It’s time to book your ticket, hop on a plane and leave your worries behind you. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is here, with Tom Nook inviting you take an Island Getaway Package and found a new village on an idyllic island. Even amongst video games, it’s one of the more appealing escapist dreams, putting a fresh spin on Animal Crossing’s traditional charm.
When you arrive, the island is covered in weeds, but setting down your tent, you get to work taming the land, putting in some elbow grease to make the place a home for yourself and your fellow islanders. A big new part of that comes in the form of DIY, letting you gather up resources like weeds, wood and iron, and then combine them to make everything from simple beds and tables, to wells and fountains for public spaces, and even things like vending machines and wind turbines.
DIY isn’t particularly complex – there’s really only a handful of resources like wood, metal ore – but there’s often DIY chains, where you create wooden blocks that can be fabricated into blocky furniture, or you first make a basic shovel, then upgrade it with metal so that it’s more durable. That’s right, there’s durability to consider for your various tools in the game, with a basic net made of twigs only letting you catch 10 bugs before it breaks, but an upgraded one able to last many times longer. While that can be a touch inconvenient at times, I soon adapted to having a bunch of raw materials in my inventory to quickly knock together anything I needed to replace.
Where games like Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon run on a shortened day-night cycle, Animal Crossing has always locked itself to the date and time of your console’s clock. The seasons follow the real world (now with a choice of hemispheres for to cater to those living with a clockwise toilet flush), and so does the time of day. If it’s 5PM on 16th March where you are, then the sun will be slowly dipping toward the horizon on a crisp spring day in the game as well.
Your animal neighbours all have their particular habits and routines, and you’ll have to be mindful of shop opening hours if you’re looking to buy or sell things, but there’s also a weekly routine – Daisy Mae will turn up every Sunday to sell turnips, for example – and the game gradually grows and changes from one day to the next. Every time something big happens to the world, whether it’s a new shop opening, the construction of a bridge, a new villager moving in, or even just an upgrade to your home, it will always happen the next day or the day after.
It’s things like this that lure you into returning to the game each day. There’s new fossils to dig up, new fruit on the trees to gather up and sell in the series’ forage-based economy, and there’s always new stock in the shops to inspect and consider buying. Oh, and there’s always a new loan or public works project for you to pay off.
Adding to this daily routine are Nook Miles, an activity tracking app on the in-game Nook Phone. Whether it’s catching fish, spending money, acquiring new decorative items, or changing the island’s flag, everything is tracked and you’re given Nook Miles for passing certain milestones. Once you have a house and not a tent, there’s also a daily Miles+ section that can lead you to spend the day bug hunting, or encourage you to go and talk to people. Nook Miles are a neat evolution of the CAT Coupons you could earn in New Leaf, and can lead to a variety of different rewards, like DIY recipes.
After the first week or so, the game settles back into a familiar routine for fans of the series. Depending on how fast you go, you’ll likely have a house, the museum will have been built, Timmy and Tommy will have opened up Nook’s Cranny, you’ll have more residents and the Resident Services tent will be transformed from a tent to a building. It’ll start to feel like an actual town and not a deserted island.
The game is at its best when you check in each day for 20-30 minutes, knocking off a few chores and seeing what’s new. Tom Nook soon starts to show his true colours, so while you might have been able to pay off that initial loan with Nook Miles instead of Bells, it’ll be back to eye-watering debt for future upgrades. The first bridge you get might be a DIY job, but later ones will be community funded efforts (mainly by you), and as soon as there’s more prospective residents on they way, he leans on your free and eager labour to prepare their homes.
DIY remains pretty integral to the game experience, but it becomes more about customising your island, rather than using it to replace the game’s underlying structure. New Horizons puts more control over how the island looks and is laid out than ever before. You’ll help new residents and shops find an ideal plot of land to settle into (ensuring that your precious money-making fruit trees aren’t killed off at random), and can now place decorative items and furniture all around the island – sadly they are all little more than decorative. Eventually you’ll earn the ability to shape the island itself, gaining tools to repaint the grass to create paths, to create or remove streams and cliffs on the multi-tiered island. Those are long-term privileges – in our two weeks of playing we’ve yet to unlock them, but did get to preview them for a while previously. While powerful, there’s a bit fiddly to use, requiring precise positioning to cut a diagonal stream.
Long time fans will come to appreciate plenty of other, much smaller tweaks to the game though. The much larger pocket inventory, the after hours drop off at the shop (albeit for 80% of the pay out), the freedom of the new character customisation and clothing tools, the home redecoration tool, the gorgeous new museum to explore. It’s all familiar, but it feels so new, fresh and reinvigorated.
New Horizons looks every part a gorgeous island escape, the Nintendo Switch so much more powerful than the 3DS and able to lavish the world with more detail than ever before. The way that animals all have an almost felt-like texture is charming, the way weather makes the leaves on the trees rustle as wind and rain blow through, the way that shadows are cast as the time of day changes, how the streams that carve up the island glisten like a classic anime film, it’s all sublime and makes for one of the best-looking games on Switch.
There’s only a smattering of minor bruises to the tasty fruit of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Nook Miles can be spent to jet off to randomly generated islands, but it doesn’t take long for them to become rather samey – they’re pretty basic islands with a few trees, a few rocks and maybe, just maybe an animal that you can invite to your island. Decent for getting resources and new fruits, but not that interesting after the first few visits, and a step back from the haven of mini-games that the island tours found in New Leaf.
There’s also a plethora of multiplayer options, including new local Party Play so that up to four island inhabitants can rove around on a single system. For some reason, though, all but the lead player have to make do with the reduced single Joy-Con controls, even if they have a Pro Controller in hand, making switching tools more cumbersome than it needs to be. It’s a bigger, fuller experience if you have multiple consoles, either locally or online, as you can visit each others’ islands and go do your own thing (with sensible non-destructive restrictions in place by default). There’s a bit of faff with each player joining one at a time, and pausing the game for everyone as they do so.
Perhaps a bigger deal is that islands saves for the game are console-wide, meaning that all users on a console have to share the same island. That’s a shame for people that would prefer their independence without the expense of buying a second console, and it’s also an annoyance for families with multiple switches, where most games will let you take you save file and progress onto another console, but New Horizons will lock your island to one. More fundamentally, there’s no way to back these islands up right now, so if your Switch is lost or broken, you’ll be forced to start afresh.