America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 18th Apr 2020 | 5,465 views
Animal Crossing has always represented the best kind of escapist art. Featuring idyllic towns and happy characters, it has long distracted players from the discomfort and drama of the real world. Now, with the world in a scary and unpredictable place, the latest game in the series, New Horizons, arrives to deliver yet another slice of escapism—an emotional salve for an upside-down reality. Not only is it diverting, however. It's also the most versatile and accessible Animal Crossing game yet, with relaxing life sim gameplay, lots of customization options, a steady stream of rewards, and charming graphics. Its multiplayer options are inferior and its pacing sometimes snail-like, but overall New Horizons provides one of the best gaming experiences of the year.
Unlike other Animal Crossing games, which insert players in an established town, New Horizons takes place on a deserted island. After purchasing a vacation package from Tom Nook (the raccoon tycoon who appears to run the world economy) you'll settle down in a humble tent in your own corner of the island with nothing but a sleeping bag and a lantern. Unexpectedly, and despite its focus in the promotional material for the game, camping is actually a very minor part of New Horizons. If you wish to make any meaningful progress in the game, you simply need to upgrade to a house.
Eventually, with brick-and-mortar shops opening across the island and tourists arriving via plane, the game settles into a very familiar rhythm. It's a rewarding and relaxing rhythm, no doubt, but it would have been interesting to see where this franchise installment could have gone had Nintendo leveraged the full potential of its short-lived roughing-it component.
Despite the aborted camping phase, New Horizons is an immersive, cheerful, liberating life simulation game that finds a nice balance between long-term projects and short-terms activities. As the designated Resident Representative, you'll help guide the trajectory of the island, making the landscape attractive to potential inhabitants and securing materials and real estate for shops, homes, and other facilities. As a private citizen, you'll spend your days shopping, crafting, fishing, exchanging pleasantries with neighbors, and taking day trips to nearby islands.
That balance notwithstanding, some of the game's longer-term initiatives can slow the action down significantly. While there's almost always something to do in the moment—pick an apple, catch a bug, plant a flower, craft a new piece of furniture—many of the bigger projects are tied to a rigid unlock schedule, which means you'll need to wait several real-world hours (or days) to make progress. As a result, New Horizons, like other games in the franchise, is best experienced as a short daily ritual, instead of a marathon session.
Those daily excursions are made all the sweeter by the anthropomorphic animals that move in next door. With unique personalities and independent lives that function in your absence, they feel very real and alive. Moreover, thanks to affirming dialogue, friendly manners, and gift-giving habits, they're the best neighbors you could want. There's a reason a neighbor moving away in Animal Crossing is one of the most devastating episodes in video gaming; they become like real friends.
When you're not making companions, you'll find plenty of time to craft DIY projects. Throughout the game players will earn hundreds of recipes, which transform materials found across the island—wood, clay, iron ore, fruit—into chairs, tables, fountains, shovels, fishing rods, slingshots, etc. One of the greatest achievements of New Horizons is that everything in the ecosystem has a use. Got a bunch of apples? Make a Juicy-Apple TV. Collected too many sand dollars from along the beach? Grab some clay and make a Shell Table. Fishing line pulled up a rusty can instead of a rare fish? Pair it with weeds to make a succulent plant. Waste not, want not in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Actually catching a rusty can or old boot on your fishing hook is quite rare, though. Much more likely you'll catch a sea bass or loach, which you can then donate to the game's greatest NPC, Blathers the owl, who manages the town museum—the crown jewel of New Horizons. The museum houses all the fish and insect species you've donated, alongside any unique fossils you've unearthed. It's a thing of beauty. Everything in New Horizons looks good—the fuzzy fur of mammalian neighbors, leaves rippling in the wind, sparkling stars in the night sky—but the museum is transcendent. It feels like a world-class institution.
No matter the number of things to see and do—visit the museum, rearrange your furniture, send a letter to a neighbor, cut down a tree—things can get a bit repetitive on your relatively tiny island. Luckily, Nintendo has arranged for many seasonal events to interrupt the minutiae of everyday life. The most recent was Bunny Day, a non-denominational nod to Easter that included multiple egg-themed DIY recipes and a visit from Zipper, an Easter Bunny stand-in.
The game also has a clever incentive program to reward you for completing your regular routine. You'll earn "Nook Miles" for hitting certain benchmarks, like catching 50 fish or helping a neighbor out of a jam. This serves a dual purpose. It delivers a steady stream of rewards to keep players engaged and active, and also provides structure for players who feel rudderless.
In terms of customization options, New Horizons is more flexible than ever before. Not only can you customize furniture, clothing, and your appearance, but later in the game you can even customize the topography of your island with a new terraforming feature that allows dedicated players to alter cliffs, paths, and the course of rivers.
Where the game shows a disappointing lack of flexibility, though, is in the multiplayer arena. While online multiplayer is fine—via the airport you can fly to friends' islands or invite them to yours—local multiplayer is a cumbersome, restrictive experience that prioritizes the Resident Representative, i.e. the player who started the save file. You'll have to jump through a few hoops to initiate couch co-op and then all players will be confined to a single screen. Worse, New Horizons supports only one island per Switch, meaning that if you want the full Animal Crossing experience you'll either need to wait for your friend, partner, or family member to quit playing or buy your own console.
New Horizons' slow-burn, relaxing gameplay is needed now more than ever. In a world where social interaction is restricted and normal routines interrupted, it's refreshing to chat with your neighbors in person, go shopping, hop on a plane, and want for nothing. That said, even in the best of times this latest Animal Crossing would be an outstanding experience. Its plodding pace and clumsy, restrictive multiplayer mean the game isn't for everyone, but those that gravitate toward serene sandbox simulation will find in New Horizons a game to play for weeks, months, and even years.