Wouldn’t it be nice to just get away from it all? Pack up your bags, put your modern day worries behind you and just, you know, leave? That’s always been part of the appeal of slice of life games like Animal Crossing, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons takes this further than ever before, evoking those dream island caretaker job listings that pop up every once in a while as you take a Nook Inc. Getaway Package and jet off to a deserted island to start afresh.
The first thing that hits you is just how incredible Animal Crossing now looks. It’s always been cute and cartoony, whether on GameCube and Wii, or most recent game Animal Crossing: New Leaf on 3DS. New Horizons keeps the same style, but just lavishes it with so much loving detail and nuance. You can see the fuzzy, almost felt-like appearance of Tom Nook and other animals, there’s a gorgeous sheen and flow to the water, the leaves rustle on trees as the wind blows, there’s realistically cast shadows from butterflies as the sun dips. It’s sublime.
Setting foot on a new island, there’s a lot to do. Our demo started seemingly not long after arriving, with the land still untamed and covered in weeds, and everyone living in tents. You really are starting from scratch, with nothing but the Resident Services and the Nooks for support.
That means there’s plenty to be getting on with to found a new island village. Keeping track of it all is the new NookPhone where you can earn Nook Miles for practically everything you do, whether it’s weeding, catching bugs, going fishing, or crafting new things at the DIY table. It’s like an extension of the CAT coupons that you could earn in New Leaf’s Welcome Amiibo update, and those Nook Miles can be spent on various rewards.
Oh yeah, DIY is new as well. Tom Nook generously lets you use his DIY table for free! You start off crafting basic tools like the flimsy axe and flimsy spade from branches and stones, using these to gather materials from hacking away at trees to get their wood. Just beware that these “flimsy” tools are called that for a reason and will break after a while. Oh well, you’ll just have to go make a new one every once in a while!
It’s not just tools though, and as long as you have the DIY recipe and all the materials to make it, there’ll be plenty of furniture and decorations to craft. This might seem like all of this subverting Tom Nook’s traditionally entrepreneurial and capitalist sensibilities, but don’t worry, it’s not all DIY, all of the time.
Jumping forward a few days, weeks, maybe a month or two, and your island settlement will have transformed a huge amount. The Resident Services has transformed into a proper Town Hall type building, and while you can still go there to do a little DIY, it’s just a small cutting mat on the front desk shared by Tom Nook, who’s there for managing the island, and Isabelle, who returns, chirpy as ever, to help manage the more social side of the island and its inhabitants. Got a problem with how someone dresses? She’ll crack down on that for you if you want.
There’s plenty of other returning faces as well. The Able Sisters are back with a store to let you buy new clothes – we saw a vampire costume and flamenco dress when we wandered in, as some outlandish examples – and you can create and show off your own custom designs as always, Savanah and the other wandering merchants will appear, and Blathers has fluttered in to found a museum and chart the new island’s ecosystem, past and present.
He starts off in a tent from the first slice of the game we got to play, but jumping ahead and you’ll find he’s snoozing in the hallway of a grand museum that has themed wings and fittingly large displays for fossils, insects and fish. It feels like a full on museum turned zoo; a butterfly garden in one end, aquariums stuffed with fish in the other, and dinosaur skeletons that are now big enough to walk under. Visiting your growing collection is going to be an absolute joy.
It’s the village itself that feels so utterly different to previous games, though. One of the earliest features that was revealed about New Horizons was the ability to put furniture outside, and I now finally see just how big a deal that is. Where in previous games the most you could really do was plant trees and flowers, the island is now your canvas with which to do as you please. You can create a little play area with rocking horses and half tyres, set up a basketball court, make a frankly bizarre giant teddybear corner. I used to think this feature was mainly about the few square feet around your house, but oh, how wrong I was.
That’s emphasised with the Island Designer Permit that you can eventually earn as Tom Nook’s most trusted trusted villager. Now you can reshape the land itself. There’s the cosmetic side of things, being able to create pathways or whole areas in different types of ground, or even use a custom created image to create your very own yellow brick or rainbow road. There’s also the more meaningful abilities to dig down and create or redirect streams, or go up and form new cliff edges for the now multi-tiered islands.
It can be a bit fiddly at times, and it was often a bit of a struggle to paint the right square of ground in sand, or to get right on the corner to create an angled edge to a riverbed. I wish there was some way to switch to an overhead view and simply make changes, as there now is for decorating your house interior, but it’s still a massively powerful new tool for players.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t just a step, but a leap in the same direction that the series took with New Leaf. More control is being put in your hands than ever before to create the island community of your dreams, it’s not just giving you a place to live in. Couple that with gorgeous new visuals on a modern console, and the buckets of easygoing charm that the series has always had, and I simply can’t wait to embark on my own deserted island getaway.