Before taking this assignment, I was basically offered three games to review: Doom: Eternal, Half-Life: Alyx, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Looking at the tech specs, I’m not even sure if my PC could run HL Alyx well. As for Doom: Eternal, I didn’t like the 2016 version of Doom, so chances were I wouldn’t like the second game either. Basically, Animal Crossing: New Horizons kind of won by default.
Truth be told, the only things I knew about Animal Crossing games before playing New Horizons was that they had emulated NES games in Animal Crossing: New Leaf and the band Starbomb did a pretty great song about Tom Nook. So, this is my first Animal Crossing game ever, and while I’m glad to have played it, I don’t necessarily think it’s necessarily a good gaming experience.
Review: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Platform: Nintendo Switch [Reviewed]
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Genre: Adventure, Social
Players: 1-8 (online play)
Release Date: March 20th, 2020
Price: $59.99 (USD)
When you start the game, you are presented with a little tutorial. You make your character, select where you want your island to be (North or South Hemisphere), and pick an actual island map. After that, you also select an item that you would like to take with you (lamp, food, sleeping bag, or leisure item). You then hop on a plane to your new island paradise, which is ruled by the despotic Tom Nook.
First Week or Two
The first week or two of the game is fairly innovative and whimsical. It’s a path of great discovery as you are instructed on how to make your island tools, how to put new plots down for people to move in, and how to gather resources. While also learning how to hunt for bugs, fish, etc. It’s a nice little journey for the intrepid new settler.
A defining part of this game are tasks which net you Nook Miles. This is a currency system where you can spend Miles buying stuff out of an ATM on the island. You get Miles doing tasks, which are randomly generated and are pretty much never-ending. These tasks might include fishing a certain number of times. Collecting a certain amount of wood. Shooting down balloons, buying (or selling) goods at the shop, taking photos, talking to other island residents, and so on. I’d say there are probably at least 30 of these types of activities in total.
These initial quests give you more Nook Miles than normal but after those are done, you can just do these missions to your heart’s content. This is very akin to a social game, but you don’t have to keep pestering your friends or other people for energy, credits, or something else. Plus, it actually provides some motivation for doing these tasks, which go from charming to banal over the course of playing the game. Overall, this is a pretty great system that is a nice addition to the series.
The Long Haul
I think the core thing that made me disillusioned about the game is that much like Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, the things you do in the first hour of the game, are the same things you do after 30 hours with the game. You still have to craft new tools for yourself when they break. You also still shoot down balloons to get presents. Not to mention, you still find bottles on the beach that have recipes in them, you still dig up cracks in the ground to get fossils, etc. You do, eventually, gain access to bigger island terraforming tools, and bigger goals, like bringing your island rating up higher, but if you don’t care about that, the game quickly turns a bit bitter.
In addition to the Miles system, the main currency in the game is Bells. You can earn Bells mainly by selling things to Tom Nook, and then eventually his sons once they have their store built. You can also sell the resources you collect (fruit, bugs, wood, stones, fish, fossils, etc.), but there’s also crafting available that lets you sell it to them for a higher price. For example, a piece of wood might net you 100 bells, but a chair made of three pieces of wood might net you 500 bells. So, it’s actually in your best interest to make the chair (or other crafted goods) to get more Bells.
The primary thing to do with Bells is to improve your house. At the start, you only have a tent but that quickly gets upgraded (via Miles) to a small, one-room house. Then Tom Nook lays down the law by going “If you want a better house, take out a loan.” He’ll improve your house by making it bigger, adding on more rooms, even an upstairs and downstairs with the loan sizes getting bigger and bigger. And like in real life, you have to pay back the loan completely before another one can be taken out.
With its big emphasis on crafting, it is mind-boggling that the actual crafting interface is utterly terrible. You can only craft at workbenches, which is fine, but you can’t do things like craft multiple things at once. For example, let’s say you want to make four tables for your house, you need to actually select the table four times and craft each one separately. It makes no sense why you can’t just select and make all four at the same time. The game also tells you nothing about how to even get certain materials.
So, there’s a recipe for building a robot. I bought the recipe thinking “Oh that’d be cool to make.” However, it needs five different types of materials, two of which I’ve never even seen before and one that is so rare as to make it almost impossible to actually get. Why not have crafting broken up into tiers of ease, so you don’t waste money on a recipe that requires 200+ hours of game time to actually get?
More on Crafting
Another thing is that you have to craft your tools but you don’t have any indication on when they break. Typically, you carry around an ax, shovel, fishing pole, bug-catching net, slingshot, and watering can (if needed). Using these items causes them to eventually degrade and break necessitating you to make new ones. There are also different tiers of items, you start with flimsy versions of certain tools but these can be upgraded to normal and even golden versions, but they are still able to break.
With that said, there’s no actual gauge on the screen telling you the health of your items, which would be, you know, incredibly useful. Generally, you’ll never really get stuck, as the basic materials for flimsy items are always plentiful. And even materials for the regular items aren’t that rare either, but it’s still incredibly annoying. You learn to keep a certain amount of resources always on hand, just because of this though.
Tom Nook Owns You
One of the more odd things about the game is its basic setup. You get on the island, do a few small jobs for Tom Nook and then he, and the other island inhabitants elect you as the island concierge, so you end up doing everything for everyone.
For instance, Timmy and Tommy, Tom Nook’s sons, want to build their own shop to sell you stuff. They require 30 wood, soft wood, hard wood, and iron nuggets each. Honestly, the wood is fairly easy to grab and so are the nuggets, if you do an odd digging trick to really dig a lot faster. Once you give them the materials, the shop is built the next day.
I just don’t understand why you should have to do this? There is a narrative that you don’t have any money but after the first week or two, you have squared away with Nook, at least for the basic house. Why is it incumbent upon you to gather the materials for the shop? There is also a notion that you are trying to make the island better/more attractive to prospective residents. However, you do not get paid for this though.
Also, there are other residents on the island as well (in my case a spoiled purple toad, and a goat obsessed with working out (and likely getting steroids from Nook). Why aren’t they helping you out? Why should you even have to gather resources at all? Also, why can’t you either just pay for it to be built outright (with Bells), or buy the required materials (again with Bells). Has Tom Nook never heard of Home Depot before?
National Geographic and You
I’ve mentioned above that you collect fossils, hunt bugs, and fish in the game. Aside from selling this stuff to Tom Nook, you can also donate to a museum (that you also have to build) run by an owl named Blatthers. Blatthers likes fish, loves fossils, but hates bugs. So, I guess he’s like Alan Grant in that regard. Donating stuff to him allows you to fill up both your Critterpedia for both bugs and fish, and also you’ll be able to complete entire fossil remains for the museum. It’s another activity for you to generally enjoy. You can only donate new stuff though and Blatthers will tell you what is new or previously donated. For extra stuff, it goes to Tom Nook for cash.
Online? Eh, kind of?
There is an online system for the game, only it’s a tad half-baked. You can go to the airport in the game to set your island online or offline. When online, you can send a message to everyone on your friend’s list saying that your island is open to receive guests. Then you just have to wait until they show up. Initially, your online friends can only do limited stuff around your island but if you become best friends with them. Best Friends status allows them to do more around your island, chop trees, move stuff around (or even take it), etc., so you have to be careful who you want to become besties with.
You can also visit other people’s islands. They have to open their island up (via the process above), but once open, you can hop a plane to go visit them.
Animal Crossing 90210
During my brief times trying to play online, I had immense flashbacks to my high school days. I would cast open my island for my Switch friends to enjoy (at least 10 or so playing the game at different times) and maybe one person would show up. 1 out of 10 isn’t a great batting average. As for visiting others, I visited my friend in return (we were doing a fruit swap), and one other friend when she had her island open. A note about my friend, she is a cosplay model with a decent-sized following. At any given time, she’ll have at least four other people on her island when she opens it up.
This is just an illustrative example of how someone popular can have a much more enjoyable time with the game. It’s also what made me think about my high school days, where the popular people get to have all the fun while the loners get screwed.
The other thing I thought a lot about as I played Animal Crossing: New Horizons was that of Captain Planet. The one big thing you can do with Nook Miles is purchase an airplane ticket to go to a seemingly random island. I say that because there are seemingly only three island types I visited. Where on said island, you might stumble upon someone to invite to your island, maybe a recipe in a bottle or two but that’s about it.
The real reason to go to these generated islands is to clear them out like a Captain Planet villain. I cut down all the trees, broke every rock, collected every piece of fruit, dug up flowers, etc. By the time I’m through with the island, it looks like I cleared it of everything valuable, so a toxic waste dump can be built onto it.
Interior Design and Me
Actually building out, buying, and laying out stuff in Animal Crossing: New Horizons seems to be the big draw. With that said, I can’t fathom why the actual interface for doing some of this stuff is so bad. For example, there is a whole system to create designs for t-shirts, wallpaper, etc. Why isn’t there some in-game tool to search for this stuff? The only in-game tools available are for searching by Design ID or searching by Creator ID.
Do you know what’s missing? “Showing me random things,” I think in the clothing shop some designs do cycle in and out but they usually aren’t worth anything. The fact that even if you are best friends with someone in the game, you can’t even see what they’ve made is unfathomable. Let alone just a general Amazon-style system where you could just see what everyone has made and download it. Super Mario Maker 2 doesn’t have the best level curation system out there but even it allowed for some tagging for getting new levels. I shouldn’t have to turn to websites outside of the game to be able to look at people’s stuff.
The Bigger Sim Question
More than the lame design process, the biggest fundamental problem I have with the game is just a lack of interactivity. There’s quite a large amount of stuff you can get for your house or island to decorate it, From gumball machines and arcade cabinets to skeletons and record players. You are even given a Nintendo Switch at the start of the game. The problem is none of the stuff actually does anything. You can sit on some furniture but that’s honestly about it. Why can you make a recycled-can thumb piano but not actually do anything with it? Or, spend bells on a big panda bear stuffed animal and just place it on something?
Like, you can’t pose it, hug it, or anything. I really do not see the actual point in placing a bunch of stuff in the game world when 98% of it you can’t interact with. At least when you play a Sims game and your Sim sits down at the computer to play a game, there’s an option of what type of game to play.
Using the Switch as another example, the only things you can do with it are to turn it on and off or sell it. Why not make it like the old GameCube version and turn it into a quasi-demo kiosk for the game? Or, make new 8-bit levels for Animal Crossing: New Horizons characters. “Super Blathers Land”, or “Dig Dug with K.K. Slider?”
The Amiibo support is also rather lacking. You can scan in Animal Crossing Amiibo cards, which almost no one bought, to invite that character to your island. So now there is a huge market for them. How about, if you could scan in your other Amiibo’s for items instead? Scan in Mario and get his hat. Scan in Link and get the Triforce. Even, scan in Samus to get her helmet to wear, etc. It just has none of this, which makes this feature rather pointless.
I can see the theoretical appeal of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. However, the nuts and bolts of the game really bug me. I actually like the task system and some of the basic jobs are fun. But so much of the game is predicated on being social (which didn’t work in my case), or on decorating your house/island. The game does have some charm and some occasional good writing but it wasn’t enough for me.