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Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp brings the series’s leisurely charm to smartphones

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A shift to mobile means a different kind of Animal Crossing experience

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

When I was in university, my trusty Nintendo DS went everywhere I did. I kept it stashed in my bag at all times, and whenever I needed a break I’d jump into Animal Crossing: Wild World to relax. The life simulation game, where players build a virtual life in a bucolic town full of animal friends, had a sense of aimlessness that made it the perfect distraction. If I had a few minutes in between classes, I could plant some fruit trees, catch a few fish, or chat with my neighbors. It’s a lot like the way I play mobile games today, making steady, incremental progress whenever I’m free. This week’s release of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp on iOS and Android confirms that the series is a great fit for mobile. It makes some compromises, but delivers the core of what I want from Animal Crossing: a nice, slow way to unwind.

Previous Animal Crossing games were wonderfully open-ended, dropping your human avatar in a town full of animals and letting you wander. You could make friends, pay off your mortgage, become an avid bug collector, or none of the above. The focus on simply living a virtual life without high-pressure goals was a large part of the appeal.

In Pocket Camp, you’re still a human surrounded by talking animals, but this time your home base is campground rather than a house. As in other Animal Crossing games, you can decorate your living space, chat with animals, and give gifts to improve your friendships. The real-time clock also makes the leap to mobile, where some events only happen at certain times or on certain days, and when you pick some fruit from a tree you’ll need to wait a specified number of hours for more to grow back. It’s what makes these games such a satisfying habit, something you play for a few minutes each day, rather than gorging on it all at once. The real-time structure fits mobile really well, since the game is on a device you always have with you. I’ve found myself doing a bit of fishing before bed, and letting the chill nighttime music lull me to sleep.

There are some changes and compromises that come with the new format, however, and Pocket Camp feels a bit more like a typical video game because of them. The most obvious example is the constant barrage of goals. In order to progress and unlock new content, you’ll need to complete a never-ending list of arbitrary milestones, like catching 50 fish or making five new friends. It’s something you can ignore, of course, but then you’d miss out on a lot of the experience. You earn both money and experience from completing goals, which in turn unlocks new content like decorations for your campsite, or more animal friends to meet.

This more focused approach is baked right into the structure of the world. Instead of one large open space you can explore, Pocket Camp is divided into a series of smaller areas, each with a specific function. If you want to catch some bugs, there’s an island just for that, while you can go fishing either at the beach or a local stream. There’s even an area specifically for picking fruit. It makes sense that the game would be smaller in scale on mobile, but what this structure really does is take away a lot of the sense of discovery and aimlessness.

In past Animal Crossing games, you could amble across your town and stumble on a weird new bug, or luck upon some coconuts washed up on the beach. That doesn’t happen in Pocket Camp: any time you go somewhere, you do so with a predetermined goal in mind. Keen series fans will also notice that a number of iconic features, like gardening or digging for fossils, aren’t present in the new game.

All that said, Pocket Camp still does a remarkable job of emulating the soothing pace that makes Animal Crossing so appealing. Even with the spectre of goals and progress looming, the actual act of playing is still very relaxing. Catching bugs and fish is a lot of fun, and I’ve spent a lot of time fussing about with my campsite, setting it up just right. And the in-game chatter remains as charming as ever. It’s hard not to smile when talking to a cute yellow elephant who makes great soup, or a purple cat who won’t stop calling you silly.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Animal Crossing’s distinct structure also makes some of the more frustrating elements common to free-to-play mobile games much less annoying. Waiting for fruit to grow, for instance, doesn’t feel like a burden because, well, that’s how the game has always worked. You have the option to speed things up by using fertilizer, which can be bought with a premium in-game currency, but I haven’t felt the need to. The same goes for the new crafting feature. Here you can build your own furniture (though there’s still a market to shop at) using materials gathered from completing goals and helping out friendly animals. Depending on what you’re building, it can take hours to finish, or you can speed up the process with cash. But as someone who has spent actual days waiting for my house to be remodeled in previous Animal Crossing games, this never bothered me. It feels like a natural part of the game, as opposed to something tacked on to get you to spend money.

There are a few additions that don’t work so well, though. Most notable is the new mining mechanic, where you can go to a section of the campground and dig up resources that can then be used for crafting. In order to do so, however, you’ll need to either spend premium currency or pester five friends for their help. It’s a callback to annoying Facebook games like FarmVille, and it’s the one place where it feels like the game is trying to squeeze cash out of you. Pocket Camp also adds some new social features, but they feel woefully underdeveloped. You can visit the campsites of your real-world friends, but there’s very little you can actually do with them, aside from check out their furniture and buy some of their freshly caught fish. The fact that you can’t send gifts or notes — a beloved feature in past Animal Crossing games — is a major omission.

Pocket Camp chops up the Animal Crossing formula and puts it back together in ways that don’t always work, but ultimately it doesn’t change the overall feel of the game. It’s still a leisurely experience, one where hanging out with friends or picking apples are vital daily activities. Pocket Camp changes things, and ultimately shrinks the experience, but it also keeps just enough of Animal Crossing’s essence to make it work. And the shift to mobile adds something important. Animal Crossing is a game best enjoyed as a daily habit, and there’s no better place for that than on your phone.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is available now on iOS and Android.