Monday, April 27, 2020

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (NSW) Review

We're in the last week of April here at SuperPhillip Central, but that doesn't mean I'm ready to slow down just yet! After a month and an extended stay as part of the Nook Deserted Island Giveaway Package, I have finally arrived with my verdict on Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Here is my review!

Your Island, Your Way

Ever since Animal Crossing's western debut with 2002's eponymous release on the GameCube, I've grown accustomed to spending hundreds of hours tending to my town, carousing about, chatting it up with my fellow villagers, and collecting oodles of furniture, flooring and wallpaper with each release. Some entries in the Animal Crossing series have been more of a jump than others, and with the series's mainline installments missing a generation by skipping over the Wii U, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the very first HD mainline entry in the series. It manages to push the series forward with impressive innovations while also keeping intact a lot of what made players of Animal Crossing love about the series in the first place.

Tom Nook is a crafty, shrewd businessman--er, business-raccoon--and his latest venture is the Deserted Island Getaway Package, offering a new life aboard an island. Starting off, your custom-created character begins on a weed-infested, barren island wilderness to call home, with limited mobility to explore the entire isle. You're introduced to the island by Nook himself, and you're joined by two random animal companions who also decided to take the plunge on the Getaway Package. New Horizons's first day serves as a tutorial. You pick out the plots where your fellow island denizens will pitch their tents, collect a host of materials, and you are introduced to life on the island itself with the aid of a new tool, the NookPhone. The tutorial is a bit of a breezy one, but engaging all the way.

For most players, the opening tutorial should take but an hour or two to complete.
The first major goal within New Horizons is to amass 5,000 of a new currency in the game to go along with Bells. These are Nook Miles. You collect Nook Miles by completing specific in-game achievement-like tasks, such as collecting bugs, collecting fish, pulling weeds, buying and selling items, cutting down trees, picking up shells from the shores of the island's many beaches, among many other tasks.

Despite the tutorial being over rather quickly, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a bit slow to give you true freedom in the way that previous games in the series offered. For instance, you're limited in how far you can explore the island until you earn the ability to make a pole or a bridge to cross rivers. You won't be able to traverse cliffs until you gain the ability to make a ladder. All of these abilities aren't made available until a little ways into your first week. This is perfect for beginners of the franchise, but for veterans like myself, it can seem a bit limiting.

Chop trees to acquire valuable types of wood to craft furniture with.
As you work to complete tasks and as the early days go by, you'll get introduced to the concept of crafting, a new mechanic to the Animal Crossing series. Here, you use materials found around the island, such as weeds, wood from chopping trees, ore from mining rocks, and branches from shaking trees, to create a host of DIY tools and furniture. In fact, a major early part of the game is acquiring enough materials to craft new homes and furniture for new islanders to visit and call the island their new home.

In addition to making furniture, tools like shovels, fishing poles, nets, axes, and such are available by crafting. Unlike previous games, all tools besides your ladder and pole break after repeated use. This can be a bit annoying when a tool breaks at an inopportune time, such as being in the middle of a fish-catching excursion or while you're in the middle of chopping down a tree with an axe. You begin with a very weak tools, but as you learn new DIY recipes as the game progress and your life on your island continues, you'll gain access to stronger tools, though these still break routinely as well.

The first of many ceremonies I had on my island of Central was for Nook's Cranny.
My early weeks of playing New Horizons saw me do my best to fully populate my island with ten animal villagers, picking out their plots of where they will live, building bridges and inclines to connect my island to its more remote locations, and beautifying the island through various means. In New Horizons you can place furniture outside, serving as a neat way to decorate your island as you see fit. I enjoyed making my own outdoor pizza parlor, complete with brick oven, checkerboard-clothed tables with lit candles on each, and a marketplace stall where a cassette player sits, playing some appropriate musical ambiance.

I've been waiting 7 hours here for my pizza. I'm starting to think that "We're Open" sign is a big, fat lie.
It's not just to make your island yours and make it more appealing and entertaining to traverse. Of course, most players will want and be able to create the island of their dreams eventually, but there's a goal attached to making a more visually stunning island. Eventually Isabelle will visit the island and make it her home as well, serving as a way to see how well your island is shaping up. If you're able to get an island evaluation from her that's at three stars or better, you'll gain access to what I consider the coolest new feature of New Horizons: the ability to terraform your island. Yes, you can don a construction helmet and make paths, cliffs, and rivers to your liking. While the process is a bit clunky and heavy-handed, taking a while to really create something special, the results conclude with being able to customize your island habitat like never before. You have more freedom here than in any past game in the series. It makes me actively seek out how other players have designed their islands, draw some inspiration, or simply just envy their creations.

A barren island can slowly and steadily turn into a miniature metropolis.
And that is by far the most pleasurable part of Animal Crossing: New Horizons for me. It's the ability to start with a deserted, bare-bones island and slowly but steadily create something that you can call your virtual home. What was once a weed-covered plateau in the northwest corner of my island is now a soccer field, complete with two soccer goals and benches for attendees to watch on. The barren center of my island is now a bustling village with fenced off backyards for each animal islander, and a playground with slides, jungle gyms, and drinking fountains. If you've got the creative spirit, you can come up with your own projects to further improve your island.

You eventually reach a point where your play sessions in Animal Crossing: New Horizons become a bit of a daily routine, which might be a tad boring to some players. For myself and I imagine many others, there's almost a zen-like quality to it. Between going around chatting with all of my fellow islanders, checking in on their day, digging up fossils and donating them to museum, catching some bugs and fish to sell for Bells (I just had to get Nook off my back by paying off my house's loan for home expansions, of course), going to Nook's shop to see what wares are available to buy, and combing the beach for new DIY recipes on a daily basis, there's definitely a routine that starts happening. For me, it's quite an enjoyable one. With the addition of Nook Miles+ activities, there's a never-ending supply of tasks to take on, earning Nook Miles for completing each one, and when one is completed, another task takes its place. Plenty of times I found myself playing longer than intended just to complete more tasks as they popped up, finding new things to do in the process.

There's nothing like chilling out in the early evening by the town hall.
I'm obviously not alone with this thought!
That said, even when a player settles into a routine, Nintendo offers regular new updates that bring new events and happenings to their island. Already there's been celebrations and events for Easter, as well as a fishing tournament, and currently there's an Earth Day celebration going on, where players are encouraged to complete nature-related Nook Miles tasks for rewards. With these events happening all year round and weekly things like special visitors arriving on my island on random days, like the flooring and wallpaper-selling Saharah or the bug-buying Flick, there's always a reason for me to return to New Horizons and keep playing. I'm already at over 120 hours of play in just a month's time, and I don't see me slowing down anytime soon.

Bunny Day brought an array of specially costumed islanders outside to play.
While New Horizons does offer a lot of new improvements, such as new customization abilities, a new format, crafting, among other things, there are some niggling issues I do have with the game. For one, you can only craft one item at a time, which is really vexing and clumsy. This is especially apparent when trying to craft fish bait. Rather than being able to craft 10 at a time if you have the required materials available, you have to slowly craft one at a time, really making for a slow go of things. Further, while the online is slightly better than past games in the series, the slow entry and exit of players when they enter and leave your island is a tremendous pain in the neck, and communication errors can make otherwise enjoyable excursions to other player islands a complete mess. The use of Dodo Codes to only allow certain players into your island at once is pretty much necessary, otherwise you can get multiple folks from your friends list entering, causing all of those unwanted pauses in gameplay from when they arrive. Lastly, the lack of hourly music until a rather lengthy amount of time invested into your island is a bit of a curious concept. Fortunately, once those sensational songs do arrive, it's oh-so-good!

New Horizons looks exceptional on the Nintendo Switch, delivering a degree of visual elegance never before seen in the Animal Crossing series. The island is vibrant and the way leaves on trees and flowers and weeds wave in the island breeze is mesmerizing, and animals themselves reveal much more personality than ever. They're emotive, they react in funny ways, and their dialogue is just delightful in every sense of the words (and their words in general!). It's a joy to walk around my island and see the various shenanigans that the island citizens get themselves into, whether it's seeing them fish, sneak up on a bug with a net, investigate one of the many decorations around the island--whether they be furniture or flowers--begin singing, or engage in conversations with other animals on the island. It's incredibly endearing.

Happy faces abound at Zucker's place.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons takes the series and gives it some giant leaps forward in progress while sometimes also taking some steps backward in the process. The online being a major sticking point here. That notwithstanding, I can't think of a better game to play right now considering everything going on in the world, and I feel my New Horizons island really is a home away from home. I think in a few years I'll have the same level of nostalgia for New Horizons as I do with the original Animal Crossing. The only difference is that my nostalgia for the original Animal Crossing is rooted in the years I had growing up as a precocious teenager, while with New Horizons, my nostalgia will come from the unexpected and close connections I made to friends new and old through this game during these tremendously turbulent and uncertain times.

[SPC Says: A]

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