Capsule Review: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

A low-pressure life sim with more customization than the series has ever had but with design constraints that are still likely to stress out completionists.

A life sim set in a small town with humanoid animals of various species. There are many low-pressure activities such as fishing, collecting insects, doing favors for and exchanging gifts with villagers, donating to the local museum, saving up to buy house expansions, collecting furniture and outfits, and participating in various holiday events. There’s no overarching goal or win state, though the game encourages the player to achieve a particular series of goals and a number of activities provide clear (if optional) progressions. There are also both day/night and seasonal cycles affecting which activities, villagers, and fauna are available.

So far, so standard - as with most mainline Animal Crossing games, New Horizons is mostly about bringing the series’s well-established formula to a new system (in this case, the Nintendo Switch). In this case, however, there are some major changes that make for a much improved experience.

The most obvious and significant addition is a substantial increase in the player’s ability to customize their town. They can decide where virtually every building will go (and move them later), can place objects and furniture wherever they’d like, can build bridges and ramps to allow easy access to different areas, and after reaching a certain point in the progression can reshape the land and water itself. While the UI for accomplishing this is cumbersome, the possibilities it opens up for customization and creative expression are tremendous.

There is also a new crafting system, but this is relatively shallow - the bulk of the recipes are aquired at random and mostly use the same basic materials, so instead of being a way to manage progression it’s largely a way to create busy work by obliging you to continue collecting those materials and building new tools, as those tools now also break frequently.

These additions don’t quite mean that this is the biggest Animal Crossing yet, however. Unusually for the series (and for a game without microtransactions or subscription fees), New Horizons launched relatively bare-bones with much of its content and features being added over time via patches like a “live service” game. It’s also worth noting that the game does not support the cloud save service that’s part of the Nintendo Switch Online subscription, having a much more restricted back-up service of its own that was not added until several months after launch. On top of that, at least some of the holiday events require an online connection to be able to confirm you’re playing on the correct day. Nintendo is exerting a lot of control over how people are allowed to experience this game.

As with most Animal Crossing games, New Horizons is best played as something you dip into a little on a roughly daily basis. Most of its gameplay is shallow and repetitive, making it serve well as a relaxing routine rather than as an exciting source of challenge. But the constraints of its design mean that players with completionist tendencies will feel pressure to do more than that and burn themselves out on it. While it is in many ways more gentle than prior entries and in particular no longer punishes the player for returning to a neglected game by having a town filled with weeds and angry villagers, the player is still arbitrarily limited by time and date, which can create a sense that if the player doesn’t accomplish everything before the corresponding window closes, they have failed.

Villagers and shops are still only available at certain hours of the day, meaning it’s easy to feel like you’ve missed out if you don’t talk to each villager and check each shop’s rotating stock each day before they close. Fauna required to complete museum collections is only available during certain hours of certain months and can be rare and difficult to catch on top of that, meaning that players who don’t want to wait several months for their next chance to get a particular bug or fish might have to hunt them for extended periods, which can be both dull and stressful. Holiday events are time-limited and often present unique rewards that can only be gained through frequent, repetitive play over a short period, which can turn gameplay into a chore.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game that is marketed as being a safe and relaxing world to occupy, and in many ways it is. But it also has design decisions that will make it far more frustrating and anxiety-producing for certain players.

I Stopped Playing When: I played for over 200 hours, but eventually the game just felt like a set of daily chores and there was too much friction in the terraforming for it to serve as an enjoyable avenue of creative expression so I put the game down. However, because of the lack of decay mechanics I actually expect to come back periodically to this one - though I’m annoyed at the seasonal events and bugs/fish that either I’ll miss in the meantime or will drag me in to play when I don’t want to (and in particular I find it absurd and rude that there are multiple rare hard-to-catch beetles that only show up at night in July and August).

Docprof's Rating:

Four Stars: Great. Not only did I finish the game, I probably played through the whole thing again and/or completed any optional objectives. It's an easy recommendation for any genre fan.

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