Capsule Review: Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Animal Crossing is a strange series. The sequels seem to be less about advancing the original formula and more about simply bringing the experience to a new system (hence there being exactly one mainline entry each on GameCube, Wii, DS, and 3DS). There are surface improvements along the way and New Leaf is certainly the best installment yet (it helps that handhelds are a natural home for this sort of play) but the core is unchanged. That’s fine from a comfort-food-gaming perspective - if you’ve played any previous Animal Crossing you’ll recognize the characters and know how to interact with the world. Your nostalgia will be fed and you won’t have to stretch your brain to learn radical new concepts or skills.

The problem is that most of Animal Crossing’s unchanging core mechanics are outdated, player-hostile, or both. Clones like Disney Magical World are able to learn from what works and doesn’t in Animal Crossing and thus present an experience that’s improved in many ways - but Animal Crossing itself is beholden to its history and must repeat its mistakes. For example, it was a novel and interesting idea when the first game came out to have the villagers follow a day/night cycle and have their shops open only at certain times - but by now it’s just annoying, since the characters are far too shallow for this to make the world feel alive and it really just means that significant parts of the game are cut off from you depending on when you play. (Get home late from a rough day and want to relax with Animal Crossing? Screw you, says the game. You missed your chance.)

But even if you did file down all these rough edges, the game is still built on delayed customization. The game gives you a lot of tools to express yourself - customizing your appearance, your home, your town - but they are doled out on a schedule that gets slower and slower and demands that you pour more and more time into it. Even though it has no subscriptions or micropayments, Animal Crossing uses a lot of the same tricks that show up in games that do - most notably, artificially elongated reward schedules to extend play time and missable daily objectives to encourage regular play. It’s easy to get sucked in and comforting for a while, especially given the game’s incredibly warm and friendly atmosphere, but eventually the bottom falls out. Once you finally have your character, house, and town the way you want them, there’s nothing else to do. Removing the artificial delays would collapse the whole house of cards right up front - there just isn’t enough depth anywhere else to carry the experience. Unless the formula gets some drastic updates, at this point it’s hard to recommend Animal Crossing games over their improved clones for any reason besides nostalgia.

I Stopped Playing When: After getting bored with the game’s routine and putting it down for a couple of weeks, I came back to find that my favorite villager - whom I’d done many favors and had worked to keep happy - had moved out for no clear reason, while the villagers I disliked and had been purposefully neglecting for months were still around. Since picking the game back up had been rewarded with a slap in the face, I did not pick it up again.

Docprof's Rating:

Two Stars: Meh. The game has some merit - it probably held my attention for at least an hour or I came back to it for more than one play session. But there wasn't enough draw for me to stick with it for the long haul.

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