As I grin at the simple pleasure of seeing Goldie, an old Animal Crossing favourite, pottering around her tiny one-room house in a Wee Willie Winkie-style nightcap and pyjamas, I realise how good it feels to be home. Not home in the sense of being curled up on the sofa in real-life, but that sense of comfort that comes from immersing myself again so deeply in the animalese world Animal Crossing. There's nothing that quite compares to the quiet, peacefulness of existing within the bright, simplistic world Nintendo's life simulator, and with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, that sense of the series being the ultimate getaway from reality is amplified tenfold.
Release date: March 20, 2020
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Developer / Publisher: Nintendo
That's not just because Animal Crossing: New Horizons has possibly arrived at the most perfect time – a period where many of us may find ourselves being trapped at home a little more than usual – jetting us off to an island paradise courtesy of Tom Nook. Yes, the money-focused tanuki is back with a new investment scheme, and this time it's about setting up a new life on a deserted island. Nook's in charge now though, meaning you've been demoted to Resident Representative, and later when she eventually arrives like a sunbeam of cuteness, you realise Isabelle reports to Tom Nook now too. But that doesn't mean your powers to shape the future of your new sandy home is any lessened. There are actually a slew of new features to help you execute your own vision of paradise – from terraforming to new crafting tools - and the moment Tom Nook steps back and relinquishes island control to you, you're ready to create your ultimate desert getaway.
Time to getaway
Animal Crossing: New Horizons almost appeals more for its familiarity and repeated themes than with a new mechanic dotted here and there. New gameplay hooks are always appreciated, of course – this is the first Animal Crossing game for Switch, after all – but there's an inherent need for the game to retain a lot of its existing charm and patterns for it to feel like an Animal Crossing title. And it's more about the game's pace than you'd expect.
In a world where you can spend hours on end looping short, pacey in-game days in Stardew Valley's farming simulation, Animal Crossing is still tied to the real world passing of time. It mirrors your physical time and date in real-time, to the point that you become acutely aware of what's going on in the Animal Crossing world depending on what time you dip into it. Initially, this means the pace of Animal Crossing: New Horizons feels incredibly slow, but, this is a game designed to be played as much, or as little, as you'd like on any given day. Across the month I've had to exist in New Horizons' world, I've fallen back into a familiar Animal Crossing routine, checking in some days just for the daily rewards and to ask around town for the latest news, while on others something new will happen that encourages me to spend hours upon hours focused on trying to improve my new home.
The longer you play, the easier it is to see the regular ebbs and flows of your island life. Initially, your island is nothing more than a few tents, the Nook family's Resident Services tent, a new airport, and a handful slightly nervous-looking residents still questioning their decision to move here. You'll need to build relationships with your villagers from the outset, understanding that each has their own defined personality and quirks, and work hard to build a life on this sandy dune for you and for them. The new ability of being able to place objects and furniture outside is a godsend, allowing you to really tweak the look of your island, and Tom Nook will also start to offer you the option to reposition homes and buildings to really customise your layout. Eventually, your island becomes more than a tangle of tents and nervous energy, and it isn't long before it starts to look more like an actual settlement.
Your progress in Animal Crossing: New Horizons is as much linked to the game's systems as it is the goals you set yourself. Nook Miles, for example, are a new currency form that unlock special rewards, including Nook Mile Tickets that allow you to temporarily escape from your own island to somewhere new. These alternate deserted islands offer a plethora of resources, including new foreign fruits to bring back to your home, or even a new villager to invite back with you – in a purely platonic sense, of course. New homes will literally be ready the next physical day for example, travelling salesfolk arrive a couple of times a week, and there's a grind and graft to earning Bells – the game's main currency. This is complimented by Nook Mile Rewards, which are quickly split into larger goals like spending 20 active days on your island, and smaller quick hitters like catching five fish, meaning there's always something to aim for and focus on.
Of course, for those familiar with the ways of Animal Crossing, the ultimate goal is to draw in the familiar faces of the series – Blathers and the museum, The Able Sisters and their tailors, Kicks and his shoe emporium, and more. Almost a month in these lovely old pals have barely appeared on the island and, even if the game didn't have a tonne of new features, that alone would give me a reason to keep playing. Animal Crossing still rewards the patient.
Craft and edit
That goes for access to the game's new features too - you're not going to get all of them straight away. The headliners in terms of new additions are crafting and terraforming. Thankfully, access to crafting is such a huge part of the game it's made accessible from your first full day on the island. To begin with, your focus will be on crafting the tools that let you fish, catch bugs, smack rocks, wobble trees, excavate fossils, plant trees and flowers, and the usual Animal Crossing busywork. But soon, you'll start raking in crafting recipes, earning them from popping balloon presents that float across the sky, from the bottles that wash up on the beach, or from your merry band of island friends as gifts. Soon your home – and probably theirs too – as well as your island will be adorned with your creations, and there's an ungodly pleasure to be found in finally landing a recipe type you've been waiting for – yes, I'm looking at you cute sofa.
Then there's the terraforming, New Horizons brand new mechanic that lets you throw on a builder's hat and directly edit cliffs, add water features and finally, finally lets you place and edit pathways – a revelation for those of us who used to run back and forth over the same spot to physically wear the grass away to create makeshift paths in the old days. But that doesn't mean the latest system is perfect either. For those of you that have dreams of basically creating an island from scratch, I'm sad to say that's not the case.
The tools – at least those I've now got access to after three intense weeks of grafting – allow you to manipulate the terrain that already exists. You can add to or carve away existing cliffs, create or remove existing water, but forget about reshaping the island on mass. Perhaps that's to come, but from the looks of trailers and everything I've experienced so far, I'm uncertain. Path placement is a little fiddly too, hampered by the limited camera angles and the fact you can only lay a path one tile at a time. And yet, there's still a calmness about creating something from scratch to make your island look even prettier that is strangely therapeutic. The game is just missing the same kind of editor that you have for your home that would allow easier island-wide tweaks and designing fun.
But, those gripes do little to detract from the joy I've had spending every day with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The sudden squeals of delight that have emerged from my body over the past month have genuinely scared my partner and my cat, and there's no denying that every day is a treat with this game. With new faces to meet, old friends to reunite with, fresh features, regular visitors, quirky characters, and no doubt a plethora of incoming events, there's plenty to keep you coming back, day after day, to New Horizons. And that's without even being able to take advantage of the game's increased multiplayer features too.
This is an Animal Crossing game through and through, and although that comes with some time-based frustrations, that urge to just spend 'five more minutes' on your island deepens with every passing day. As your island evolves and starts to drip-feed fresh things to discover and see, you'll have the urge to check up on your toe bean-boasting critters on a daily basis more than ever before. Animal Crossing: New Horizons has perfected the gameplay loop the series is famed for, and somehow manages to keep its steady pace relevant in a world where there are plenty of genre rivals. Prepare yourself for spending many a year to come with Tom Nook and co.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch (original model) and Nintendo Switch Lite.