‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ review: the most friendly, playable version of ‘Castaway’ yet

The inside case artwork for “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” depicting the in-game Dodo Airlines service with two playable villager avatars. (Dylan Robinson/Lariat)

Delighting once again in the paradise crafted by animals, for animals, that is the “Animal Crossing” video game franchise reveals far more about the inner workings of their societies than any game prior with the latest release “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

Previously seen in the series, numerous species of animals frolicked in amazingly realized life-simulator scenarios roping the human avatar comprising the player into their daily rituals. Rituals include hunting for fossils, shaking trees for fruit, getting stung by angry bees upon shaking the trees, saving up “bells” as currency to pay off loans to a venture capitalist racoon and once more, getting stung by angry bees.

This time around in “New Horizons,” these usual trappings crop up again, sure, but they are completely recontextualized to make perhaps the most nuanced and rewarding “Animal Crossing” yet. In this game you are not defined by the end scheme of getting every piece of desired furniture to adorn your fully upgraded mansion, but instead by the process it takes to get there.

Coming off 2013’s “Animal Crossing: New Leaf” where the player was tasked with being the mayor, progression was a steady drip feed of accomplishing daily tasks just like every other game in the series, albeit with a more lax flow to it all. 

Villagers remained robotic and were no longer outright menacing like the first game in the series, mayoral tasks essentially comprised beautifying the town through your own funding and upgrading your Main Street shops was little more than a clockwork checklist. The best aspect of “New Leaf” was definitely the addition of mayoral secretary Isabelle, the franchise’s best new character regardless of anyone else.

The thing with “New Horizons” is that the game contains renovations on these previous missteps while radicalizing the relative casualness of the franchise once known prior. The player is not granted anything at the start of this game upon being greeted by the previously mentioned raccoon, Tom Nook’s business pupils Timmy and Tommy. 

You are given a barren island replete with a native fruit, bountiful saltwater on all sides and a simple Resident Services Center funnily enough in the shape of a tent. Oh wait, it’s actually just a tent. That goes for your house and your two starting villagers’ houses too. Tents, galore.

In stark contrast to the ease of games’ prior, “New Horizons” demands attention sprinkled in with commitment. Without actively pursuing the goals laid before the player, they simply won’t be playing the “true” “Animal Crossing” experience within even the first week as all gameplay is in real time based on your Nintendo Switch’s actual system clock.

This is where the beauty of “New Horizons” sets in. The franchise has always been about pursuing goals in any sought manner whether it be paying off home expansion loans, catching every bug or fishing every… fish. Accomplishing feats in this game is far more deliberate and earned, surpassing the training wheels of “New Leaf” before it.

Staking your claim in island life necessitates a grasping of the mechanics unique to this game. Since bridges don’t exist immediately, you must pole vault over bodies of water, and since natural inclines don’t exist to reach your island’s plateaus, you must utilize a ladder to reach them.

Players can even learn DIY crafting recipes from their island villagers or from washed-up message bottles on the beaches. These can teach you new furniture ideas or brush up on previous concepts that were lesser in materials such as having a wood dresser become an ironwood dresser.

Every design decision in “New Horizons” reinforces the intensity of an environment not seen in the franchise before with new bug species of tarantulas and scorpions even being able to knock you out should you fail to run away or catch them in time. Despite all this, the game remains friendly. Really, it is!

The only real sour spots of the game so far reside in quality of life changes that seem like a no-brainer from a player perspective, yet are still absent or lacking. Not being able to craft all of the same type of item in the game’s crafting menu seemingly falls in line with the game’s “mundane but fun” structuring the series is known for, yet at a certain rate it becomes an insulting chore. Looking at you, fish bait, requiring individual crafting of every single clam the player has placed in their inventory.

Multiplayer functionality as well suffers from the constant interruptions of other players’ flights into islands causing every player’s game to pause so that a new player can join. Once again, it’s deliberate, but begs the question if it’s necessary as, every time a player flies in to visit, you must watch this new player fly in and walk through the gates. Each island can hold eight players at once. You can imagine my pain when you’re just trying to sell turnips on a random Twitter user’s island.

Outside of these minor gripes that will hopefully be addressed in later updates, the game phenomenally upholds the vestiges of the series while carrying on the torch of its prior casualness towards a more involved gameplay loop. This meets a compromise for those looking for more to do in their animal buddy life simulator game and those there to solely hear the endearing quips from their creature populous. And, well, there are plenty of them, as expected in a series titled “Animal Crossing.”

Animal villagers sport a new flair with more striking personalities in line with the personality archetypes they are assigned serving a strong juxtaposition against the valiant, if overwhelmingly robotic conversations in “New Leaf.” I can’t help but crack a smile everytime my red duck villager Ketchup calls me “bitty” at the end of each of her sentences, it’s remarkably adorable and punchy.

All the bunk features of previous entries have been rewired to fire on all cylinders and deliver an uncompromising life sim that bars you out of most of its features until about a week in real life has passed. Even myself who played the game from the day it launched Mar. 20th hadn’t seen series favorite Isabelle or the clothes-retailing porcupine Abel sisters until about seven days after beginning my castaway life.

It’s wholly refreshing seeing a franchise that might have stumbled even slightly in a previous iteration get fully revamped in the sequel. The vision Nintendo set its players out to seek on their uncharted waters adventures only began a week ago yet many people have rustled the chimes of their creativity and connected all over the world.

In just this small time I have connected with players from New Zealand, Australia and the East Coast of the United States as we all avoid real life worries in hopes of sculpting our islands into the paradise destination of our dreams, maybe with a spare odd pig or two. 

Trading fruits or furniture, sending gifts and fishing in alternate hemispheres for rare catches are all ways the game connects people harboring a real sense of community priding itself completely on sheer goodwill rather than griefing or humiliating found in larger, more competitive games.

Given the state the game was released in after an initial delay from the original “sometime in 2019” release window, it’s remarkable how much more the extra months benefitted the game in terms of polish and truly piecing together the grand vision Nintendo had for the game. The scale is large and its player base is larger than ever before with people breaking the shackles of quarantine to go out and buy a Nintendo Switch for “New Horizons” alone. The impact is definitely profound and the game could not have been released in a better time giving people even more of a reason to stay home.

“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” proves that whenever a franchise could use a healthy shot in the arm for rejuvenation, Nintendo knows just the trick to providing this reinvigoration. Answering the call of hardcore and casual fans alike, Nintendo successfully captured the spirit of the franchise distilled under a new light that both urges its players more than ever before while still allowing for dawdling days spent doing nothing more than lending an ear to Kevin the orange pig.