Animal Crossing: New Horizons review: A sweet, innocuous escape from reality

Nintendo's social simulation game takes a while to get going – but delivers a dose of unfettered positivity

Louis Chilton
Monday 16 March 2020 16:53 GMT
Animal Crossing: New Horizons - Nintendo Switch Trailer


From chaos comes order, we are told. The complicated ways in which societies are birthed from nothingness has fascinated the world since time immemorial, inspiring countless works of great art, from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to HBO’s Deadwood. Nintendo’s new simulation game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, may prefer its chaos on the gentler, more easily manageable side, but it tells the same old story: of enterprise and community in a brave new frontier.

The original Animal Crossing debuted in 2001 on the Nintendo GameCube. Based around the player’s socialisation with a town full of cutely designed talking animals, the game was a critical and commercial hit. Subsequent sequels, released on the Nintendo DS, Wii and 3DS, added additional features, while staying true to the original’s slightly twee, wholly innocuous spirit.

In New Horizons, you control a balloon-headed avatar of your own design, who is flown to a (practically) uninhabited island to begin a new life. On the island with you is Tom Nook, the tanuki-like businessman whom players will likely remember from previous Animal Crossing games. Tom Nook sets you up with a tent to live in, and teaches you the lay of the land – before you know it, he is providing you with a house, a list of chores, and a not-insignificant amount of debt.

Players earn money – as well as “Nook Miles”, a secondary currency system that’s newly introduced for this game – by completing simple tasks: picking fruit, fishing, collecting bugs, digging up fossils and chopping down trees. New Horizons expands on the customisation system seen in previous Animal Crossing titles and adds an expansive DIY feature, letting the player build tools and furniture from scratch, using materials found and harvested from around the island.

New Horizons is a game best played in short spurts, especially at first, when the island is small and sparsely populated, and you find yourself limited by the number of things to do. After a week or so, the world starts to open up, and the game grows more compelling. Multiplayer features, both online and local, help flesh out the experience with an injection of places to go and critters to meet.

As in the other Animal Crossing games, the game’s clock and calendar run simultaneously with the real world – play during the winter months, for instance, and you’ll be treated to thick white snow. Play at night, and you can meet a friendly neighbourhood ghost. Nintendo have already suggested that there will be special content added to the game to mark the major holidays, which is good news: even though the game significantly expands on all the features from previous Animal Crossing games, there are still occasions when I found myself lacking direction.

In a year’s time, or five, no-one will remember that New Horizon’s release coincided with a deadly viral pandemic. At the moment, it is hard to ignore it. This is, in part, because New Horizons is so focused on the joys of social interaction, on the wholesome pleasures to be found in knowing and loving thy neighbours, that we are currently ordered to avoid.

I hesitate to use the phrase “safe space”, but it’s an appropriate term for the game. Animal Crossing games are so suffused with positivity that their whole worlds feel swaddled in pastel-toned cotton wool. Its target audience is children (although the franchise’s ardent online fanbase includes a healthy proportion of adults), and even by the measure of most kids’ fare, New Horizons is particularly adversity averse. Everyone in the game is excited to meet you, all the time, every time, beaming at you through their colourful animal faces with antiseptic enthusiasm.

‘New Horizons’ mimics real-world seasonal weather patterns (Nintendo)

Other than snapping your fishing rod through over-use – or, occasionally, incurring the wrath of a wild tarantula – there’s really not much that can ever go wrong. You play the game with housing debt dangling over your head, but it’s never real debt: you are free to pay it back whenever you want, if you want, to a debt collector that has your best interests at heart. The stakes are low – so low, in fact, the whole thing seems like an elaborate holiday simulator (it is entirely apt that the flight that takes you to the island in the first place is referred to as a “Getaway package”).

New Horizons is at its best when it is at its most ambitious. The slightly indulgent fixation on object-collecting and object-displaying that has long been a key strand of Animal Crossing’s appeal is in full force here; much more interesting are the ways in which you can customise the island itself. From choosing where buildings are located, to landscaping, to building bridges and paths, the game gives you plenty of ways to make it feel like the setting is truly your dominion.

New Horizons’ sugary innocence won’t be for everyone. But for those young enough, or young-spirited enough at least, to buy into its charms, there’s no warmer comfort blanket on offer.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is out 20 March on Nintendo Switch

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