Final update for ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ won’t turn over a new leaf

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If you enjoy “New Horizons,” I’m ecstatic that you’ve found joy in something I haven’t.

For some players, the Oct. 15 Animal Crossing Direct broadcast showed promising features that encouraged returning to their islands in “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” For others, it signified that the game’s fundamental problems won’t improve.

“New Horizons” dominated the world following its release on March 20, 2020. Being delayed from its 2019 launch window, it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Excitement for a new installment after “Animal Crossing: New Leaf” sparked wider interest in the life simulator series, combined with a need for escapism and connection when the COVID-19 pandemic began, made a highly anticipated game into a global phenomenon.

Despite the positive reception, Animal Crossing fans expressed feeling burnout much faster than previous entries. The pandemic is commonly suggested when discussing Animal Crossing exhaustion; the franchise centers around daily interactions and relaxation, but using “New Horizons” to connect with friends during isolation caused players to experience years worth of content in shorter bursts. However, quickly consuming longer games doesn’t guarantee burnout – not if the game’s content is compelling.

One would expect the latest Animal Crossing game to have the most content of the series, and from a customization perspective, it does. “New Horizons” expanded the franchise’s furniture and clothing catalog, as per usual, but also introduced craftable items and made custom color variations from “New Leaf” more prominent. Exterior decoration, including the ability to terraform and create terrain, allows players to customize almost every tile of their islands.

Graphic by Nintendo.

Customization was always a core element of Animal Crossing, but life simulation was always its focus. In this aspect, “New Horizons” is a step down from its predecessors. Existing content and features were missing upon release, and although updates fixed those issues, the simulation aspect was much less developed than customization. Animal Crossing has shifted priorities to become a game about player expression, which has alienated longtime players.

The animal villagers perfectly exemplify these changes. They’ve had less interactivity with each entry, reaching their lowest point in “New Horizons.” Villagers run out of new dialogue faster than ever before; upon reaching a small level of friendship, talking to villagers feels like playing a game adaptation of “Groundhog Day.” As morbid as it sounds, villagers are essentially walking furniture, focusing less on simulating relationships and more on aesthetics.

“New Horizons” launched without previous entries’ base game content that later updates added, including facilities and holidays. Content updates aren’t foreign to Animal Crossing, like the “New Leaf: Welcome Amiibo” update, but that introduced original content and quality-of-life features from the spinoff “Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer.” Beyond customization, these updates mostly repackaged past content. “New Horizons” is about as “new” as the New Super Mario Bros. series.

Admittedly, even adding holidays was difficult during the industry-halting pandemic, but that doesn’t mean the content would be a downgrade. Holidays in “New Horizons” are significantly less fun events than holidays in “New Leaf,” and are occasionally downright invasive. Early players still have nightmares about Bunny Day 2020, in which eggs replaced crafting materials and collectibles. This was eventually amended, but other holidays remain less engaging than in previous entries.

Returning features like art collecting and diving spiced up stale daily routines, but even these became repetitive because of the gradual updates. Players who finished the base game content could focus entirely on new activities as they were released. Animal Crossing’s gameplay loop divides players’ attention between many simple activities, but spreading objectives thin creates a linear gameplay loop – consume available content, then wait for future updates.

Aside from the drip-feed of content, “New Horizons” suffers from design choices that make its genuinely strong elements unnecessarily tedious. Dialogue trees are excessively long, from Isabelle’s grating daily announcements to Tom Nook’s construction planning that restarts a minute’s worth of conversation if the wrong option is selected. This extends to crafting or buying clothing, which force players to repeatedly do one action instead of buying or crafting in bulk.

These flaws damage the game’s best addition, terraforming, which should’ve been a slam dunk for both customization and life simulation. The clunky controls and repetitive actions make exterior decoration unnecessarily slow, preventing many players from truly customizing their islands. Fans suggested that the convenient exterior decoration from “Happy Home Designer” would solve these issues, allowing players to quickly edit multiple tiles of land at once.

One year after launch, content updates went on hiatus until the recent Animal Crossing Direct, which announced the game’s long-awaited 2.0 update releasing Nov. 5. This is undoubtedly the game’s best update for its new content and quality-of-life improvements, including permanent exterior ladders, customizable fences and cooking. The highlight is Harv’s photo studio island expansion, which hosts permanent facilities for traveling merchants who previously appeared on random days.

More controversially, Nintendo announced “New Horizons: Happy Home Paradise,” premium DLC inspired by “Happy Home Designer” releasing alongside this update. The highly anticipated exterior decoration improvements were locked behind a $25 purchase, which agitated players who were disappointed with the $60 base game. The price would be understandable for a season pass, but Nintendo clarified to IGN that “Happy Home Paradise” is the game’s “first and only paid DLC.”

The DLC can also be rented by subscribing to the Switch Online Expansion Pack, which had pricing announced during the Direct: $50 for one person and $80 for family plans, annually. For those who love paid servers that run worse than America Online, but want to pay $30 extra every year to rent DLC and half-functional Nintendo 64 ROMs that perform worse than fanmade emulation, Nintendo has you covered.

When the 2.0 update and “Happy Home Paradise” release, “New Horizons” will be feature-complete as far as the developers are concerned, with minor updates adding more cosmetics and bug fixes as needed. For as strong as the final major update is, the game’s deep-seated issues of tedious design and lacking life simulation haven’t changed, and at this point, they never will.

None of this is to say you shouldn’t enjoy “New Horizons,” and if you do, I’m ecstatic that you’ve found joy in something I haven’t. For all these issues, there’s still lots to love; the visuals and writing are charming, and although I’d subjectively rank this as the franchise’s weakest soundtrack, it has exceptional sound design. If “Happy Home Paradise” was another free update, I’d probably feel satisfied overall.

This is just an explanation of why I and many other Animal Crossing fans have been dissatisfied with the newest entry. “New Horizons” feels like a fundamentally different game than the life simulator it was advertised as, and while the focus on player expression is an excellent direction to pursue, it never had to conflict with the life simulation. When Animal Crossing focuses on both these aspects, everyone wins.

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Managing Editor | + posts

Sean Mullins (she/they) is the managing editor and webmaster for the Journal, formerly the opinions editor during the 2021/2022 school year. She is a media studies major and professional writing minor at Webster University, but she's participated in student journalism since high school, having previously been a games columnist, blogger and cartoonist for the Webster Groves Echo at Webster Groves High School. Her passion is writing and editing stories about video games and other entertainment mediums. Outside of writing, Sean is also the treasurer for Webster Literature Club. She enjoys playing games, spending time with friends, LGBTQ+ and disability advocacy, streaming, making terrible puns and listening to music.