Y’know, on occasions, games just don’t click with you. Earlier this year, the latest entry in the Animal Crossing franchise, subtitled New Horizons, was launched to enthusiastic praise and stratospheric sales, providing enjoyment to many that was especially poignant during the beginning phases of the COVID-19 lockdown. Whilst I wouldn’t say Animal Crossing is my favourite franchise, I’ve put many hours in across DS, Wii, and 3DS, but for some reason I just did not forge a connection with the Nintendo Switch-exclusive New Horizons. However, I did put around 10 hours in, enough to give an opinion on my experience, but not necessarily to justify a score. In this case, the 10 Hours With… article series that has been dormant on this site since early 2018 (!) is an apt way to put down my thoughts.
Home Away From Home
Initially, for context that applies later on, a run-through of my history with the series. My first game was Wild World (the original on GameCube is admittedly a gap in my knowledge) on the DS, which broke Animal Crossing through into the mainstream. The mixture of life simulation combined with the distinctly charming world of animal residents (you’re the only human… what sort of dystopia is this?) was so inviting, subsequently keeping you playing whether it be to upgrade your house or to complete your collections of bugs, fish, fossils, and more. The young, unaware me then traded Wild World in… Why, me? WHY? Ahem… My next game was Let’s Go To The City on Wii, again one I played regularly; I often visited my town daily and the new features such as being able to visit a City centre introduced new shops and characters, which is actually an area in which I found New Horizons to be lacking.
The DS and Wii entries are probably the ones I have put the most time into, each having their own strengths, be it the portability on the DS or the improved visuals on Wii. Following on from these, the 3DS entry New Leaf arrived. In certain areas, it was a step up from the games prior, bringing back convenience of portability and combining that with a visual jump from the DS as well as more in-depth customisation. Though, even then, the very similar core gameplay began to cause me fatigue for the series; I stopped playing much sooner than on DS and Wii. Until New Horizons this year, New Leaf served as the most recent main series entry, whilst Wii U got a bizarre stop-gap board-game in amiibo Festival, and then there were additional spin-offs: the decoration-focused Happy Home Designer on 3DS, and the mobile game Pocket Camp as Nintendo started bringing their IP to new platforms. So, the anticipation for a new main series entry on Switch, where the portability and home console advantages were set to meet, was high.
Leading on from this, now we get to New Horizons (only took me several paragraphs). There criticisms I have of the game, but in many ways it does deliver on expectations; visually it is remarkably crisp and vibrant, the soundtrack is soothing, and it has multiple quality-of-life improvements to streamline the gameplay. This time, instead of setting up an inland town, Tom Nook brings you to an island, where you and a handful of other residents – but, y’know, mainly you – set about kitting out the place from the humble beginnings of your tent. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, though; whilst Tom Nook may have a disarmingly pleasant demeanour this time around, he’s still very much after your Bells.
As I say, there have been many refinements to the core mechanics of Animal Crossing in New Horizons. These range from smaller changes, such as more storage space and an equipment selection wheel, to more prominent alterations such as finally being able to cross natural waterways, either with a pole vault or by making a bridge. There have also been extensive revamps on how much you can shape your island – you can unlock the ability to sculpt it square by square how you see fit, adjusting water, hillsides… essentially any part! This side of New Horizons has a vibe of the freedom and utter control in the Creative Mode of Minecraft, especially now you can place furniture outside your home! If you also consider the custom outfit and floor designs, New Horizons has more creative leeway than any previous Animal Crossing before it.
You know what, though, and this may sound strange, but that may be part of why I struggled to get into New Horizons. There are so many positive tweaks, solving issues that irked in previous games, but all this, and the new wrapping of the island getaway, disguise that there isn’t actually much deviation in the central goal. Once again, you are working to pay off the amounts Tom Nook asks of you for each house expansion, which means gathering and selling fruit, seashells, and other items. You can spend time away from that decorating or collecting, again, similar to before. The presentation is refreshing, but the gameplay itself is not quite so, with many of the same characters and targets involved. The Switch has hosted many a series revolution, from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but in this case I found that Animal Crossing: New Horizons was disappointing in that regard. I’m very appreciative that it goes for evolution not revolution, but for me personally, I was really hoping for more of a shake-up beyond the literal Bells and whistles.
Do It Yourself (Because Tom Nook Ain’t Gonna)
Let me express that I don’t take pleasure from the disappointment; I was cautiously optimistic about New Horizons, but my concerns of it being a newly packaged edition of a similar experience were founded. In my 10-ish hours of playing, the game ran me through tutorials that were all-too-familiar; on the other hand, there is one new feature that is a marked departure for the gameplay side of Animal Crossing, in the form of the crafting system, which again brought Minecraft to mind. You can now gather materials by, for example, chopping down trees and picking up stones, and then take them to a workbench – either near Tom Nook, or one you have built yourself – to craft equipment and furniture. It’s a noticeable focus early on, and I am glad that it is there to slightly mix up the gameplay.
Therefore, if there are particular items you are after, you can attempt to collect the various materials needed; there is initial novelty in this, with endearing animations of Tom Nook and co. applauding you for, well, doing their work for them, I guess? Yet, I quite quickly got tired of it, and found myself drawn to speeding up the process by buying the equipment outright from shops when I could. It gets to the point where Tom Nook asks you to collect the materials required to set up three houses with the correct furniture for new island-goers, and the idea of gradually going through the lists and getting each item wasn’t one that particularly sparked excitement in me. Not to mention that Tom Nook is committing fraud, as this happens because he *mistakenly* sells these houses to people as if they are already built, then asks you to build them for him! The audacity.
I imagine that if there was end reward for this type of task that wasn’t so similar to past games, I would not mind as much. But bringing in new villagers isn’t – in the scope of the series – an innovation, so making the way to do it more complex just felt a roundabout way of doing the same activities. This is an issue elsewhere; as much as Blathers is awesome, a celebration of him arriving and setting up a museum isn’t that thrilling when there have been museums in these games before. I enjoy meeting characters again, but there is such a reliance on them, with not that many new faces so far. Where this is done better is the villagers that can move onto your island, as the way different islands get different residents encourages that feeling of your game being unique. Furthermore, the dialogue is frequently hilarious – the localisation is impressive in the inherent wit and sense of personality.
At this point, the awareness that I may have sounded quite grumpy at times in this post is hitting me, but I shall put emphasis on how I suspect the problems I have with New Horizons are due to my own taste in games and experience with the series – not necessarily the fault of the game itself. Firstly, the way New Horizons leans towards the more open, limitless creative potential of your island isn’t a direction that directly appeals to me; I prefer to play within set rules. For comparison, I am more drawn to the design vision of New Super Mario Bros. U than I am the creative blank canvas of Super Mario Maker. Secondly, the sheer amount of Animal Crossing I have played over the years has led to the appeal of the repeated set-up wearing off, and said set-up is mostly unchanged in New Horizons.
If you are a fan of detailed customisation and/or are new to the series, it’s a game that could offer you hours upon hours of fun. Which, clearly, it has this year, going by how well it has done critically and commercially. Multiplayer should be mentioned too. I tried out the functionality of visiting a friend to walk around their island – which was much more organised than mine – and it worked well. There are wisely barriers in place to decide who can do what when they arrive on your island, and the connectivity was proficient, so I have no complaints. Just wandering around a new island has a certain positive energy to it!
To reiterate, let me again say how glad I am that people found joy in Animal Crossing: New Horizons this year. During such turbulent times, for a game to be there as a delightful source of entertainment is incredibly valuable. I’m disappointed I personally wasn’t able to click with the game as much as others, but we don’t all have the same opinions on every game, and that is part of why it is so fun to read alternate takes! I am glad I gave New Horizons 10 hours, but in the end it isn’t a game I envisage myself soon going back to.
Did you play Animal Crossing: New Horizons? If so, feel free to put your personal opinion on the game in the comments below! This article series is suited to games where I start them and have thoughts to put down on this site, yet have hours and hours left until I can finish them and be in the position to review them with a score (see: Persona 5). Until next time – have a great day!