the occasional stinging insect, and everyone you encounter is a friend waiting to be made. The sedate pace of it all is a core reason why innumerable fans are still regularly playing the last core entry in the series, 2012’s Animal Crossing New Leafon the 3DS.

Eight years is a long time in gaming though, yet Animal Crossing New Horizons will feel reassuringly familiar to returning players. At a glance, it looks like simply more of the same, even – a gentle loop of gathering items to sell in order to buy better items, while palling around with a zoo’s worth of talking animals – but the shift to an island setting brings a shift in mechanics. Here, Nintendo blends some survival elements in with the series’ traditional life sim operations, with a new crafting system allowing you to put all the islands’ resources to good use. Pick up some sticks and you’ll be able to build a fishing rod; sticks and stones may break your bones, but they’ll also make a useful axe; even weeds can be fashioned into a comfy hay bed. Activities that once simply beautified your neighborhood now yield resources that can be actively used to improve your world, and you’ll soon find yourself punching the air with excitement when you find a new “recipe” for something else to make.

Nintendo has rather elegantly folded the new emphasis on crafting and foraging into a new secondary currency, Nook Miles. You’ll earn miles for completing standard activities – catching so many fish, plucking a certain amount of weeds, selling items back to Nook’s nephews Tommy and Timmy, and dozens of other activities you’ll be doing anyway. It provides a touch more incentive just to inhabit the world, and the rewards can be redeemed against decorative items, new abilities – a larger inventory or a quick access wheel of tools, for instance – or tickets to visit other islands, where rarer items or even potential new castaways can be found. Everything you do in New Horizons is additive, helping you build a bigger and more impressive world.

Like the best of its predecessors though, New Horizons really shines when it comes to relationships. It’s a series centred on building a community, literally and thematically, and the characters you’ll meet are a delight to get to know. Writing postcards and letters to NPCs is a strange joy, as is receiving their responses in your postbox. Learning their idiosyncracies often feels like getting to know a real person, while the appearance of certain returning characters from past games hits like a reunion. And, while we’re not quite expecting Nintendo to include any confirmed queer characters, plenty of LGBTQ+ players will once again be reading between the lines to find some representation – and if friendly Boone the baboon, a hardcore gym bro perpetually sporting a tanktop is anything to go on, they won’t need to look too far.

While New Horizons doesn’t seem to push the Switch to its limits in terms of performance – although it’s technically the first Animal Crossing for a home console since the Wii’s Let’s Go to the City in 2008, it feels more tailored to on-the-go play with the Switch in handheld mode – it’s still a joy to look at. Character designs are quirky and expressive, and the world itself is a colourful, cartoonish daydream to explore. Brilliant music delivers a chill, lo-fi vibe to island life, while surprisingly effective sound design – the subtly atmospheric rainfall on wet days, the calming winds blowing past you, the rustling of trees – grounds everything nicely.

The biggest downside to New Horizons is the sense of frustration that can sometimes arise for crafting components. Early on, certain rocks and ores are particularly rare, and with the game randomly spawning mineable boulders, it can feel like an impediment to progress, as can a tendency for simple tasks – how to plant trees, for instance, or why you can’t immediately climb to elevated land on your island – to go unexplained.

Then again, Animal Crossing has never been a game for the impatient – events come and go at their own pace, and having to wait for something to occur or become available is just an extention of the series’ zen-like sense of calm. What will be, will be, and what’s really important – in Animal Crossing as in life – is just being nice to the people you share the world with. New Horizons is a well-timed reminder of that.

The Verdict: 4.5/5

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