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‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ one year on

Just over a year ago, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released worldwide for the Nintendo Switch. The game quickly topped gaming charts and was soon labelled “The Perfect Way to Spend Quarantine” and “one of Nintendo’s best games yet”. But beyond its first few weeks, how did it fare – and did lockdown lead us to rate more highly than it deserved?

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Sales-wise, data points to how New Horizons has become Nintendo’s go-to game, smashing record-after-record, even as lockdown restrictions begin to ease and people are returning to their pre-pandemic life. As of December 2020, 31.18 million copies had been sold worldwide, even though “only” 27.3 million Switch units were sold. It has recently become the fastest-selling Switch title in Europe, selling 7 million copies as of 16 March. The enthusiasm has been far from short-lived.

However, Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ legacy goes far beyond its record-setting numbers. The game has entered mainstream consciousness, becoming the site of political campaigns with the Biden-Harris island and of late-night shows, as Animal Talking with Gary Whitta proved so popular it was able to attract stars like Elijah Wood, Selena Gomez, and Brie Larson. This level of engagement with video games is not seen every day, showing just how impactful this game has become, along with the cultural legacy it has built in its wake.

With so many options, it’s no wonder that so many were eager to play the game, being promised a different experience compared to past Animal Crossing games

It would be wrong to deny the impact that the pandemic had in propelling New Horizons. Had things been different, perhaps it would have been only one among the many successful Switch games. But pandemic or not, it would have still accumulated a lot of sales, as it is undeniable that the game is of high-quality, and that the developers put a lot of effort into crafting both a familiar and new Animal Crossing experience.

Graphically, the game is gorgeous. Your avatar can be customised more than ever, you can decorate your house in so many fun new ways, and most importantly, your island is fully customisable, with items being placeable outdoors and terra-forming allowing you to morph the surrounding environments, adding waterfalls and lakes at your leisure, or perhaps flattening the entire island. And let’s not forget the option to create items yourself, through DIY recipes or the mystery islands. With so many options, it’s no wonder that so many were eager to play the game, being promised a different experience compared to past Animal Crossing games.

Another element that enticed players was the promise of a constant evolution of the island, with events and new characters being added progressively, ensuring an ever-novel experience and a significant lifespan for New Horizons. This has mostly been the case, and in many ways, it does feel different compared to how it was when first released. From the addition of Redd and the museum’s art gallery, to the ability to swim in the sea surrounding the island and catch sea creatures, to the special events added in celebration of various festivities, the game has slowly become livelier and richer content-wise.

However, one cannot gloss over the criticism – not all have been impressed with the shiny-new features added. Speaking from a purely personal point of view, I have gradually come to agree with the more critical voices, and – one year later – I can state with certainty that, yes, the game has fallen short of my expectations, and was perhaps excessively praised in places.

To be clear, once I got my hands on the game, I did not immediately pour hours on end into it, but I chose to pace the time I spent playing it, as I knew that doing the former would turn the game into a joyless experience for me and make it more tedious than it should be. I also wanted to avoid finishing it quickly, as my aim was to play it across the year and beyond.

Spending lots of time on my island made me realise what precisely this game lacks: personality

At first, I was deeply impressed with the game. The amount of things to do seemed mind-boggling to me, sometimes overwhelming, and potentially endless, especially once terraforming was unlocked. Not only this, but most characters were new to me, as my previous Animal Crossing game had been Wild World, and the number of activities I could pursue felt massive. Overall, in the early months, I found the game to be a lot of fun, and certainly more interactive than my previous Animal Crossing experience. I was very happy to be finally able to give my island my own personal spin.

However, as months have progressed, I have slowly found myself becoming less enamoured with the game, despite its updates and new features. For one, I have found the latter to be quite disappointing. I was very happy with the swimming feature, the addition of sea creatures, and before that, the art gallery. Beyond these, I have found the other updates to be lacklustre. The Christmas event had me with high expectations – but I ended up completing it in about ten minutes. Underwhelming to say the least. Halloween and Carnival were slightly better, but I expected more than simply running around interacting with the other inhabitants and listening to the same dialogues.

The latter represents the crux of the problem. Spending lots of time on my island made me realise what precisely this game lacks: personality. Beyond house customisation and island decoration, for me, Animal Crossing has always been a community simulator. A game where the aim is to build meaningful relationships within a community, forging bonds with its inhabitants, and striving to maintain them through good and bad moments.

It feels like the developers have focused most of their efforts on the visual features and on the designing and crafting features, thus discounting the “emotional” factor.

While in past Animal Crossing games I found this to be the case, New Horizons has been a severe disappointment – it has been rather bland. Having satisfied the main requirements of the game, I started interacting more with the other inhabitants, as I assumed forging good relationships was now going to be key, and hopefully, I was going to get fun tasks to do too. I found this to be far from the case.

I soon discovered that the inhabitants in my village were void of any personality. Not only do they constantly repeat the same dialogues, but they also lack character. They exist in a state of perpetual content, and nothing you do will make them angry, sad, or annoyed. I’m not saying this should’ve been avoided: after all, we all would like to live in a community that is perpetually happy, and where no one is ever subject to negative emotions, but it becomes tedious.

I have realised that nothing will happen even if I ignore the inhabitants for weeks. That has become what I do, as talking to them is neither meaningful or exciting. They don’t feel real, so I might as well be living alone on the island, since they don’t even act as if they belong to the village. They act like mindless bots, void of strong emotions and personality.

Granted, past characters were unrealistic – some were incredibly annoying and a bit of a parody. But this made them fun to interact with and they felt like a part of the community. It was always fun to engage with them – you never knew how they would react and the tasks offered were interesting and had variety. Now, the village feels lifeless.

It feels like the developers have focused most of their efforts on the visual features and on the designing and crafting features, thus discounting the “emotional” factor. I am not even sure this was worth it, as customisation still feels lacking. Especially for outdoors, the variety of items isn’t enormous, and for indoor areas, a lot of items from past games are still missing, such as the Rococo series from New Leaf.

I have ended up dropping the game multiple times after only a few months playing, occasionally returning when I have new energy for decoration, only to give up again in an endless cycle. This is not how I envisioned my Animal Crossing: New Horizons experience would be

The contrast is stark when comparing items in New Horizons to Pocket Camp, the latter bursting with great choices missing from the former. Monetisation certainly helps incentivise the developers to constantly add new features to Pocket Camp, but similar efforts for New Horizons would be nice. Even just having some Pocket Camp items would make a big difference and enable me to complete the decoration of my island. The game appears to be relying on the player’s creativity to compensate.

Considering this and the boring inhabitants, I am left with nothing much to do. I have ended up dropping the game multiple times after only a few months playing, occasionally returning when I have new energy for decoration, only to give up again in an endless cycle. This is not how I envisioned my Animal Crossing: New Horizons experience would be.

Hopefully as coronavirus passes, updates will pick up as developers can return to their offices. But in terms of the villagers’ personalities, I don’t hold much hope – new features may help compensate for this.

I just wish that with the current state of the game, these things had been part of the base game, rather than being drip-fed to players. Longevity is important, but the game feels more like a drag, which is hardly conducive to the game’s good standing in players’ eyes.

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