Desert Island Distractions: A Review of Animal Crossing New Horizons

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On March 20th, to much anticipation from fans, Nintendo released the fifth instalment in the Animal Crossing series: New Horizons. If you’re unfamiliar, Animal Crossing drops the player in a town populated by animals, where they work to pay off their housing debt to Tom Nook, a high-flying racoon, mostly by selling bugs and fish to him. New Horizons presents Nook’s all-new and exciting ‘Desert Island Getaway Package’, where they are tasked with creating civilisation on a deserted island. Given the current lockdown, the game couldn’t have been released at a better time.

image courtesy of Lauren Hurst
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo

New Horizons is the perfect game for self-isolation. Animal Crossing is the kind of game that expects the player to return every day, completing chores and time-sensitive tasks. The in-game world matches real-time, meaning that you have to dedicate at least a little bit of time every day. In the absence of school or work, the game can create a sense of routine and purpose, giving you tasks that you can focus on that don’t have real-world consequences.

For those prone to panic, Animal Crossing can also provide a calming escape from stress. Curled up in a blanket with a cup of tea, headphones on, the sound of the sea and lilting music in my ears, I couldn’t be more relaxed. Animal Crossing doesn’t include hard bosses or challenging tasks. There are accomplishments and optional tasks, but the game allows you to do whatever you want. That level of freedom in a pandemic, when there is very little an individual can control, is a very comforting feeling.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons follows on from its predecessors beautifully. You begin deserted on an island with only a tent and the resources around you. Over time, you build structures, attract a population and the previously barren island transforms into a thriving community. New Horizons maintains the same calm, routine gameplay while including many features that were lacking in the previous games, to make the possibilities of your town even more expansive.

The biggest addition to this game is undoubtably crafting. In previous games, all tools and items would be bought from Nook’s store, but crafting gives the plater the ability to make items using resources from the island. You can shake trees to get branches, hit them with an axe to get wood, and dig up rocks for minerals. This feature makes much more use of the environment and perfectly fits the desert island narrative. While there are still items that can only be bought, being able to craft furniture gives the player a lot more freedom. Being able to find DIY patterns in multiple places, rather than relying on the limited stock in Nook’s store, means players can find items quicker. There is also a sense of accomplishment in collecting materials and making an item yourself, rather than passively clicking “Buy”.

There are also more opportunities to influence other villagers’ lives. In previous games, animal villagers would move in and out without any input from the player, but in New Horizons, you can place new villagers’ houses and furnish them. The player is also able to place furniture anywhere on the island, which allows the design aspect of the game to reach outside the player’s house and onto the streets of their town.

image courtesy of Lauren Hurst
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo

There are a number of changes to gameplay that make New Horizons superior to the previous games. Shop owners now only greet you at the door once per day, cutting unnecessary dialogue. You are able to change your hair and appearance as much as you like, meaning fewer bells are spent on haircuts and facials. A box outside the store allows players to sell items even when the store is closed, removing the need to hoard items in storage until morning – this is extremely beneficial for those whose sleep schedules have been ruined by a lack of routine.

The best addition to this new game is the slow discovery of features. It takes much longer to gain certain abilities and areas in New Horizons than in the previous games, giving it a greater sense of wonder and adventure. Being able to craft a vaulting pole and venture over rivers is much more exciting after a few days of being confined to one section of the island, rather than being able to access the whole town from the get-go. After playing New Horizons every day for almost two weeks, I’m less afraid of getting bored than with some of the earlier editions.

image courtesy of Lauren Hurst
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo

Despite many beneficial changes, I have a few gripes with the gameplay. For one, crafting tools becomes tedious very quickly. Tools break after much less usage than I would like, and there is no durability bar (like in other games with crafting, such as Minecraft) to indicate how close a tool is to breaking. There is also no option to craft multiple of the same item at once, causing incredulous spamming of the ‘A’ button whenever I want a few fish baits. Additionally, it seems as though the rarer fish are much easier to find in this game. While I have yet to catch all the fish in New Leaf, I have already caught the oarfish, golden trout and stringfish in New Horizons, which are famously some of the hardest to find. Perhaps this is down to the amount I’ve been playing the game, but I’ve seen many people online who’ve had similar success. Hopefully these issues will be fixed in later patches.

Overall, I have to praise Nintendo for New Horizons. Its timing was incredibly lucky, but I think it would have done well even in the absence of mass self-isolation. It’s clear that Nintendo has listened to their fans and implemented some brilliant features as a result. As a game that supports online co-op, it’s the perfect way to connect with friends and family who are far away.

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