Animal Crossing: New Horizons tries to shield mundanity with cuteness. The new Nintendo Switch title attempts to obfuscate dreary home management gameplay by prominently presenting adorable emotive talking animals and a colorful cartoonish visual art style. Whenever conversating with the cute raccoon businessman Tom Nook or the scholarly owl Blathers, I could always feel a smile press on my face despite how the game itself is quite dull. Even though Animal Crossing: New Horizons slithers at a snail’s pace, the game maintains a cheerful facade that’s difficult to outright dismiss. It’s truly a perplexing game.

I’m honestly not sure what I think about Animal Crossing: New Horizons. As my first experience with the Animal Crossing franchise, I feel as if Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t a friendly starting point for new players. While the title contains an undeniable charm, there is so little to do in the game that my play sessions lasted roughly 30-45 minutes a time. Every aspect of game progression felt minimal, and as a result, I’m not tripping over my rusty shovel to play the game every day. There are only so many days in a row where I’m excited about fishing, crafting weak items, shoveling for fossils, or getting stung by wasps. Sure, I see the appeal, but I’m not necessarily having fun.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t a game that I’m excited to play on a regular basis. Even though each new real day brings new nuances to the game’s world, I was struck by just how noneventful the game was and how its gameplay conceits of paying off loans and fees felt a bit too relatable to my own financial woes. Afterall, being in debt in real life isn’t fun, and the same can easily be said about being in debt in a video game, even if that said game contains cute talking animals. While this relatability doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative (in fact, art reflecting reality, even if an uncomfortable reality, can be a good thing), Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ gameplay hooks haven’t reeled me in long term. I only like to play the game sporadically rather than avidly.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a flawed experience to its very core. After customizing your character, the player is tasked with choosing a deserted island to colonize inhabit. Once on the island, the player character becomes raccoon tycoon Tom Nook’s human diversity hire and is tasked with maintaining the island and helping it prosper daily. Furthermore, time in the game reflects days in the real world. Resources like wood, cherries, and rocks are reset every morning while also allowing the game to progress when milestones like setting up a museum or a new house are met.

These gameplay elements aren’t a problem in and of themselves, but they coalesce into a key design problem. While I understand that Animal Crossing games are slow burns, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a huge time sink with minimal rewards. For example: I’ve spent many gameplay sessions searching for fossils, fish, and bugs to kick start the museum, and in order to open the museum, the player needs to find several unique items in these categories which takes up a lot of time. Making matters worse, some of the fossils the player needs for the museum are duplicates, but the game won’t divulge this information until after Blathers, an owl and museum curator, assesses them with a long winded dialogue explanation before rejecting your find. It’s infuriating, and the game makes me feel like a putz for wasting my damn time.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is very frustrating in this regard. The game often doesn’t explicitly state what the player needs to do in order to allow the game to progress, and speaking for myself, this meant entire play sessions of aimless wandering. I regularly wondered if I was playing the game correctly, and if the player can’t tell if they’re playing the game right or wrong, that is a huge design flaw.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Trailer image

The game additionally includes a few other major design inadequacies. One of these issues is the camera. In fact, the game’s cutesy style is often derailed by bad camera angles that obscure the adorable animals the player talks to. In conversation, I all too often saw the back of my head rather than the wholesome talking animals, and even more egregiously, the player can’t control the camera when they’re scouring the island for supplies. If the items you’re searching for is behind a house, you’re shit out of luck.

The controls are also a bit stiff. Basic activities like shoveling, fishing, watering flowers, or picking up sticks can become a complete hassle because the player’s avatar has to be positioned just right in order to do the actions the player wishes to. Being in the wrong position means that you might pick up the wrong item or you dig in the wrong spot. Admittedly, this might not be a big deal to folks playing Animal Crossing since the GameCube days, but a more accurate and intuitive control system would’ve gone a long way to making Animal Crossing: New Horizon a better experience for new players.

Last but not least, Animal Crossing: New Horizons contains an item durability system. While I understand that item durability systems add to the game’s emphasis on gathering resources and items for the purpose of crafting, Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ crafting and durability system isn’t optimal. Most necessary items like axes, shovels, fishing rods, and watering cans (yes, watering cans!) eventually break, forcing the player to have to gather more resources and travel to the nearest workbench to recraft the items. In a game that already makes no qualms about wasting the player’s precious time, the item durability system only adds to the sense that Animal Crossing New Horizons doesn’t value my time like I do.

This isn’t to say that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a bad game. I know that I’ve been down on the title for its various gameplay contrivances, yet the title still does have value. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is incredibly cute and there is a certain satisfaction in maintaining the island and its respective animal populace well. I only wish that the rewarding sensation of witnessing the fruits of my labor were spread out more evenly.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a mixed bag. While the talking animals and the beautiful art style are wholesome, the gameplay experience doesn’t match its presentation. Animal Crossing New Horizons may transport gamers to a lush new world, but this vacation destination isn’t worth escaping to.

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