'Animal Crossing: New Horizons': Game Review

Animal Crossing New Horizons - Nintendo Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of Nintendo
Virtual serenity amidst a chaotic world.

At a time when we all could use a getaway, Nintendo delivers a digital retreat that will please almost everyone.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is pitched as relaxation incarnate, a new life on a deserted island presented as a “getaway package” by an entrepreneurial raccoon named Tom Nook. This virtual time-share has been sold as a chance to break the chains of society and set forth on a new adventure amid an untouched, pastoral isle.

For the most part that’s exactly what New Horizons is: a near-meditative experience where the pace is set directly by the player to progress as they see fit. However, there are a few moments where “relaxation” turns into a sort of indentured servitude, and the dissonance can be so jarring it may turn some players off from the entire experience. 

Once landed on the island, you have some initial beautification tasks to tend to, specifically picking up clumps of weeds and choosing where to pitch the villager’s tent. Sure, walking around paradise pulling weeds may not seem like a serene experience, but the sounds of waves breaking on the surrounding beaches and the breeze whistling through the trees instantly hushes any lingering complaints that “gardening kinda stinks.” 

This is Animal Crossing at its core, and New Horizons nails that experience in every way. Fishing, bug-catching, planting fauna, finding fossils, decorating a home inside and out — it's all here and it’s lovely. One notable development decision, and a smart one at that, is the game’s natural progression. Islands are specifically designed so that one small section, where the player begins, is cut off from the rest of the map. Eventually, as tasks are completed and island society begins to grow, the villager will receive a crafting recipe for a vaulting pole perfect for traversing the rivers, thus opening up the rest of the map. 

This segmenting benefits newer players greatly, as veteran Animal Crossing fans may just want to get moving as soon as possible. By limiting access to the full map, all players can learn what new features New Horizons has to offer from the jump. 

Once the full island is unlocked, it can be completely transformed to the player’s liking. Staircases can be built into cliffsides, bridges can be built over the river for easy traversal. Villager home locations are decided by the player — even series stalwarts like The Nook’s Cranny general store and the museum’s locations are entirely up to the player’s decision. Want to put every house on the island on the beach? Do it! Want to create a cliffside metropolis with the store and museum next to each other on a raiser plateau? Sure, why not! 

The first major “new” component (it was also featured in the mobile Pocket Camp) is crafting, and New Horizons really, really wants the player to like it. Everything in this game is craftable, from furniture to tools to decorations. Items are crafted with the supplies scattered around the island. DIY recipes (little cards with acorns on the back), serve as directions for how to build items.These cards are critical, as items cannot be built without the DIY recipe in the player’s records. Some items, like tools, have different “levels” that are stronger as you craft them. For example, five tree branches makes a “flimsy” fishing rod, while adding one iron nugget to that tool makes the standard rod. Furniture and some other items can be further customized with special kits, giving them unique colors or designs to best suit the player’s decorative tastes. 

A crafting system is a natural fit in both a franchise like Animal Crossing and the Crusonian setting of New Horizons, and it’s implemented in a way that’s simple to understand and perform. The problem with crafting in New Horizons, however, is when the game uses it as an impediment to progress. This presents itself in two key ways. First, following in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s footsteps, tools now break after extended use. You can always craft a new tool, sure, but having an ax break while chopping wood at the top of the island and having to run all the way back to Tom Nook’s tent to build a new one is a layer of annoyance past Animal Crossing games didn’t feature, especially when the tool is "leveled-up," as I mentioned earlier.

Secondly, there’s a task bestowed upon the player in New Horizons that has the potential to be the most divisive in the game, one that could even paint the idea of crafting in a negative light. In previous games, when a new animal friend moved in, their house just appeared fully furnished even when the player assigned where the house would be built. Here, after choosing where the new friend’s home will go, Tom Nook will give the player a stack of DIY recipes and ask them to build all of the villager’s furniture. The new islander won’t move in until this is done. This takes players' freedom away, giving them a list of chores to accomplish before a new friend can be made. It’s not bad per se — it is, after all, a good way to further solidify the game's concept of crafting and DIY — but the principle of it flies in the face of what one would expect from an Animal Crossing game, a franchise that has built a reputation of virtual relaxation. Ultimately performing these tasks isn’t difficult (though some may find collecting 20 pieces of fruit to build two pieces of furniture a bit overkill), but the abrupt shift from “total freedom” to “list of chores” will cause whiplash among some players. 

Another new element is the currency of Animal Crossing, dubbed Nook Miles. Earned by completing tasks the player would normally do around the island, these miles can be used to earn items, upgrades (including the essential Tool Wheel for quickly selecting items in the villager’s inventory) and a Nook Miles Ticket, which is good for a trip to a smaller adjacent island filled with its own wildlife and terrain. The rewards are displayed as stamp cards where each stamp earns more miles. One card could be for catching fish, another for having fossils assessed at the museum and so forth. These can be tracked on the app on the villager’s NookPhone — which also houses the Critterpedia for tracking caught wildlife, the DIY Recipe database and the Camera for posed photos — so the player can see which tasks will earn quick miles. Miles don’t entirely replace the traditional bells currency of Animal Crossing, the villager still has to earn those like normal, but they do give renewed purpose to grinding out tasks. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the video game equivalent of lying in a hammock on a spring day, lemonade in one hand, a good book in the other. There are moments where the real world seeps in, particularly the chores that previous games haven’t presented before, but New Horizons does a good job of getting back to normal once that list is completed.

Tom Nook, you crazy tanooki, you’ve done it again. Now how much for this crucian carp? My loan’s not going to pay for itself.