I’ve sunk over 120 hours into Animal Crossing: New Horizons at time of writing, making it my most-played game of 2020 so far, even eclipsing Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition on PC. For a game to have well over 100 hours of playtime and enjoyment is no mean feat, especially for someone like myself – as I’ve written about a number of times here on the website, I find my ability and desire to sit down and play games has waned a lot over the last decade or so. And even with such a large amount of time spent on the game, I haven’t unlocked or accomplished everything; not even close. I am, however, at a point where I feel like I’ve achieved as much as I reasonably can with my current Animal Crossing: New Horizons save file, and as such I feel able to finally put pen to paper and review the game.
First thing’s first: there’s a debate among fans of the Animal Crossing series surrounding whether or not to “time travel” – that is, to deliberately change the in-game time and date to skip over waiting for things to happen, allowing multiple in-game days to be played without those days being tied to real time. I understand both sides of the argument, and as it’s a single-player title, I don’t really think it matters at the end of the day. My personal preference is for not time-travelling, so my island was built up in real time. For the purposes of a review, I think that’s probably a good thing as it means that I’ve played the game “as intended”. It’s taken me two months of regularly playing the game to get my island to this point.
I very rarely buy games when they’re first released. Waiting even six months can often mean a sale or price reduction, and it’s unusual for me to be so keen on a game that I’m willing to shell out £50-55 within days of its release. Yet that’s what I did for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The previous entry in the Animal Crossing series was released for the Nintendo 3DS in 2013, and that game – Animal Crossing: New Leaf – is up there with Mario Kart 7 as one of my favourite 3DS titles. Even earlier this year, seven years on from its release, I was still playing New Leaf. There aren’t many other games from seven years ago that I’m still playing!
New Leaf had been my introduction to the Animal Crossing series, and as it was a game I enjoyed so much, there will inevitably be comparisons to New Horizons – not all of them favourable.
For practically any other game, 100+ hours of enjoyment would be a great accomplishment. Just in the last few months we’ve seen brand new full-priced titles which only offer campaigns that last five or six hours, so for my money there’s no question that New Horizons offers good value. As I’ve written previously, the length of time I can expect to enjoy a title can be a factor in deciding whether to buy it or not, especially when we’re talking about a commitment of £50-55. In addition, those hours have been spread out over more than two months, with something to do in the game practically every day. That is not a small accomplishment, and there’s simply no way I could possibly argue that I haven’t got my money’s worth from New Horizons!
But the Animal Crossing series has always been somewhat of an outlier in this regard. It’s a series which is deliberately slow-paced and that encourages players to take their time. 100+ hours as a fan of the series and as someone who generally enjoys this kind of gameplay should be a given, and while I don’t have the numbers to back this up, I must’ve spent at least a thousand hours playing New Leaf – if not more.
What I question with New Horizons – at least at time of writing – is whether there’s any real longevity beyond that first 100+ hours in the same way there was for New Leaf. One of the biggest draws for New Leaf, and the primary reason I was still going back to it even seven years on from its 2013 release, is that there were great options for multiplayer. The Nintendo 3DS did not charge for multiplayer, either locally or online, and as a result anyone with a copy of New Leaf could participate. The Switch does charge for this feature – Nintendo introduced Switch Online a year or so after the console launched, even going so far as gating off titles like Mario Kart, which had previously offered free online multiplayer, behind a paywall. That automatically segregates players into those who can play online and those who can’t, and not all of my friends have shelled out for Switch Online.
This ties into a much broader point, but for those players who have paid for online multiplayer, there is far less to do than there was in New Leaf. One of New Leaf’s biggest features for multiplayer was the “Tropical Island”: a separate area of the game which offered timed cooperative and competitive mini-games. Some of these mini-games were based on New Leaf’s normal gameplay, like fishing or popping balloons, but others weren’t. There were fun games like matching fossils or playing hide-and-seek with some of the game’s anthropomorphic animals, and as silly as these mini-games may sound, they provided hours of entertainment. All of these mini-games are absent in New Horizons, and they aren’t the only feature from New Leaf to have disappeared with no replacement.
Without structured mini-games to play, there isn’t actually much on offer in terms of a multiplayer experience. Players can, of course, exchange furniture and different types of fruit, as well as talk to the animal residents of their friends’ islands and see what the islands look like, but beyond that there isn’t anything to do together. Players can of course try to make their own fun, and in a way that’s part of the Animal Crossing experience. But I can see no reason to remove what was a much-enjoyed feature of New Leaf. Speaking purely anecdotally, everyone I played New Leaf with over the last seven years enjoyed these mini-games, and visiting the Tropical Island together was basically all we did when playing multiplayer. With the mini-games gone, and with nothing substantial to replace them, it’s hard to justify buying a Switch Online subscription purely for New Horizons; the novelty will wear off fast, even for someone with dozens of friends who all play the game too.
I mentioned that missing features was a bigger point than just multiplayer, and the Tropical Island with its mini-games isn’t the only feature missing that had been present in New Leaf. There are fewer kinds of fruit trees in New Horizons – six (including the coconut palm tree) as opposed to twelve in New Leaf. This is something I genuinely don’t understand. All fruit behaves in the same way – three of them grow on a tree, they can be planted to grow new trees, eaten, given away, or sold. All it would take to add the missing six fruit types (or to add brand-new ones) would be an image and a single word of text. This would have practically no impact on the game’s file size, nor complicate matters in any way. Yet there’s less fruit types available than in the previous game.
That should make collecting all six types of fruit easier, but it doesn’t. A player’s island has one type of “native” fruit when they arrive, and it’s possible to acquire the coconut palm and one other type of non-native fruit through normal gameplay. But that’s it. If you want the other three types, the only option is to shell out for Switch Online and get them from someone else. These not-so-subtle pushes from Nintendo to get players to pick up the bad value paid online service are not appreciated; there should be a way to get everything the game has to offer through regular single-player gameplay. While it doesn’t actually matter in terms of the way the game plays (all non-native fruit is worth the same amount of Bells to sell and otherwise behaves identically) for completionists or for players who want a particular aesthetic to their island, it should be something they can accomplish in-game.
Another big missing feature is diving. In New Leaf, players could acquire a wetsuit which would allow them to swim in the sea off the beach of their town (or on the Tropical Island). When swimming in the sea, players would be able to dive underwater, and there were a number of underwater critters that could be caught in addition to the standard fish. All of this is missing from New Horizons.
To compensate, New Horizons does introduce some new features. The first is crafting – something which seems like a natural fit for both the Animal Crossing series and this title’s “deserted island” theme. The second is terraforming, allowing players to shape the island’s cliffs and waterways. Let’s look at these in turn.
The crafting mechanic is fun, but it isn’t without its problems. This will vary from player to player, but I only found myself crafting a handful of furniture items: chairs, tables, and the like. Most of the furniture I used in my house and around the island were bought from the shop, and the reason is that these items were – in my subjective opinion – better-looking and more interesting. A handful of interesting items could be crafted, like a brick pizza oven for example, but most of what was available didn’t look as good as what could be acquired by other means. This kind of rendered a large portion of the crafting mechanic invalid for me, as not much would have changed if I had picked up those few items from the shop.
Crafting also requires crafting ingredients such as wood, clay, and iron. These can be found on a player’s island – but are not exactly in abundance. This was far more noticeable early in my playthrough, where finding a single iron nugget or piece of clay was important for crafting projects. And I have to say… that was kind of annoying and frustrating. For example, iron nuggets and clay can be acquired only by hitting rocks. Every island has six rocks, five of which dish out crafting ingredients and one of which dishes out money. When you’ve tapped your five available rocks, if you’re still missing a vital ingredient you only have two options: spend 2,000 Nook Miles (a form of in-game currency) on a ticket to a random island which you hope has more rocks to hit, or wait till the next day. There were many occasions, especially early in the game, where getting 2,000 Nook Miles was out of reach, and the only choice was to wait.
While we’re on the subject of things that are frustrating, New Horizons introduces that dreaded feature: item durability. After a few uses, tools break and have to be replaced. They can be replaced by crafting new ones or by buying new ones, but the way this is implemented is just plain annoying. Aside from Minecraft, I can’t recall a single game where items that regularly broke was fun or anything more than padding to make the game seem like it has more going on. Item durability in New Horizons simply is not fun and makes the game frustrating to play. Even the supposedly more durable tools that can be acquired later in a playthrough don’t last all that long, and if you’re faced with a big task – like chopping down dozens of trees or digging up a lot of flowers – be prepared to run back-and-forth to your crafting table. Tools also don’t provide any indication of how close they are to breaking – something which would at least allow for some forward planning.
The way tools are crafted is annoying, too, and demonstrates one of the disappointments of New Horizons’ crafting mechanic. There are two categories of tool: “flimsy” tools and just regular ones. In order to craft a normal tool – an axe, fishing rod, or shovel, for example – players must first craft the “flimsy” version. And there’s no way to skip the silly little animation that plays during the crafting process, meaning it’s a chore to craft practically anything, and a double-chore to craft regular tools. Fishing bait is another example of why this is annoying: this one-time-use item, which you may need to use a lot of if you’re trying to catch a specific fish or lots of fish, can only be crafted one at a time, with the dumb animation playing every single time. At the very least it should be possible – assuming the player has the required ingredients – to craft the standard version of tools without having to sit through two identical crafting animations every time. If tools were more durable this would be less noticeable, but because of the aforementioned irritating item durability, you’ll be crafting tools almost every day if you play for more than a few minutes. And that’s not to mention how annoying it is to be part-way through a task only to have to stop and build a new tool.
I ended up setting up a dozen or so crafting tables around my island so that there was always one nearby, but even then I found this aspect of the game to be annoying, verging on insufferable. I welcome the idea of crafting for decorative items and the like, but tied to these tools which don’t last very long and are annoying to craft it’s downright irksome. New Horizons is just the latest in a long line of titles that have tried and failed to imitate this feature from Minecraft, and I wish they hadn’t bothered. No other title has got it right, and it just isn’t fun.
The second major new feature New Horizons introduces is the ability to make changes to the physical landscape of a player’s island – terraforming. Both cliffs and rivers can be built and destroyed, and this does offer a significant amount of customisation. Cliffs are new in themselves to the Animal Crossing series, and they do add a new level – pun intended – to the landscape of the player’s island. I’ve seen online players who rearranged their entire island to look completely different, sinking hundreds of hours into the terraforming feature alone. My own experience of it was that it was interesting, but after I’d spent a little time getting my island into the form I wanted, the feature wasn’t revisited. There are also limitations to what it can do – for example, it can’t be used to change the island’s beaches in any way, nor where the river mouths are.
Players are also able to lay down paths – officially, this time, and not just by dropping custom designs on the ground! – and move the island’s buildings. The latter feature is something that’s genuinely great, as it means the player can have control over where every island resident builds their house, as well as the locations of the museum and shops. The island’s town hall – renamed Resident Services for New Horizons – can’t be moved, though, and I don’t really see why not. As with terraforming, this particular feature was something I didn’t get a lot of use out of – after putting most buildings where I wanted them in the first place, there wasn’t a great deal of need to move everything around. However, in both cases, players who are more imaginative than I am may find themselves using those mechanics more often!
The ability to place most items outdoors also opens up a huge amount of customisation potential for the island. Players can create all kinds of themed areas, and there really are a huge number of furniture items to collect. One area I created was a kind of outdoor diner, placing a number of food-themed items as well as tables and chairs in one part of the island. With such a huge number of items, players could create almost anything from a sci-fi themed area to a Japanese zen garden. The only downside is that most items can’t be interacted with, and those that can only have a single short animation. If you’re happy to just decorate and enjoy the aesthetic that’s no problem, and it’s part of the Animal Crossing experience. But it can be disappointing to spend a lot of your hard-earned Bells on an item, or a long time scavenging for crafting ingredients, to find that it doesn’t do anything at all. For example, there’s a playground ride than can’t be sat on or ridden, a football that can’t be kicked around, a pool table that doesn’t do anything at all when interacted with, and many more besides. Some items do something, though: musical instruments all play a tune, seats can be sat on, and the aforementioned food items mostly have some kind of animation attached so that when interacted with they change their appearance at least.
Most in-game items are bought and sold with Bells – the currency of the world of Animal Crossing that has been present since the first entry in the series. A handful of others are only available for New Horizons’ second in-game currency, Nook Miles. I have a love-hate relationship with this second currency. Firstly, I do appreciate that the way Nook Miles are earned. Performing mundane in-game tasks, like plucking weeds, watering flowers, talking to islanders, etc. all yield Nook Miles, and this gives players an incentive to do these things even after the novelty of doing them for their own sake has worn off. But when it comes to spending earned Nook Miles, after a certain point there really wasn’t much I wanted to get. The roster of items and crafting recipes available for purchase with Nook Miles never changes, and there are only a handful of each. Otherwise, Nook Miles can be exchanged for terraforming options – including the ability to move water and cliffs, as mentioned above – and for Nook Miles Tickets.
The terraforming options, while individually expensive, are one-off purchases, and as I’ve already covered, after I’d used them a few times I was kind of done with that aspect of the game. The Nook Miles Tickets allow players to travel to a “mystery island”, where they will have the chance to gather crafting ingredients, pick up fruit and flowers, and occasionally meet potential new island residents, among other things. I know a lot of people have been having fun with the Nook Miles Tickets, but I honestly found that this aspect of the game gets old fast. 2,000 Nook Miles are required per ticket, and each ticket is only valid for one trip. But the so-called unique mystery islands, which in-game dialogue makes a big deal about how the pilot destroys the route map after each trip, are actually very samey. There are about ten islands – with several being very common and a few being incredibly rare, with a less than 1% chance to visit them on any given trip. After you’ve been to one of the “common” island types a couple of times you quickly realise it’s laid out identically to the last time you visited, with every tree and rock and pond in the same spot. In a pinch, to gather missing crafting ingredients for example, the mystery islands can be useful. But they aren’t particularly fun, and it can be frustrating to save up 2,000 Nook Miles for a ticket only to land on an island you’ve already been to or to not land on a specific island that you were hoping to – especially after arriving at the same mystery island three times in a row! On several occasions I set out in search of something specific – like extra wood, extra clay, extra iron, etc. – only to be annoyed to land on an island that had none of what I was looking for.
One feature of the Animal Crossing series is the placeholder icons used to represent different items – tools all look like a red toolbox, fossils all look like an ammonite, furniture items look like a leaf, etc. This made sense in past games, as I’m sure the older systems were much more limited in what they could display. But New Horizons is a Switch title, and some of those limitations should no longer be present. At the very least I’d have liked to see individual icons for each tool or category of tool, as well as seeing each individual item of furniture in my inventory. Having to sort through a dozen or more identical leaves to find one specific item gets old fast. This is one quality-of-life improvement that the upgrade to the Switch allowed, but for some reason Nintendo didn’t take advantage of it.
From the point of view of aesthetic and graphics, while we’re on the subject, New Horizons looks great. Even on a large 4K television it looks really good, and while I have seen a few minor graphical issues – fish often appear to have stray pixels when being caught, for example – none really spoilt my enjoyment of the game. New Horizons retains the Animal Crossing aesthetic, but upgrades and upscales it for the new console. In that sense it’s hardly innovative – trees, buildings, animals, players, icons, etc. all look the same as they have in previous games. But there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily.
In-game dialogue… this is a tricky one. The anthropomorphic animals which populate a player’s island have personality types, and each personality type has a set of dialogue. However, there don’t seem to be very many personality types: my island had three animals who all liked to talk about working out and hitting the gym (I called them the “gym bros”). Because the dialogue for each personality type is identical, if you’re unfortunate as I was to get three or more of the same type, conversations with the island animals gets pretty repetitive. And that’s not to mention that a number of in-game events, including pretty common ones, don’t have any variety at all in terms of dialogue. For example, if a player walks into an islander’s home while they’re crafting an item, the same line of dialogue always appears. At first it’s not noticeable, but after a few days of playing I started to see more and more lines of dialogue that I’d already seen. It was compounded by having multiple islanders of the same personality type in one case, but even with the others I quickly found what they had to say repetitive.
Isabelle, who along with Tom Nook is one of the series’ main characters, is also incredibly repetitive in her “morning announcements”. Every time a new day begins, Isabelle will pop up and is supposed to let players know what, if anything, is happening that day. But there are two problems: the first is that she doesn’t actually inform players of what’s happening. Most days there will be something going on or a special character visiting, but Isabelle doesn’t inform players of that. And on days when there’s “no news”, she has only a handful of different things to say – and again, these get old fast. It would be better to just have her say in one line “there is no news” and skip the silly repetition.
While we’re talking about announcements, I was convinced for a long time that my island’s in-game noticeboard was glitched. After a couple of notices appeared there on my first day of playing, nothing else happened for the longest time afterwards – literally several weeks – despite many significant events going on. In New Leaf, the noticeboard would inform players of things like a bridge being built or a fishing competition, as well as a new resident moving in or someone moving out. My noticeboard, at time of writing, still has those two day-one posts, one post about an islander’s birthday, and one post about the shop being closed for renovation. And that’s all it has after two months. Between this and Isabelle’s morning announcements, I feel like something isn’t working right. I have no doubt I’ve missed goings-on as a result of the game not keeping me informed.
I have written about this previously, but it’s worth reiterating that the “one island per console” limitation is just an all-around shitty business practice. It’s anti-consumer, designed to use pester power to force families to purchase more than one Switch or buy the inevitable “second island DLC” whenever that may come. There is no technical limitation for New Horizons that means there can only be one primary save file, so it is purely a business decision. In households where more than one person wants to play the game, one player will get to be the “main” player, able to make all the decisions about the island and play the game to the fullest, and the others will be secondary players, unable to properly enjoy the game or take advantage of its features. That is unfair, it is anti-consumer, and Nintendo should fix it now and fix it for free.
After two months and over 120 hours, I’ve kind of hit the wall with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I’ve collected as many items as I can be bothered to, I’ve reshaped the island as much as I wanted to, I’ve talked to the islanders as many times as I could, and now I’m ready to take a break. I might delete my data and start a new file, either now or in a few weeks. There is definitely more to New Horizons than I’ve seen, but almost all of that is just fluff. It’s different clothing or different items of furniture. I’ve played and “completed” the bulk of the game. After 120+ hours, that’s fair enough, right? Ordinarily I’d say heck yes, because I can hardly think of any other single-player games that I’d spend so much time with. But when I compare New Horizons to New Leaf, a game that I played way more and for way longer, I feel at least a little disappointed. New Leaf seemed to offer more to do when the shine of playing a new game wore off, and it certainly offered significantly more in terms of playing with friends.
Do I recommend Animal Crossing: New Horizons? It’s hard not to, really. The game is a lot of fun, despite some frustrating elements, and as a slow-paced game that can be played very casually for just a few minutes a day, there’s almost nothing else like it on the market. It’s cute and unique, and if you already own a Switch and have been considering it, I’d say go for it. Despite my criticisms, I wouldn’t have sunk so many hours into this game if I wasn’t enjoying myself at least most of the time! I do feel, however, that many early reviews glossed over some of the game’s limitations and issues. In a way that’s understandable, as some of them only manifest dozens of hours into a playthrough.
New Horizons makes a few changes to the successful Animal Crossing formula. Some of these changes worked perfectly, but others didn’t quite stick the landing. I miss New Leaf’s mini-games, without which I feel New Horizons’ longevity as a title to enjoy with friends is severely curtailed. I was still playing New Leaf earlier this year, seven years on from its release. Will I still be playing New Horizons after such a long time? If I’m still alive and kicking in 2027, remind me to come back and tell you.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is available now for Nintendo Switch. The Animal Crossing series is the copyright of Nintendo. All artwork courtesy of the Animal Crossing: New Horizons press kit on IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.