Animal Crossing has always been a slow burn. It’s not the kind of game you marathon for hours at a time. Instead, its joys reveal themselves over days, weeks, and months. It’s a quirk of the premise: Animal Crossing is a laid-back life simulator that takes place in real time, forcing you to wait for things to happen. This also makes it an acquired taste.
Even by these standards, the latest entry in the series — New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch — starts out slowly. It has an entirely new premise: instead of being the sole human moving into a town full of animals, you start out on a deserted island and create a community from scratch. Initially, it can feel a little too empty, especially for series veterans who are more accustomed to bustling little villages.
But the change is ultimately for the best. New Horizons still maintains the charm and style that have made Animal Crossing so beloved, but with a newfound sense of purpose: the satisfaction that comes from building something from nothing. It’s also the first Animal Crossing where I’ve felt truly in control.
To start, there isn’t much on your island. You get a small yellow tent, as do two other computer-controlled animal residents. There’s an airport for accessing multiplayer options, and a service tent for selling goods and crafting items. Aside from the natural elements, that’s it; initially, you can’t even access large swaths of the island that are blocked by rivers or cliffs. The goal of the game, loose as it is, is to turn that blank slate of an island into something bigger and more interesting.
You do this, well, pretty much just by living your life. You can catch bugs, go fishing, decorate your living space, collect wood and minerals, and chat away with your neighbors. As you do, you’ll earn points and cash to improve the island. At first, it can feel pretty limiting, especially if you’re not accustomed to the relaxed pace of Animal Crossing. Once you acclimate, though, it’s almost soothing. Small victories can feel huge, like the first time you craft your own fishing rod out of twigs or when you use that rod to catch a fish that earns you thousands of bells. When I paid off my first loan in order to swap out the starter tent for a small house, I honestly couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning.
You progress by living your life
Helping this along is a new progression system. At the beginning of the game, you’ll get a new smartphone — cleverly called a NookPhone — with a handful of apps. The most important is called Nook Miles, and it’s essentially a way to earn points by doing normal Animal Crossing tasks. It’ll feel familiar if you’ve ever played a mobile game before. You’ll get miles for catching a certain number of fish, breaking a certain number of fishing rods, or even just pulling a certain number of weeds. These miles accumulate and can be redeemed for various things. You can use them to pay off your initial loan (though subsequent loans have to be paid in cash) as well as unlock items and DIY recipes. This setup makes it so it always feels like you’re inching forward in the game, even when you’re just doing regular stuff. And for players who are intimidated by Animal Crossing’s wide-open nature, it gives you very specific tasks to work toward.
The miles system isn’t the only big change. New Horizons also introduces crafting so that you can gather natural resources to build tools and other items. First, you have to get a recipe — which is housed in a DIY app on your phone — and then gather the requisite materials. This also means that all of your tools, from fishing rods to bug-catching nets, are breakable and will need to be regularly replaced, which can be annoying, particularly early on. But there are two interesting things that come from the crafting mechanic. First, at least for me, is a sense of accomplishment. It’s cool walking around your virtual house and seeing items you virtually built and customized yourself. Second, it opens up the amount of things you have access to tremendously. You no longer have to wait for new items to show up in the store. Instead, over time, you’ll steadily form a huge library of things you can build yourself, many of which have multiple color and style options.
As I said, everything still moves forward very slowly. New Horizons, like past games in the series, runs on a real-world clock, and there’s only so much you can do in one day. When a new building is constructed, you’ll have to wait a day or two before it’s actually finished. But that doesn’t mean your island will be empty for long. Here’s an example: after two solid weeks of daily play, my island is currently home to a large museum full of fossils and fish, a clothing shop, a large resident services building, a general store, three new residents each with their own home, and a tent for anyone who wants to stop by for a visit. It’s a completely different place from where I started. I even have an orchard full of fruit that I collected on other islands.
There are also a number of quality-of-life fixes, some of which you won’t see right away. You have much greater customization over your character, for instance; you start out the game by choosing your appearance, and you can continue to change your look whenever you want with a surprisingly large number of hairstyles and clothing options. Once I unlocked the clothing store in my town, I stopped paying off my mortgage and instead spent too much money on shoes and jackets.
It’s the first game in the series that gives you the freedom to play exactly how you want
Similarly, you also have much more leeway for customizing your house. Much like in the spinoff Happy Home Designer, there’s a simple menu for moving furniture about, so you don’t have to drag things around the room, and there are more options for where you place things. I have one wall full of hanging plants, and what’s essentially a walk-in closet with shoes and hats on the walls. Two of my favorite additions are a new tool ring so you can quickly access your axe or net whenever you need it and a smartphone app that keeps track of every bug and fish you’ve caught. Perfect for completionists.
What this all amounts to is a greater degree of control — more control over how you look, where you live, what you do, and how you do it. While the core of New Horizons is the same as past games, it feels like the first game in the series that really gives you the freedom to play exactly how you want to. In many cases, there are multiple ways to solve a problem. If your fishing rod breaks, you could buy a replacement or make a new one; if you’re short on cash, you can go fishing or venture to a mystery island to gather rare fruit. I haven’t even unlocked the late-game option where you can customize the landscape by building pathways and knocking down cliffs. (I did just build my first ramp… but I have to wait until tomorrow morning to actually use it.)
When you factor in the open-ended nature inherent to Animal Crossing, where there are no time restrictions and there’s no punishment for not doing things like paying off your loan, you end up with arguably the most engrossing game in the series to date. It’s also easily the best-looking, maintaining the series’s adorable art style but adding in much greater detail and bigger locales. Seriously, the new museum is one of my favorite video game locations ever; it’s a massive space where you can just wander around with friends looking at butterflies and T. rex skeletons. Overall, the world just feels more alive. I love heading out on a Sunday morning to see my animal friends exercising in the town square or meeting up at night to listen to them sing gibberish.
Of course, it’s impossible to fully judge an Animal Crossing in such a short time. I’ve spent two weeks with the game, playing multiple times a day, and it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface. I wasn’t even able to test the online features in my prerelease copy of the game. Even still, the refinements that New Horizons makes to the formula are clear. It’s not a game that drastically changes how Animal Crossing works. If you found past entries boring or directionless, it’s unlikely the latest will change your mind. But if you already enjoy this kind of experience, if the idea of playing 20 minutes daily seems like an escape rather than a chore, this is the most refined iteration of that concept to date. And it’s one that promises to continue to change and group with regular events and updates.
It’s the video game equivalent of a relaxing getaway — and we could all use that kind of respite right now.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons launches on March 20th on the Nintendo Switch.
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