The experience of Animal Crossing: New Horizons can be summed up into its three types of wood. There’s the childlike whimsy of its softwood, used for decorations and silliness. There’s the lasting structure of its hardwood, often part of much more permanent fixtures. And then there’s the plain old regular wood, which is most often used for utilities and tools. Each of these symbolizes a different aspect of what made classic Animal Crossing games so special, and how they’re handled in New Horizons will largely define your gameplay experience.
First, for the softwood: the aesthetics of Animal Crossing: New Horizons are absolutely on point, and the joy in finding new items and arranging them around the town is in peak form. Character customization is more intricate than ever, and the development team has added in new ways to show personality. There are passports with customizable titles, more ways to configure your environment and more, and for a game built on expression, more expression makes for a better experience. This is reinforced by the pun-tastic localization for which Animal Crossing has become known, never for a second letting you get too serious and pushing quirk and verbose charm at every opportunity.
As for the hardwood of the game, New Horizons gives players a lot of control of how your island is built, and the functionality of your particular town will be your own success or failing. Have you thought through the efficient setup for where your shop should be and which locations need crafting tables? In the long term, what makes sense for configuring the position of villagers’ homes? And how do you make it easy to hit all the rocks quickly or set up a quick loop to gather shells? This is less about personality and more about the logic puzzle of making your life easier, and that’s an interesting puzzle, too.
All of these are made possible by the regular wood, the old staples of gathering and processing that the Animal Crossing franchise largely borrowed from games like Story of Seasons. Collecting resources is much more active and constant in New Horizons, both from the crafting aspects and from how often the game throws special things like balloons at you. What was once rare is now way more common, and the segmented island structure and procedural terrain generation wants you to juggle all your tools to get around and accomplish island tasks.
It seems like this part of the game was ramped up for players who wanted more to do, as checking shops and talking to villagers is a daily thing and gathering can extend to really any amount of time. That’s especially true with Nook Miles Tickets, designed to offer extra gathering to those who meet challenges that are, for the most part, about gathering themselves.
Each of these things can be fun! And the development team at Nintendo wants you to engage with all of the systems. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really trust that you’ll do that on your own, once again leading us back to those three wood types. You see, each of these types spawn in roughly the same quantity from the same types of trees, so rather than heading off to gather some hardwood from a tree of that type, you’ll gather all of them at once and… well, be pressured to find uses for all of the types.
That is, in a larger context, this game. Tools break constantly, which is an idea that works for combat variety in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild but here serves to do one thing: make you constantly need to engage with the crafting system whether you want to or not. Not really into catching bugs or fish? Too bad: you’re going to need to do that to get really any of the vital Nook Miles rewards. Don’t really care about expanding your house and putting more stuff in there? Too bad: major island milestones are withheld until you do.
This is a structure that keeps players moving along in all the paths, but it also fights against the ethos of the original games: that you’re just living your life and doing what you feel like. A lot has been made of the franchise’s move toward user control over the earlier idea that you weren’t in charge and just had to do what you could as an individual citizen. That’s definitely made things feel different, but with power comes responsibility and that means you can’t just ignore the museum or curate a nice home. You have to do everything. And it’s usually fun! Usually.
Generally, everyone will have a good time with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. This is likely the design goal here, because the franchise as a whole has shifted toward mass appeal from a more niche delight, but there are some costs along the margins for those who sought it out as a freeing experience that let them obsess over some things and push others to the side. It’s fun in moderation! And moderation is your only option.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is now available worldwide on Nintendo Switch.