Cozy Simulation or Time-Locked Frustration?
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: 20-Mar-2020
CGC note: Initial CGC review shortly after game release by Phil found here.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons made headlines around the world this year for both being a big seller (26 million copies is a massive number, especially for a game sold on only one platform) and for being released at the best possible time in history for a game of its kind.
This zen, feel-good little number was released when most countries were going into lockdown. Right when people needed a cheerful distraction. I do wish I had jumped on this bandwagon in the beginning so I could have experienced the exciting online environment New Horizons had at the height of its popularity, but hindsight is 20/20.
This popularity was also accompanied by numerous nominations at The Game Awards, including Game of the Year, where it won Best Family Game. It also won Game of the Year at the Japan Game Awards.
There was every reason for me to enjoy this game, and I did… for a little while.
Simple Concepts Executed Well
New Horizons is not a complicated game, and that isn’t a complaint. The game starts with your character and two randomly assigned anthropomorphic animal characters moving to a deserted island after buying Nook Inc.’s Deserted Island Getaway Package. Nook, who sold you this package, and his two nephews will also join you on this island. They will be key to your characters’ attempts to improve this island as time goes on.
Your island starts as little more than weeds and wildflowers, with much of it being inaccessible for days as the island will be divided by cliffs and rivers. This brings me to the main complaint I have for this game, and something that divides opinion even among huge fans of the franchise. It is completely restricted by real-time.
No matter how much effort you put in the first few days, you cannot get your museum (a main feature of the island) before your fourth day of logging into the game. Other features are also time-locked. The growth of fruit trees, construction in general, and general goals can only be unlocked after a certain amount of real-time days.
This is a selling point for many players. To not be able to push your goal forward and be able to just relax and take the game as it comes is what a lot of players love about this game. It is not for people like me who like to hyper-focus on a game at a time until it’s ‘finished’. Because New Horizons is built to force you to slow down whether you want to or not.
But thankfully after a few excruciatingly slow real-life days, the tents my villagers lived in and worked from could be traded for houses and communal buildings. Once I got the construction materials together of course.
Crafting and Construction
The versatility and beauty of this game are in the DIY recipes used in crafting. All of those countless beautiful islands flooding Youtube videos, dedicated Instagrams, and blogs have mastered the art of finding the right DIY recipe, customising its design, and arranging them in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
Customisation is a time-locked feature that you can access later in the game. The ability to create furniture and island features that are not sold in the island shop by those raccoon brats comes just in time to keep the gameplay fresh and island design interesting enough to keep you going.
Gathering necessary crafting materials is just difficult enough to be a goal without becoming a massive chore. When you get more complicated recipes this is more irritating to carry out, but by that point, you are aiming for aesthetics for your own reasons rather than game goals.
Shovels, Nets, and Rods Abound!
There is plenty to do outside of crafting and construction - and most of this is driven by the museum.
The museum is empty, to begin with, and once constructed you can begin filling it with insects, fish, and fossils that you find on your and surrounding islands. Some are easier to find than others, and some appear only during specific real-time months. This means that if you want to complete the museum, you must play for close to a full year. Again, not a game for driven completionists but it is a nice touch to have gradual changes on the island.
The Village People
If there is a second criticism I have for New Horizons, it is that people that crave character development and plot will find it wanting.
The villagers do not change much over time, and outside of specific nicknames or end of sentence affectations, they don’t differ much from each other either. They’re cute, charming, but ultimately shallow. It is the style of the game, and not a mistake on the game dev’s part but a conscious choice they have made that will suit the majority of players. It is the subcategory of players that crave story-dense games that will find it difficult to get around.
The character designs were a win for me though, and the updated graphics from the previous installation were effective. I didn’t expect to see the adorable fuzz around Tom Nook’s edges, the water glittering in the sunlight, and the flowers you plant blend into existing surroundings in an aesthetically pleasing way.
If you’re looking for cute, you will find it in the Shih Tzu Isabelle and the raccoon kids Timmy and Tommy.
Multiplayer Madness - Online Inspiration
Nintendo Switch Online is where Animal Crossing truly shines and is a huge contributor to New Horizon’s success.
In line with the game’s values when playing single player, online play is not competitive in nature. It mostly works as an interactive tour of other players’ islands.
From your island’s airport, you have the option to get a flight from to another deserted in-game island (mostly for gathering materials), fly to a specific friend’s island using online play, or fly to a player’s island using a Dodo code.
A lot of high-profile Animal Crossing players have shared their Dodo codes on their social media, and have even organised official tours of their island. If you are lucky enough to attend one of these ‘viewings’ then you will be able to see some of the most freakishly immaculate islands that could possibly exist.
It is important to note that when you are on another player’s island you cannot use any of your items that change your surroundings (no digging holes with your shovel, or finding fossils) unless that player is registered on the game as a ‘best friend’. Best friends on the Nintendo Switch itself do not carry over automatically.
This is a cute, charming, relaxing game to play. It is shallow, but it's supposed to be. The game doesn’t hide that its main selling point is escapism and aesthetics, and it achieves this better than a lot of other simulation games. The Sims wishes.
For anyone going to pick this up who might typically focus on one game at a time, like me, I would advise learning how to multitask and picking up another to play at the same time. There are only so many things to do on most given days, especially in the beginning, so you could find yourself fishing for hours and hours on end otherwise.
New Horizons is a great family game, hence the award in that category, and I can appreciate it for what it is even though it is not built for players like myself. I thought I was more patient than I am, and New Horizons has punished me for that. Severely.
Play this game if:
You want a chilled-out gaming experience
You enjoy visual design challenges
You have an average or better level of patience
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