Sunday, May 3, 2020

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Available On: Nintendo Switch
Price: $60

Animal Crossing is many things to many people. For some, it’s all about collecting every piece of furniture in the game. For me, it was always about decorating my home with all the Nintendo stuff and interacting with my villagers. New Horizons isn't just about decorating your home; though, you have to decorate the whole island, and I have yet to see a single Nintendo item. Villagers don’t seem to leave their clothes at each other’s houses as much, either. Animal Crossing has changed a lot since New Leaf. I know there’s been 3 Animal Crossing games since New Leaf, but I didn’t play any of them! I don’t think they’re canon anyway.

Coming from New Leaf, I was blown away by how much AC has improved in terms of UI and ease of use. First of all, you get a lot more bag space in New Horizons. In New Leaf, you got 16 bag spaces. People got around this limit by keeping 10 opened letter envelopes on them at all times and stuffing their tools in them to free up bag space. You can’t carry envelopes around anymore, but there's no need to. You can have up to 40 bag spaces now. You have to make a little progress in the game before unlocking them, but that’s not hard to do. Oh, and fruit stacks now! Game changer. I still run out of bag space while doing my daily routine, but nowhere near as often as in previous games.

Equipping your tools is much easier now thanks to the new item wheel. It’s very similar to item wheels in other games, like Monster Hunter World and Zelda Skyward Sword. When you make or buy a tool, like an axe, umbrella, or slingshot, it’s automatically set to one of the slots on your item wheel. You can also do this manually by clicking on a tool in your inventory. You can then simply press up on the d-pad to bring up the wheel and then select a tool to equip with the left stick. You can also press left and right on the d-pad to scroll through all the tools in your bag. This saves a lot of time and makes your daily island routine much easier.

Home decoration has gotten a major overhaul. You don’t have to get in the right position, drop something, and then push it around anymore. You can now go into an overhead view in which you can quickly move furniture around and hang stuff on the walls with a cursor. You can also access both your character’s inventory and your home’s storage in this mode and place furniture, or even change the wallpaper and flooring, directly from them. It’s really easy to use and makes decorating your home a breeze.

New Horizons gives you full control over where everything is built. Your house, bridges, stores, your neighbors’ houses, everything. You won’t have villagers moving in right on top of your orchards anymore. When you’re about to get a new house or building in town, Tom Nook will give you an item which you can use to mark where the building will go. It even lets you preview how the building will look there. It’s pretty awesome. I love the amount of control you’re given over the town, and you’re not even the mayor here!

This is still a game in which you can make your own fun and set your own goals, but you can get some kind of direction now, if you want. Tom Nook and Isabelle always have something to say about how your island is coming along and what you could do to improve it, even before unlocking star ratings. There’s also the equivalent of achievements and MMO-like daily quests. This is the Nook Miles system. It’s a rewards program. You get Nook Miles for doing everything from watering flowers to getting fossils assessed. There’s a bunch of achievement-like long-term goals, like wishing upon 300 shooting stars, and there’s always 5 smaller things you can do to get more miles. You might get one that gives you 100 Nook Miles for changing your clothes, and when you complete that one, another one will pop up that will give you some Nook Miles for catching a certain kind of butterfly or selling fruit. There’s always something you can do to get Nook Miles. You can spend Nook Miles on special furniture, recipes, clothes, and tickets to go to tiny deserted islands, which you can completely destroy and strip of all resources with no consequences.

Like I mentioned earlier, the focus of New Horizons isn't really about decorating your home, it's about decorating the whole island. Frankly, I had trouble warming up to the idea. The Japanese name is Animal Forest, after all. I don’t want my town to end up looking like the suburbs! It’s not really an option, though. That’s the game now. There’s only so much you can get out of it by only decorating your own home. Getting a 3 star rating unlocks KK Slider concerts, roads, and terraforming, for example. So I planted more flowers, put a bunch of furniture in my villager’s yards, and built fences around their houses. And you know what? I got into it. It’s a lot of work, since the home decorating view is not available outdoors and you have to place and move everything the old-school way, but it's fun. It’s creatively fulfilling in a way. But eventually, what I wanted to do with the island and the game’s mechanics clashed.

You see, New Horizons has a huge focus on crafting, which I guess comes from Pocket Camp, but I didn't play that. You can still buy furniture, find it on trees, and trade your neighbors stuff you don't want for it, but a huge chunk of it can only be crafted. You can't just look up the recipe on a Wiki and make it; though, you have to find and learn the recipe first. The problem with this is that opportunities to get recipes are pretty rare and random. Nook's Cranny only has a few you can buy. You have to find the rest in balloons, bottles washed ashore, or get them as gifts from neighbors. So I was constantly fighting my recipe app's limits while trying to decorate my way to a 5 star island as fast as I could. Compromises had to be made.

This a straight up Breath of the Wild-like crafting system, by the way. When you shake trees in New Horizons, branches fall down; when you hit trees with your axe, logs pop out; and when you hit rocks with your shovel, rocks and metal ore fly out of it. Even weeds and seashells are crafting materials now. Instead of filling my storage with furniture and clothes, I filled it with crafting materials. I don’t just shake my trees every day to get furniture, I hit them with a blunt axe to get 3 pieces of wood off them, too. A lot of my playtime consists of hoarding crafting materials. I feel the same way about the crafting in ACNH as I did about Breath of the Wild’s crafting, I don’t think this actually makes the game more fun. In fact, I think it’s a grind.

Once you get a 3 star rating, you unlock the Island Designer app on your NookPhone. This app lets you make different kinds of roads and trails, cliffs, rivers, and ponds. It’s a powerful tool, but a very clunky one to use. You actually have to use it one tile at a time. Want to build a dirt road that connects all homes to Nook’s Cranny? That could take a while. And what if you decide you want that dirt road to be cobblestone instead? You’ll just have to do the whole thing over again. One tile at a time. The tool feels like some kind of addon. It just doesn’t feel like the game was made with this ability in mind considering how finicky and hard it is to use compared to how easy it is to move furniture around in your home.

Another thing that really slows progress down is how you have to wait a day for anything to be built or demolished. After upgrading Tom Nook's office, you unlock the ability to move buildings around, build bridges and inclines, and have them demolished. All these things take 1 day to complete. That doesn’t sound too bad when you say it like that, but say you want to move a neighbor’s house a few tiles up so it lines up perfectly with their neighbor’s house. You’d have to move the house out of the way away one day, and then move it where you really wanted to move it on the second day because you can’t build a house somewhere where it touches another house, even if that house isn’t going to be there when that house is moved because it’s the same house. The same goes for changing the style of a bridge. You can’t just change the bridge’s style, you have to demolish the bridge one day and then build a new one the day after. You’re also limited to 1 building move and bridge, incline, or demolishing per day, so it’s not like you can remodel the whole island at once. It would take you at least 6 days to remodel 3 bridges, for example.

New Horizons isn’t exactly a Switch graphical showcase, but it does look nice. Everything is still pretty low poly, but these aren’t 3DS models, and the textures are much more detailed than ever before. I especially love how all the villagers look like they’re stuffed animals or something. There are also a lot of cool effects going on, like shiny wet surfaces when it rains, and depth of field when you talk to villagers. The lighting is really nice, too. It changes depending on the time of day and casts shadows in different directions. It’s a small thing, but it makes everything look great.

There’s definitely some frustrating things about New Horizons, but I still think it’s an amazing game. I can play this all day or just check in on it for 30 minutes while I focus on playing another game. I can always get something out of it. I never felt like that with past games because everything shut down at night. The future looks bright for support from Nintendo, too. We’ve already seen a few updates and events, and there’s more to come. Even if I start playing less now that I got a 5 star island, I’ll definitely keep coming back for the events.