Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review

Nintendo still doesn't understand online play

1 April 2020
Played on Switch

Nintendo have long been known for having a limited number of hugely successful franchises that get recycled and evolved upon year after year. Animal Crossing might have had fewer releases over its lifetime than others like the Mario franchise, but it still generates a huge amount of buzz every time there's a new offering. It's the first time in quite a while that Animal Crossing has been available on a non-handheld console, so I wanted to take a detailed look.

TL;DR

A beautifully presented game that nonetheless enjoys wasting your time. Tired child-like jokes and cumbersome online play mean that the series has not evolved enough since its last outing. Despite this, it's a great casual experience for those who like to play a little each day or on the move. It just cannot be recommended for long play sessions or for those who find repetitive tasks even slightly off-putting.

The Good

  • Beautiful presentation
  • Seasonal events so there's usually something new

The Bad

  • Very disrespectful of players' time
  • Horrible online experience
  • Really expensive for the amount of content on offer

The premise

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a grid-based building, collecting, crafting, and slice-of-life game. Whereas previous games have put the player into an existing settlement, this one drops you off on a deserted island with a tent, and asks you to start from scratch.

You'll be exploring the very small play area of the island, gathering resources, and converting them into other resources, tools, and items as you progress. The game unlocks slowly the more you play, offering new item recipes, areas, and tools.

Casuals only

Animal Crossing has always been a bit of a unique experience. The game uses the console's clock to determine time of day, and date. This means that, unlike many other games of this type, a new day only arrives when the new day arrives in the real world, which leads to some interesting consequences.

Resources are only re-populated once per day. After you've collected all the fruit growing on trees, harvested all the wood, and whacked all the rocks, you can't do that again until tomorrow. As in, not tomorrow "in the game" when you "sleep", but literally tomorrow in real life.

There are some exceptions to this such as fish and shells, which are constantly repopulated, but this means there's a very limited selection of things to do. It might take you an hour or so each day to "do everything" on your island, after which time you're simply running about waiting for fish to spawn or bugs to drift past.

This leads to a very casual style of play where it's extremely advisable to limit the amount of time you spend in the game each day, because after a certain point, you're just grinding the same old tasks and it becomes boring incredibly quickly.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons: Orville the dodo welcomes the player to the island's airport
Animal Crossing: New Horizons: The dodo airlines (DAL) splash screen

Nook Miles

The new "Nook Miles" system allows the player to collect points as well as the "bells" currency. Points are awarded for reaching certain milestones such as collecting ten insects, or placing ten pieces of furniture outside.

It's a nice incentive and a good way to introduce the player to each of the game's different mechanics, but the key here is that using 2,000 Nook Miles will grant the player a "ticket" which can be redeemed at the airport, to travel to a randomly generated temporary island.

This somewhat alleviates the problem with limited resources being available on the player's home island, since, in theory, you can travel to these ticket-based temporary islands as many times as you like, assuming you have the Nook Miles available.

The issue here is that the points rewards for each task tend to be quite stingy. 150 points for catching five fish. 200 points for selling 5,000 "bells" worth of goods at the store. As you can see, to reach 2,000 points to buy a ticket, you will need to complete quite a few of these tasks, and there's just no other way to put it: they are grindy as hell.

I found that the best way to earn points was to simply earn them by doing the things I wanted to do anyway. Most things you do in the game have some form of reward associated with them, and you receive points in a sort of level-based system. For example, if you catch ten fish, you will earn rank 1 of the fish whatever-it-is, giving you some Nook Miles. Then if you catch fifty fish, you reach rank 2, and so on.

The issue here is how grindy this is. It doesn't respect the player's time, because the numbers go up so quickly. Getting points for catching ten fish is okay, but as soon as that next milestone says fifty, and you realise just how long that might take if you do it all at once, the sinking feeling arrives.

So these two elements are tied together really: if you want to continue to gather useful resources after your island is depleted for the day, you can, using a ticket. To buy a ticket, you need 2000 Nook Miles. And, to get 2000 Nook Miles, you will have to grind out 5 - 10 tasks on your boring-ass depleted island, which might take you over an hour. Given that the typical trip to a temporary island was about ten minutes in my experience, suddenly you'll think twice.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons: The Nook children offer to take a picture of the player
The Nook children offer to take a picture of the player

Lazy character creation

There's not much good to say about the character creator. There's a few heads, a few hair styles, a half-dozen hair colours, and three nose styles to choose from. It's incredibly lazy when you put it next to Nintendo's own Mii character creator. In fact, why not just allow the player to use a Mii? The art style is very similar and there's much more variety on offer.

There's a choice of gender but I can't understand why. It makes absolutely no difference in the game, even visually. I didn't find any gameplay elements that vary based on the gender choice, and there's only binary gender to pick from, which seems like, given that it has no effect on gameplay, is just going to frustrate some players.

There was huge potential here to make a versatile, fun, and compelling character creation and customisation system. Nintendo just decided to drop the ball. Then stamp on it until it popped.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons: A player in the player house surrounded by furniture, and a wood floor
A player in the player house surrounded by furniture, and a wood floor

Material and home design

The material designer is quite interesting. The player is given a way of drawing pixel art, either with the touch screen or by moving with the D-pad, and a range of colours to choose from. Materials can then be saved and applied to clothing, which is a really great customisation option. Much has already been made on social media of the many creative designs players have shown off.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons: The player has completed crafting an item and holds it up
Animal Crossing: New Horizons: The player is crafting an item at Tom Nook's crafting bench

The laziness even creeps in here though. The on-screen and inventory representations of items are generic and don't match what you're crafting. For example, although I had made an eggshell hat - for some reason - it showed up as a regular baseball cap in my character's hands when done crafting.

This makes absolutely no sense at all because the 3D model exists in the game world; after all, as soon as I chose the "wear" option, there it was, on my character's head, it's just that when it was in the character's hands, it was a "generic" hat. It screams laziness, although it's not a massive issue.

What's more troubling is that pretty much all furniture is represented in the inventory screen with the same "leaf" icon. This means that if you have ten furniture items in your inventory, have fun scrolling through each one until the label appears, otherwise you will have absolutely no idea which is which. Again, laziness: it would have taken a 2D artist a day or two to come up with inventory representations of each of the furniture items.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons: The player catches a fish at night
The player catches a fish at night

Shallow and tedious

Fishing is so boring and fiddly. I have done fishing activities in more games than I could hope to count, and I really didn't think it was possible to make fishing more tedious, but Nintendo have managed it.

First, you have to cast the float in front of the fish, because as we all know, fish notice absolutely nothing that happens behind or on top of them. This is made very tricky because you can't see where your float will land before you cast it, and there's no power setting, so it always goes a set distance. Sometimes the fish is staring directly at the shore, but the game won't let you cast by standing a little back from the shore, so you have no choice but to watch the float sail right over the fish's head.

It seems like the fish have about a 45-degree vision cone directly forwards, and it doesn't extend very far. If you're outside of the cone or too far away, the fish doesn't notice. Even worse is that the fish constantly turn around, and casting the line takes a few seconds, so most of the time, the fish has already turned in a different direction and your float ends up behind it. Remember: even a few centimetres behind it won't work. It has to be in front or nothing.

Other activities are, thankfully, much less troublesome, but very shallow. There's not much to it. Shake a tree, collect a twig. Collect fruit. Collect shell from beach. Sell the shell. Get a tiny amount of currency. Rinse, repeat. None of the mechanics have the kind of detail or progression that would make them interesting. There's different kinds of fruit in the game, but functionally, they're all identical.

I understand that this is supposed to be for youngsters as well, but even they would have no problem grasping more fully-fledged mechanics than are on offer here.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons: An insect rests on a tree trunk, with a yellow tent in the background

Flimsy tools

At some undetermined point in time, someone at Nintendo had an idea. This person thought it was the best idea ever, and everyone at Nintendo agreed. That idea was very simple: "what if the player's items break, and they have to craft or collect new ones?"

"That's genius!" was the jubilant uproar at Nintendo, as hundreds of excited employees frantically began an epic quest to introduce this game mechanic to the world. We saw it in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and it returns here in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

There's a slight problem though: this idea is FUCKING SHIT.

Every time you're away from the village plaza, doing anything, with any tool, it could break at any time, and there's no visual indicator to tell you when it's likely to break. Some collectables disappear if you don't get them quickly. If you miss a rare insect with your first net swing, you might just get it with a second one, but if your net breaks for no fucking reason after your first swing, you're screwed, you lost your chance.

If we think about positive game design for a moment, there's absolutely no good things to say about flimsy, breakable tools in this game. It doesn't heighten the challenge, or present new or interesting ways to interact with the world. It's designed for one purpose: to waste the player's time by needing to collect more mundane resources to build the same tool again and again.

Fucking stop it, Nintendo, you're better than that.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons: A white dog playing a guitar

This is my main issue with Animal Crossing: New Horizons: it lacks respect for the player's time. There are a lot of grindy games, and games involving repetitive tasks, but there's good and bad ways of handling these. Mostly, Animal Crossing's ways are bad.

It's worth mentioning a much less well-known, but extremely well-made game in a similar style: My Time at Portia. This has daily tasks, but doesn't need you to wait for a real-life new day to do them. It doesn't have tools which are made from toothpicks and doesn't need you to constantly gather boring resources to craft things over and over that you can't play the game without.

Even the beloved indie, Stardew Valley, understood this. Don't waste the player's time. Nintendo haven't learned this, after so many years. Speaking of other things Nintendo haven't learned...

Multiplayer is a joke

We already knew Nintendo's online service is bullshit. For a while, this service was free of charge, and it should have stayed that way. To charge for such a diabolically awful service is shameful. Animal Crossing: New Horizons unfortunately shovels further shit into the dumpster fire with its convoluted online system.

First, you are not allowed to join online games for a day after you begin the game, because the airport isn't open. What? Fuck you, this isn't Luton and I'm not flying EasyJet, I'm connecting to the Internet. Why is that dodo typing on a keyboard to "connect to the Internet" and why is it taking upwards of one minute? No wonder those pricks went extinct.

Everything concerning multiplayer is like this. You have to speak to a character in the game, who says a bunch of stuff you've already read, and you can't skip it, and you have to suffer it until the first option appears. Are you playing online, or local? You answer, then the dodo spews some more crap you've already seen a hundred times, and no you can't skip it, and then the next question comes up.

Why not just, you know, put this all in a game menu, like a normal person would? It's wasting time, and Nintendo knows it. They've gone for the "cute in-game mechanic" at the cost of the player's time, and it's nonsensical.

All of this is unnecessary. All of it. Even having a menu in the game is completely unnecessary. On Steam, you click your friend in the list and click "join game". On Xbox, you find your friend in the list, and press "join game". On PlayStation, well, you get where I'm going.

Even if you excused the shoddy online connectivity and lag issues that have plagued Nintendo's multiplayer systems since launch and show no signs of ever getting fixed, you still can't excuse why there's no "join game" option to get into a friend's game as easily as possible. "Because Nintendo" is really the only thing I could come up with here.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons: The player and other characters shout words simultaneously next to a bonfire

But everyone else likes it

It might sound like I've taken a huge dump on this game and it might seem odd to you. You've seen the Metacritic scores, and the glowing reviews elsewhere on the Internet, and you're thinking: hey Britgamer, why do you seem to be the odd one out here. Everyone else likes it.

The thing is, professional game reviewers have things to do. The industry developed when a "long" game might take a single working day to complete, and now, they're handed a game that just cannot be played to any great length of time quickly. It's a slow burner. By design.

I have a lot of respect for game journos. They have a tough job, way too many games to play, and rarely get to play for pleasure. But this is why Nintendo games review well: they look great, feel great when you pick them up, and the first few hours are always a great experience. And that's often what the review will be based on.

Taking a longer view, as I like to do, reveals the stuff hidden just below the surface. In fact, you might have already explored a range of more detailed video or text-based Animal Crossing: New Horizons reviews, and if you have, you'll have seen that those are less positive over extended periods of play.

I'll still play it though

With all of the above said, I'm still going to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons most days. I'm still going to enjoy it. I might not be playing online any time soon, because fuck Nintendo's online system, but it's still an enjoyable solo experience.

Here's why: the game is heavily skewed towards short periods of play each day, and not hours at once. If you can pick up this game for 30 minutes or an hour every day, or play it for 15 minutes a few times a day, you won't care about the shallow game mechanics and the lack of respect for the player's time. Those activities only become problematic when you do them a lot.

This really isn't a hardcore gaming experience in any way. It's not "one for the achievement hunters". It's still satisfying to play though, and has a charming cutesy style all of its own. If you can tolerate this vastly atypical gaming experience, this might be worth your while, but it's a hefty price tag for a game you're only going to play a little bit each day, so it's only going to be worthwhile if you're coming back to it over and over and over.

For less than half the price, you can get My Time at Portia, and for the cost of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you can get My Time at Portia and Stardew Valley. Both way more polished gameplay experiences and much more engaging. Being a Nintendo first-party release, you know that this game, unlike a lot of others, won't drop below the £50 mark, probably ever.

I'll still play it though. Now and again. But if I hear anyone ask why all BUTTERflies aren't yellow one more time I swear to...