This game was kind of an impulse purchase for me. With the planet dangling on the unwiped fissure of the COVID-19 pandemic apocalypse just in time for payday, I decided to re-allocate some of my toilet paper budget to an unnecessary spend. “I could be dead next week,” I told myself. “I want to visit paradise first.”
Paradise, it turns out, is mostly chores and debt. It’s very metaphorical, probably, but in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the dreary indifference of corporate capitalism is dressed up with raccoons and love so it’s okay.
It’s difficult to describe Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I haven’t actually played one of the previous games in the series, so I dunno what’s New! Innovative! Now with Gluten-Free Coconuts!, but much like Stardew Valley, most of the game is a repetitive loop of resource acquisition, amateur horticulture, and turnip investments, with no real plot or objectives besides… whatever you want those to be in the moment. Its ingenuity is making this a whimsical, almost zen-like experience – there’s no problem to resolve, or ambiguously defined cosmic destiny to claim.
Instead, you’re this human who, for reasons that can’t be explained because they don’t even matter, has relocated to an island in the company of some super-sociable animal friends, on the invitation of Tom Nook, a construction business entrepreneur and not actually a raccoon but a tanuki but so what. Tom’s prices are extortionate, but he’s also adorable, and so are his nephews, Timmy and Tommy, and everybody else except Lionel who is ugly and a snob and I’m totally going to evict him to maintain those ratios. MY PANDEMIC APOCALYPSE RETREAT FROM REALITY, MY RULES.
Decorate your home with fish tanks and butterfly terrariums. Donate important specimens to Blathers’ museum for science and max out your Critterpedia collection. Build a fashionable bamboo shelf for your kitchen, slob on the beach with a fizzy cocktails, or hang out with a delusional neon pink teddy bear who would’ve been eliminated in the first episode of American Idol but in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you don’t get to tell her she’s, like, the worst. On $YOUR_ISLAND (mine’s Gruzz, because names are hard and you can’t edit it when you inevitably realise it sucks), it’s up to you, unless it’s a dystopian Soviet gulag because there aren’t custom import models for that. Not yet, I mean.
The game’s NPCs also keep busy, toddling around with fishing rods and exercise equipment, or meeting up for some yoga in the town’s plaza. They even change their outfits, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a game, and if you give them presents, you can later find those on display in their homes. It’s so cute, it’s sickening.
Visually, everything in the game is almost impossibly vibrant, even gaudy, its miniaturised geometry and character models designed to enchant. In real time, days go by in a dreamy series of sunrises and sunsets, and seasonal transformations. This morning, I stepped out of my house to flurry of cherry blossoms, the pink promises of spring that summer is waking from its sleep. This bucolic scenery is supplemented with equally serene audio – waves swish on the shores, rivers burble, and breezes murmur through the trees, a tranquil acoustic bubble to shut out my existential dread.
But, what’s the “but”? Not so much, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons does include some questionable mechanics. Even top-level tools, for example, break after a preset number of uses, and the multiplayer mode is unnecessarily fussy – limiting players to either hosting or joining other games, with pause and load times when you swap from one to the other, or additional players jump in. For some inexplicable reason, there’s also no in-game invitation system, so unless you’re using WhatsApp or Discord to let people know you’re hosting, it’s a case of waiting on other players to scan for games. Dialogue is too slow and can’t be skipped, and becomes tedious when you’re stuck in the same I GOT A LOACH animation cycle every, time, you, get, one. And why can’t I use crafting materials from my storage box instead of moving them into my pockets first? WHY, NINTENDO.
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