Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t a particularly innovative game.
It also doesn’t need to be. The fuzzy life-sim’s first installment for the Nintendo Switch is adorable, relentlessly absorbing, and a damn good anxiety reducer. Its straightforward, laid-back gameplay rhythm is also a welcome distraction in scary times. The visuals are sunny and cute, but nothing that will blow you away. New Horizons bursts with fun and optimism at a time when both of those things are in exceptionally short supply.
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Animal Crossing: New Horizons is Nintendo’s answer to the unfussy greatness of a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. Is there fancier stuff on the menu? Sure. But you will keep coming back, and you’ll be satisfied every damn time.
A soothing and familiar rhythm
As a newcomer to the series apart from dabbling with the Pocket Camp mobile game, I was initially surprised by how simple Animal Crossing: New Horizons starts off. At the beginning, you’ll have nothing but a tent, the clothes on your back, and a smile. You’ll be asked to name your island with a gentle (and very on-brand for Nintendo) reminder that this game is for everyone, so kindly do not name your tropical getaway “Manwhore Island” or “Fartopia.”
Like the world’s most patient aerobics instructor, New Horizons introduces new elements ever so slowly while never asking too much of you. This makes it great for younger gamers and those who are just coming back to consoles after a long break, but it can be a little frustrating at first to those expecting to see massive progress quickly.
At first, there’s not a whole lot you can do, apart from shaking the trees to obtain fruit and tree branches. Shortly thereafter, you can catch butterflies and moths, and then you’ll be able to fish. You can bring these critters to the museum or sell them for a small sum. Extreme Grandpa Simpson voice: Too many games have fishing mechanics nowadays, but Animal Crossing keeps it simple and enjoyable. There’s no tedious faffing about with various reels, lures, and bait – just fling out your line and wait for the telltale chomp sound, then hold down the A button to reel in a lunker.
The first few hours of New Horizons are a chill, deadline-free tutorial run for the chill, deadline-free main game. You’ll need to pay back the franchise's enterprising raccoon tycoon, Tom Nook, for a series of loans – for your travel expenses, for a house, and various expansions. He’ll also ask for your help gathering materials for a new item shop, a museum, and homes for future villagers.
There’s absolutely zero pressure to do any of this, which is a big part of Animal Crossing's charm. Spent all day planting pansies instead of paying off your loan? Wiled away three hours designing wacky T-shirt patterns for your avatar to wear? No problem. As you spend more time in New Horizons, you’ll unlock a staggering amount of customization options for clothing, furniture, and landscaping. If you’re a fan of either The Sims 4 or Minecraft, there’s a lot to like here — if you don’t mind the leisurely pace of the first few days.
A world of your own making
Looking for immersive storytelling? Animal Crossing: New Horizons doesn’t have it unless you count a superabundance of animal puns. There isn’t really a story beyond the narrative of your own progress and paying off your debts. As you craft more items and aid your fellow islanders, you’ll gain access to new regions of your island along with new things to make and buy. Even early on, you’ll feel a true sense of accomplishment from watching your town grow, all thanks to your efforts. At a time when many of us feel overwhelmed by forces beyond our control, these small accomplishments can feel really satisfying, just like cleaning the house or making a tasty meal.
Progress in the game is linked to your time zone, and you can only do certain things once a day. Big construction projects, like new bridges and house renovations, won’t be complete until 5 a.m. local time. Those who lack willpower and patience – like myself – will be tempted to start fiddling with the date and time settings to speed things up via "time travel."
You’ll quickly settle into a typical daily routine in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Pop into Resident Services to collect your Nook Miles reward for the day, harvest your fruit trees, chop some wood, chat with your fellow residents, check the beaches for shells. Having to wait overnight to see progress can get frustrating at times, but there’s never a lack of things to do. You can always fish, catch bugs, or jet off to another island.
The multiplayer aspect of the game — which allows you to visit your friends’ islands or for them to come to yours — is enjoyable, but I don’t see myself using it more than occasionally. It’s definitely worth seeing your pals’ creations, but it’s not the best way to add to your pool of resources. If you’re looking to stock up on new materials or non-native fruits, you’re better off heading to the airport to explore a randomly generated mystery island instead.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons can’t get you through long weeks of isolation on its own, but it will be a bread-and-butter game of spring 2020 for many gamers. Consider it an essential staple of your electronic pantry for the days ahead.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is out now for Nintendo Switch.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. ¶ ️We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. ¶ We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. ¶ We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. For instance, we won’t hold it against a video game if its online mode isn’t perfect at launch. ¶ And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.) ¶ Here’s how we would have reviewed some classic games: 10 = GoldenEye 007. 9 = Red Dead Redemption 2. 8 = Celeste. 7 = Mass Effect 3. 6 = No Man’s Sky. 5 = Fortnite. 4 = Anthem. 3 = Star Wars Battlefront II. 2 = Assassin’s Creed Unity. 1 = E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.