In the midst of a crisis made exponentially worse by the failings of capitalism, it turns out Capitalism: Tropical Flavour is precisely what the doctor ordered.
In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the latest entry in Nintendo’s long-running life/indentured servitude sim, Tom Nook – the moneybags raccoon who has inspired nearly as many internet debates as Dark Souls’ difficulty or ludonarrative dissonance – has expanded his real estate empire to an uninhabited, but resource-rich, island. As the game begins, you have joined Nook, and a few other adventurous animals in this brave new world.
These humble beginnings mean that New Horizons is a much slower burn than past Animal Crossing titles. In the game’s opening moments, rather than the customary one-room starter home, Nook offers you a tent. The rest of the island is, likewise, a bit of a fixer-upper. The general store and the visitor centre are both contained under a tarp, and the only building on the island is the airport where you arrived. You can’t even access half the land that makes up your new home.
The first few days are substantially slower than anything that follows. You can hunt for bugs, catch fish, chop trees, sell stuff, work toward upgrading your home, and talk to the two other villagers that Nook brought along for the ride. But I imagine many folks will work through these sparse early hits and think, “Is this it?”
Thankfully not. Animal Crossing’s rhythms have always been slower than those of other life sims, though, and that’s still the case here.
In-game time is tied to the tick-tocks of your Switch system clock, so if Nook tells you a catalogue order will take a day to arrive, it will truly take an IRL day. Working your way up from a glorified camp-ground to a bustling town will take time. Eventually, the museum, the tailor, and several new villagers will all arrive. But if you don’t fiddle with the Switch clock to ‘time-travel’ ahead, this growth is spread out over weeks.
Fortunately, the pay-off is worth it. While each villager hews pretty close to a personality archetype, their dialogue is sharp and funny enough that I’ve enjoyed talking to them each day. Once you earn enough credits, you can unlock tools that allow you to shape the island’s terrain. The game’s multiplayer functionality also means your friends can often provide inspiration if you don’t know what to do next.
There’s plenty to keep you entertained on the journey, too. New Horizons introduces a new currency, Nook Miles, which you can earn by completing tasks around the island. You’ll keep track of these tasks – like watering eight plants or catching a specific fish – on your Nook-issued Nook Phone. These errands often yield materials, like wood or stones, which can then be used to craft DIY furniture for your home and, more crucially, breakable tools which you’ll use to accomplish further tasks.
It’s as self-conscious a treadmill as Animal Crossing has yet produced (aside from, maybe, the free-to-play Pocket Camp) and the thematic framing that Nintendo uses to contextualise the grind can take some weirdly dark turns. There are sections, for example, where you fly to (mostly) empty islands and strip away all the resources you need – sometimes while their sole inhabitant watches. Mostly, though, New Horizons’ embrace of the endless checklist is a boon. I have some gripes about the way that Nook Miles turns every activity, even talking to your neighbours, into a transaction. But the trade-off is that as you work toward your long-term goals, you will almost always have plenty to do on the path to getting there.
There are areas where New Horizons’ slower pace began to wear on me, though. Since release, the game has frequently been touted a path to relaxation in the midst of a global crisis. The biggest obstacle for me, in this regard, has been the irritatingly long amount of time it can take to accomplish basic things. To the end of making the island feel like a real community, many essential actions are accomplished through various agents. Want to travel to a desert island to strip-mine its resources? First, you’ll need to go to an ATM, buy a Nook Miles Ticket, take it to Orville (the dodo that runs the island’s airline), click rapidly through several screens of text, select the correct option, sit through a loading screen as you wait for your plane to ferry you to your destination, then click through more text when you arrive.
The good (of which there is a lot) and the bad (of which there is a little) all stems from Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ slow pace. Is it meditative? Is it sluggish? It probably depends on your mood at the time.
As I write this, it’s been exactly one month since release. In that month, New Horizons has done numbers that would make Tom Nook blush, breaking Switch sales records in the UK and taking over the social media feeds of isolated players. Since we bought the game at launch, my non-gamer wife has played every day, catching bugs, reeling in fish, and expanding her house to roughly three times the size of my hovel a few feet up our island’s coast. Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to deny that it’s the perfect game for this moment.
Blathers’ museum is awesomely, and appropriately, cavernous — a much larger space than any other building in the game. Filling its echoey halls with realistically modelled dinosaur skeletons, its tanks with schools of anchovies, or its gardens with fluttering butterflies is a beautiful enterprise.
New Horizons’ politics are suspect, but the consistent satisfaction of its loop, the ease with which it facilitates creativity, and the strength of its character writing will help take your mind off the strip mining.
Genre: Life sim | Format: Switch (tested) | Developer: Nintendo | Publisher: Nintendo | Price: £49.99 | Release: Out now