Animal Crossing New Leaf was a tough act to follow. There are two ways of looking at New Horizons, through the lens of someone who’s played AC games before or as a newcomer to the series. As someone that went DEEP down the rabbit hole of New Leaf, I constantly had the memories of that game in the back of my mind while playing New Horizons. Being unable to shake that feeling, this analysis will mostly be focussed on exploring New Horizons as someone who has played previous Animal Crossings before.
I went through phases when trying to rate New Horizons. At first the game felt clearly behind what New Leaf had to offer. The main feeling that was nagging in the back of my mind was that there was less progression to get excited about. Key shops that had appeared in previous games, like the coffee shop and the flower shop, weren’t implemented yet. The museum was missing the art section. The Nook Shop had a few tiers less to upgrade. There was also much less in the way of furniture sets than the previous game. Seasonal events weren’t implemented and even though they would be by the time the holiday rolled around it still felt a bit empty knowing that even if I time traveled forward there would be nothing waiting for me. Animal Crossing felt like it was implemented missing things that would be added later, when players would naturally get around to that level of progression. While not illogical, it required a level of trust in the publisher that many companies seem to be betraying. This isn’t a 3DS title in 2013 where a game needs to be nearly feature complete at launch.
As the weeks rolled on though, more things have been added and roadmaps have started to take shape. The Art Gallery is back, some missing NPCs have started showing up again, new events were rolled out. The game started to take shape and a level of trust was built up. This will be something that gets significant additions for many months, potentially years, to come. Nearly two months of small updates has led me to be a lot more comfortable with what is available now than how I was feeling back at the end of March.
While there are a few things missing compare to New Leaf, it can’t be said that New Horizons didn’t add many more times what it was missing. The quality of life improvements are so significant that many may be left wondering why they were ever done differently in previous games. Running no longer fades grass away, paths can be legitimately laid, house placement can be chosen. Flowers don’t appear to die if not watered every day. The list of improvements is impressive.
The Nook Mile system of granting currency upon small tasks that replenish infinitely is probably the most significant addition to gameplay flow. In previous games, finishing daily tasks meant that users had to come up with their own things to do. Now, the game constantly incentivises more playing by offering mini tasks for currency that is quite useful. Those Nook Mile quests will keep people playing more than anything outside of the new creativity tools.
It’s the functionality that empowers artistic expression that is the biggest addition to New Horizons. There is unparalleled ability to customize nearly everything in the game. This area is definitely head and shoulders above anything that came before. Unfortunately though, as someone who isn’t the most artistically adept person, I felt like the game took shortcuts elsewhere believing these tools would make up for it. Gone are many of the furniture sets of previous games. I remember being so excited every day to see if the store had a new piece for the Modern Set, or another set I liked. In New Horizons, there are fewer items and the different looks are expected to be customized. For the creatively inclined it offers staggering freedom, but for those of us that aren’t good with custom patterns and don’t want to fiddle with finding QR codes online it created the feeling like there was less “out of the box” furniture available. I’m sure more additions will be added to the game, but I’ve felt less incentivised to decorate my house as I did in New Leaf because of the effort needed to customize the few pieces of furniture available to me.
After a page of writing, I realize I haven’t mentioned the stars of Animal Crossing, the villagers. The villagers in New Horizons are fantastic. Seven extra years of technology and the horsepower leap from the 3DS to the Switch had created a world that is staggeringly beautiful to behold. As gorgeous as the islands can get with their high-quality assets and beautifully realized weather effects, the real charm is watching your ten favorite animals live in this world. The character models really pop with color and charm, it’s easy to find yourself constantly talking to your favorite villagers just to see them up close and enjoy their expressive emotes.
No expense was spared with the attention to detail. Different clothes will be donned as the weather changes; it’s incredibly cute to see villagers wearing windbreakers during a particularly blustery day. Animals will interact with their environment and other villagers in a way that feels like it changes up just enough to lack repetitiveness. The houses of villagers feel just as gorgeously detailed as they’ve ever been. This is where the true heart of Animal Crossing’s charm lies.
Getting the perfect ten villagers was quite a painstaking process in previous games. In New Leaf I bought a second copy of the game to play on a second 3DS for a cycle town. I would use that town just to constantly cycle villagers looking for the best ones (Also known as “Dreamies” online). I would sell ones I didn’t want or already had in my main town and made tens of millions of bells in the process. It required a second copy of the game and a lot of time, but it was what needed to be done if you wanted the “Perfect” set of villagers.
New Horizons has a number of features that make this easier than ever before. There are Amiibo cards that let you invite a villager to your campsite for three days in a row before having them join your town permanently. It’s a bit arbitrary to require three days to do this but it still beats having to dish out millions of bells on the black market, making your own cycle town, or constantly resetting your game when a new villager moves in. The unfortunate aspect of all this is that Nintendo is Nintendo and these cards are incredibly rare and now cost upwards of $100 each for the most popular villagers. Why this second hand scalpers paradise is used over just normal DLC still baffles me. Thankfully though the Amiibos use simple NFC tag technology and can be bought and programmed manually. I bought custom tags with the Amiibo codes of my favorite villagers for only $3 each and you can get them for even cheaper than that if you want to program them yourself.
For people without any real or duped Amiibos, and no desire to acquire them, there still exists a fantastic in game method to try and get just the right villagers. Nook Miles can be used to buy tickets to random islands that have a villager on them if there is space in your town. This “Slot Machine” style system is incredibly fun and addictive; it has caused Nook Mile Tickets to be one of the main forms of currency among players. It’s also the only way to get the most popular villagers that are new to New Horizons and don’t have Amiibos. It was incredibly satisfying to see Judy on an island I went to early in my town’s life. It’s nice that there is an entirely in game option that players with perseverance can use to get the villagers they want.
This all combines to form an experience that this is the best Animal Crossing game to date, only narrowly beating out New Leaf. I am confident that in a year’s time, Nintendo will have added so much to the game that this be even more highly rated and this will be considered the undisputed best entry in the series. The daily gameplay loop, the added creativity tools, the gorgeously detailed world brought to life by advanced technology, all create a sense of place that makes you really want to live there. No matter what your favorite thing to do in an Animal Crossing game, New Horizons offers you ample reason to stay logged in for hours every day.