It is 6 AM on a Sunday morning. Despite being in self-isolation as a result of a global pandemic, I am awake. I have no real reason to be, as time now feels like an abstract concept, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons is waiting. I get up, I turn on my Switch, and I go to my island. I fish for an hour. I pick up the weeds. I talk to the overly energetic horse who lives next door to me, who gifts me a park bench. It is exactly what I need.
New Horizons jets you off to a deserted island commandeered by the entrepreneurial tanuki Tom Nook, who gives you and two animals tents to sleep in and a loan to pay off. From there it is your job to expand the island, attracting new inhabitants, improving its facilities, and increasing the size of your home by way of earning Bells.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review | Home away from home
As with all Animal Crossing games, on paper it sounds mundane, but in practice it is uniquely therapeutic. Building an island from nothing introduces a larger overarching objective this time around, complemented by New Horizons‘ new crafting tools. Rather than simply acquiring objects and plonking them down on your island, you can now construct your own and use expanded customization tools to change their appearance. With a building kit you can alter your furniture, and with a tool bench you can craft nice additions to your home-away-from-home such as a BBQ pit or a new wardrobe.
In New Leaf, your mayoral responsibilities saw you able to add new structures to your village, but New Horizons takes this further. Now you can make your island look completely different from when you first arrived, filling your land with items and furniture, then eventually unlocking terraforming tools that allow you to alter its landscape. There are a plethora of customization options available, with them constantly expanding as you progress.
I was never much about furnishing my home or making my village look prettier in previous Animal Crossing games, but New Horizons has changed that. The limitations of the consoles that the series previously appeared on meant that regardless of the changes you made, the end result never looked particularly great; it was too blocky and brightly colored. Fortunately, its debut on the Nintendo Switch is absolutely gorgeous, with its softer color palette removing that garishness. Sure, you can still put a giant Godzilla statue in your backyard, but if you want to make your home look genuinely nice this time around, New Horizons‘ substantial visual improvements have made it heaps more pleasant to look at.
But Animal Crossing: New Horizons is more than just a charming life simulator with sentient animals — it also features one of the most satisfying progression loops in any game, compelling players to routinely check in on it rather than binge-play. As is the case with previous games in the series, New Horizons attaches its in-game progression to real-world time, with it moving along in accordance with your Switch’s date and time. As such, it isn’t intended to be played for 10 hours a day — it wants you to check in on it on a regular basis, complete a few tasks, spend some Bells to do some decorating, then return later when there will be different things to do. It’s supposed to fit into your daily routine, not become your routine.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review | Your new routine
When I wake up at 6 AM to play New Horizons, I know that I’m not going to be on my island until the afternoon. I know that I’ll pick fruit from my trees, dig up fossils from the ground, talk to my adorable neighbors, and then sign out within the hour. I know that I’ll then return at 8 AM, sell my wares to Timmy and Tommy Nook as their store opens, then use those Bells to continue paying off my loan. Then I’ll come back in the afternoon and evening, do some fishing, and continue decorating my home and island. There’s a tremendous sense of progress each time I play, and I’m excited to see the fruits of my labor each day.
However, some may find it off-putting that Animal Crossing: New Horizons draws out this progress more so than previous entries. With more customization options at your disposal, such as now being able to choose where your island’s new inhabitants will live and set up their homes for them, there is plenty more to wait for. This has always been a key component of Animal Crossing — when you pay off your home, you would always receive your renovations the following day. But New Horizons takes it a step further, making you wait a day or two longer for new additions such as Blathers’ museum to open or buildings to be upgraded.
Unless you’re cheating the system and time-skipping by way of changing your Switch’s internal clock, getting the most out of New Horizons requires patience. You need to concede that sometimes, there’s just not going to be an awful lot to do on your island in terms of progressing its development. This is a vital component of why Animal Crossing is so comforting, but Nintendo has added a feature to help players feel constantly rewarded when performing its more menial activities: Nook Miles.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review | Nook Mileage
Nook Miles is one of the best new additions to New Horizons, gifting players with special points just for carrying out their day-to-day activities. Fishing, bug-catching, planting trees, picking weeds, and more all go towards separate Nook Miles stamps, which then grant you points you can spend at the ATM. The upgraded Nook Miles+ goes one step further, adding rotating objectives that cycle out after you’ve completed them. This means that even without a set objective, you can still continue being rewarded just for living your life on the island. It’s reminiscent of the best bits of addictive mobile games, convincing you to routinely check into your island and see what other tasks you can complete.
The tools and items you can acquire with Nook Miles from the ATM gradually expands, though the most interesting item is ostensibly the Nook Miles Ticket. This grants you a trip to a randomly generated island via Dodo Airlines, with the potential to meet new animals to bring to your island, foreign fruit to pick, or more fish and bugs to catch. However, after the first few visits, these Nook Miles Tickets became increasingly worthless, as the quality of these random islands dropped significantly.
As someone who loved Kapp’n’s island resort trips in New Leaf, where there was always a rare shark to catch or fun items to buy from its dedicated store, these Dodo Airlines flights pale in comparison. There are fun oddities, such as an island that only contains tarantulas, but it would have been nice to have seen more variety here. Considering that Nintendo has committed to supplying New Horizons with regular free updates in the future, I hope that these randomized islands will be made more exciting to visit.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review | Island of solitude
Another stumbling block is its awkward multiplayer functionality. Nintendo is known for faltering when it comes to the online component of its games, and it feels like a real missed opportunity with New Horizons. Eight players can visit a single island, but if you were hoping for a Minecraft-esque experience where you could each contribute to its development, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead, progress is halted on the island while visitors are on it, meaning that you can’t even rearrange the island’s furniture or hand in fish to Blathers while other players are around.
Things get worse if you’re playing together locally. Only one island is permitted per Switch, and if you aren’t the player who created that island, you’re always going to be left behind. Two players can’t even access their inventories simultaneously while using the same Switch, let alone craft items or decorate it. Each local co-op session requires a ‘leader,’ with this leader able to be changed by shaking the Joy-Con. This process is simple enough, but flicking between players just to perform mundane tasks is hugely frustrating, and brings an already slow game crawling to a snail’s pace.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review | Final verdict
Despite some of Animal Crossing: New Horizons‘ new features disappointing, in almost every other department this is much more of what series’ fans love. More customization, more freedom, and a greater sense of progression and purpose make this the definitive Animal Crossing game and a must-have Nintendo Switch exclusive. A perfect entry-point for series’ newcomers and a warm comfort blanket for veterans, this is what I wanted out of my favorite series’ Switch debut.