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Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review – A Welcome Escape

This week I:

  • Was let go from my day job, my primary source of income
  • Began my quarantine
  • Struggled with anxiety and depression

But also:

  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out.

It was a pretty alright week.

I begin this review with my struggle-filled week, not as a cry for pity or concern, but to show just how pleasant Animal Crossing is. This is a week where I’m struggling with more than I ever have before, and yet, while wandering through my personal island, I find peace. There are no time limits, no strict goals or rules, no threats to your good time (except maybe wasps, the nasty jerks – but even they’re more of an annoyance). Losing yourself in New Horizons is one of the best serotonin hits out there.

New Horizons works pretty much exactly like previous entries in the series (barring a bad WiiU party game). You’re dropped in a new location, given a few animal friends, then informed you have some debt to pay off. But don’t worry – there’s no rush. Spend your time wandering your new island, pull some weeds, catch some bugs, and make friends with the strange robot duck that seems to be obsessed with gains. When you’re ready to start paying back your loan, you can.

Tom nook informs a man wearing a Hammer and Sickle shirt "Ah, but with zero-interest financing and an extremely lax repayment plan, anything is possible!"

 

Of course, to do so, you’ll need to actually earn money first. Like previous games, you’ll be selling the fish and bugs that inhabit the island to your new Tanooki landlords, Tom, Timmy, and Tommy Nook. Slowly but surely, you’ll accrue the funds needed to pay off your initial move-in fee. You’ll do your celebratory dance, finally being free of the capitalist stylings of the Nooks. But then you wonder… what’s next?

Tom Nook has your answer: more debt! Make your living space bigger! He just needs an okay and you’ll get a bigger house and even bigger debt. But, like everything else in Animal Crossing, there’s no rush. If you want to live debt-free for a few days, you’re more than welcome to. Go back to chilling out with your animal friends and fishing. Maybe you’ll reel in something rare!

A villager fishes in between two animal friends, a penguin and a robot duck

And that’s the core loop of Animal Crossing. But that also doesn’t do the game justice. So much of New Horizons is about the feel of the game, the laid-back atmosphere and light music. It’s a game that wants you to be happy, not stressed. Your debt relief objectives aren’t intended to be daunting, but rather attainable goals to you slowly chip away at over multiple real-life days.

That’s probably important to mention as well: the game takes place in real, Earth time. If your clock says March 21, 12:56 PM, New Horizons’s does as well. It’s a feature that can be frustrating at first and can feel like the game is holding you back in ways that are not dissimilar from microtransaction fueled building games. But New Horizons doesn’t ask for real-world cash, simply patience. And it rewards you with a relaxing experience, constantly and subtly reminding you that there’s no rush. Take your time. Play for an hour, play for fifteen minutes.

Of course, these have all been staples of the series since its inception. The changes New Horizons brings are the type that will sound small to newcomers, but long-time fans will recognize them as pretty big deals. The most immediate change is that your deserted island is, well… deserted. You start with your tent, two animal friends, and the Nooks. No shops, no museums, no town hall. You’re also plonked down in a small section of the island, locked in by impassable rivers and high walls, rather than having immediate free reign of your new home. Your first day is mostly spent weeding and saving up resources to craft.

The crafting is also brand new, but not nearly the headache crafting usually is. Even compared to Minecraft, the game where you make a pickaxe by stacking rocks in a “T” shape, it’s a breeze. Go to the Nook’s crafting table, show it five sticks and boom you have a fishing pole. Which does bring us to my only real gripe with the game, but one I also understand.

The crafting menu for New Horizons, displaying a fishing rod

Your tools have durability. Use them enough times and they break, forcing you to go build a new bug net. It’s not a huge deal and don’t let it dissuade you from getting the game if you’ve been on the fence, but it can be annoying to have to return to a crafting table to create a new one. But I can also see why they added this feature. Not only does it add a bit of realism to your animal island game, but it also slows you down. It forces you to remember that it’s Animal Crossing and not a race to the finish line. If you’re out of crafting material, it’s a great way for the game to tell you to take a break for today.

Or it would be if you couldn’t just drop some cash and buy a new one. And that’s where the annoyance lies. Walking back to the shop isn’t a reminder of your limits but a hassle to go plonk down another chunk of change. Item degradation could have been an in-universe time limit, forcing patience and relaxation when you run out of resources for the day. Instead, I can just go buy another fishing rod or whatever and keep overfishing this river.

The other big new addition is Nook Miles, an alternative currency (still, at time of writing, only obtainable in-game) that can be used to purchase small upgrades and visit remote islands. These islands are fairly small, akin to Tortimer’s island from New Leaf, but are (seemingly) randomly generated. The few I’ve visited all have unique layouts, a random fruit to take home, and an animal friend you can recruit for your personal island. My first few trips were neat, but by my third or fourth the novelty had worn off and I turned into a cold industrialist, stripping the island of its resources before leaving, never to return.

Some villagers in hats chat it up near a yellow tent.

Lastly, we have the return of online play. The same airports that take you to the uninhabited islands you scrounge for parts can also take you to other player’s islands. From a purely functional standpoint, it works. I’ve had no issues connecting or running around my friend’s islands. But what you get out of visiting depends entirely on you. There aren’t pre-established game modes or activities. Like the rest of Animal Crossing, the story of your island visit is made by you.

I should mention that, at time of this Day 1 review, I’ve only eked out three in-game days. I know there is more to discover, more to see. I still haven’t figured out how to climb those high walls and that ghost I saw last night still eludes me. But I also know that it’s a game that will carry me to the Day 25 review and beyond. It’s relaxing, simple, and freeing. A welcome escape from a hellish 2020 that is only just beginning.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I still need to find someone who has apples.

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Written by Sean Mekinda

Sean Mekinda is a fan of all things auteur and weird. He's currently one of the hosts of Beating a Dead Horse, a podcast all about death in media. The first movie he remembers loving is The Iron Giant. The first movie he remembers hating is Alien VS Predator Requiem. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his girlfriend and two needy huskies.

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