Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review — The Bell of the Ball
How do you review a game that never ends? That's the question I found myself pondering when I fired up Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the first time. Not only is it impossible to see much what the game offers in the short time between acquiring it and reviewing it, but the development team is basically the only group who knows everything about how New Horizons works.
Fortunately, it doesn't matter. A few days into New Horizons, and you know what you're in for. A week or so in, and you realize you'll be playing this continuously for the next few years.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is easily the best in the Animal Crossing series and a good contender for one of the best simulation games around right now.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review — The Bell of the Ball
Whether you're a newcomer or you still have active towns in every Animal Crossing game, the opening chunk of New Horizons will throw you for a loop. Tom Nook tells you everyone's going to a deserted island, and he means it.
You have no stores at first. No museum. No infrastructure or easy ways to get around. Shoot, there's not even an easy way to get all your tools at first. You're absolutely roughing it for a long time on your new island home, but it's probably one of the best things Nintendo could have done for Animal Crossing.
You'll be crafting everything you have at first, including your essentials. It's an intuitive way of introducing mini-goals to an otherwise completely open experience, and it works surprisingly well pretty much all the time.
Admittedly, waiting to get things like the shovel or pole vault is a bit ho-hum, just because there's not so much to do while you wait. But from then on, the ebb and flow of tasks — mandated and self-imposed — creates a new kind of gameplay flow for Animal Crossing.
Usually, in previous games, I'd drop in for a bit, chat with folks, maybe go fishing and check the stores, and that'd be it for a day or two. After you got into a rhythm, Animal Crossing was a pleasant routine, but it was easy to just let it stay that way.
In New Horizons, I find there's always a to-do list of some kind that keeps me coming back if not multiple times per day, then at least for one extended session every day. Big projects are part of that. I absolutely must raise my island development ranking, for example, and all those hapless incomers Nook lured in need some sort of furnishings when they arrive.
Right now, I'm in a lull as far as big goals go. Yet while I wait for more folks to move in, I still have plenty to do: gathering materials for furniture or tools, completing Nook Miles tasks (more on that in a bit), clearing out all those pesky weeds, or seeing what washed up on shore.
Crafting is almost always at the center of this, either finding a new recipe or making something to decorate the town with (and getting the materials to do it). That's another new feature with much more draw than I expected. Your island is huge, and there's just so much potential in what you can do with it. Any furniture item can go outside, you get access to fencing after a while, and then much later, you can change the very earth beneath your feet.
Decorating the town isn't quite as streamlined as the interior decorating process, unfortunately. It's actually a bit clunky. But the payoff and endless range of possibilities make it worthwhile. The process of crafting can be a bit tedious since you can only select one thing at a time — no mass production here. It's not a huge deal, but it stands out the most when you need multiple small projects to finish one bigger one.
Almost every task is also wrapped around the Nook Miles system. You'll get Nook Miles for your NookPhone for planting a certain number of flowers, gathering materials, making stuff, or even just chatting with neighbors. You can exchange these for a number of things, including necessities and expansions for your NookPhone. There's a ton of different Nook Miles tasks to aim for, and then Nook Miles+ adds smaller, daily tasks to the list a few days into the game.
I wouldn't say Nook Miles revolutionizes Animal Crossing and makes it exponentially more compelling. New Horizons does that with basically everything else it offers. But it does provide a loose framework to help guide you if you're in a slump or aren't sure what to do. Plus you get a series of random islands to visit and gather materials from.
For all that, most of what you do in New Horizons is still pretty similar to previous games. You'll catch bugs and fish, expand your museum's collection, and take on tasks from villagers. More importantly, you'll rack up those Bells (currency) to pay your house debt off so you can get a bigger house — and bigger debt.
Town beautification still plays a big role in New Horizons, so plant those trees and flowers everywhere you can. I can't comment on events yet because, obviously, none of them have happened, but they'll be here, too.
So basically, the core Animal Crossing experience is still the same. It's just more rewarding this time and gives you more to do — more to work towards, more to gather, more to create.
But the real reward comes from seeing everything fall into place while you're doing these things.
Even when you were the mayor of your New Leaf town, Animal Crossing communities never fully felt like your own. They were pre-designed, existed long before you arrived, and you weren't necessarily instrumental in making big changes. New Horizons does the exact opposite.
Instead of being the mayor, you're the Resident Representative. That means you get the final say in what goes where and how the island ends up being shaped, literally and figuratively. It's not just a simple ego stroke either. There's a distinct sense of building something for everyone here.
For example, at first, everyone starts with a humble tent (and though we suspect Tom Nook has something grander for himself, we can't prove it). You move out of your tent first, but your two fellow islanders stay stuck in tents. They eventually upgrade to charming little cottages as well, which feels like a win-win situation for everyone. You're all progressing together and working towards something better.
That goes double for attracting newcomers. You have to craft and provide furniture for their homes before they'll even consider moving in.
It's not just a one-way street, though. Your villagers help out when you're working on major projects, donating materials to help build it and expressing excitement over what's to come.
Even small advances, like building Nook's Cranny, feel like big achievements thanks to starting with nothing. Expanding Nook's store is usually cause for celebration in Animal Crossing. I don't know when Nook's Cranny will expand in New Horizons, or if it ever will. But I suspect the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction won't compare to that initial construction project.
There is some concern over what happens when everything's finished — once the island is full and finally tamed. Will it still be satisfying to play, or will it gradually sink back into a nice way to spend an hour every now and again?
Obviously, I can't say for sure. However, I think the chances of the latter happening aren't too high. On top of the town, home, and expanded character customization options, the entire island just feels alive. New Horizons is stuffed full of detail and charm that add meaning to even the most mundane actions.
Tom Nook reads a book in Resident Services sometimes, and he's got a can of something other times. He'll wave when you leave, but Blathers at the Museum — in keeping with his more aloof personality — doesn't put his book away when you come in or wave when you leave.
Villagers do yoga. Sometimes they catch bugs or sing along to their favorite radio tunes. The wind gets stronger when it's about to rain, and you can see the rain change direction during a storm. Tree wood has a visible grain, the ocean sounds real, and the lighting is just... divine.
For all of the new and improved things Animal Crossing: New Horizons includes, it's the little things like this that really stand out the most. It helps that New Horizons has some of the best writing in the series, too.
So you'd expect a more robust soundtrack for all this. So far, it's the same tune, though, day and night. I've heard it changes at a certain point, but I haven't gotten there yet. I'm not sure how much of an issue this is either. On the one hand, Animal Crossing is famous for its quirky, cute tunes that change every hour. On the other, New Horizons' supremely chilled-out track sort of blends into everything else and just adds to the experience. I'd like more, but I'm also happy with this.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review — The Bottom Line
- Starting from scratch makes everything feel rewarding
- You're actually building your very own community this time
- More of everything to do, see, and collect
- Most compelling gameplay loop of the series
- Heaps and heaps of customization options
- Absolutely fantastic presentation and attention to detail
- Oozing with personality
- Clunky outdoor decorating
- Crafting can feel a bit too slow at times
New Horizons is bursting with personality and charm, with opportunities to create something new and completely you. It's compelling and also one of the most chilled out games you'll ever play. In short, there's nothing quite like Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
It might not be for everyone, true. It's slow at times, and it ultimately doesn't have any clear goals other than the ones you set. But this is thing: Animal Crossing New Horizons is the best Animal Crossing game yet.
[Note: A copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons was provided by Nintendo for the purpose of this review.]