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It's been a funny old year, so far. Disease. Division. Stock market crashes. A shortage of toilet paper. It's fair to say 2020 has heaped quite a bit of misery on us, and it's only March. Yet into this schoolyard bully of a year steps Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game so pure and wholesome that you can let all your troubles melt away as you get lost in an island paradise - and what a paradise it is.
I'm happy to report that New Horizons - the first new Animal Crossing in nearly a decade, if we don't count spinoffs - is really, properly brilliant. It's a charming, rewarding, immensely relaxing game, one whose slower pace offers a welcome alternative to the more intensive AAA releases of the last year or so.
To be fair to those who never quite saw the appeal of Animal Crossing, it does seem a little bit... weird from the outside. You potter around a small plot of land, pulling weeds and watering plants. You catch fish and bugs. You send letters and gifts to a series of strange cartoon animals that you talk to every day so they don't leave you. You pay money to a devious raccoon. You own your own home. It's utterly bizarre - especially that bit about owning a home.
Even so, there's always been something indefinable about Animal Crossing. A truly relaxing quality, where the act of playing it feels less like performing a list of chores (even though that's what it is), and more like snuggling up under a warm duvet on a rainy day, which is how I like to play the game best. It's always been a series that asks you to slow down, complete its tasks mindlessly and at your own pace, and have fun doing it.
That same quality persists in New Horizons, and is arguably more rewarding than it's ever been before. But where previous games dumped you into a pre-built village complete with houses and amenities, New Horizons asks you to start from nothing and build a living, thriving town entirely on your own.
Arriving at a small outcrop of completely deserted land surrounded by trees, sand, and sea, it's up to you to set up a rudimentary camp, recruit fellow villagers to come stay with you, and slowly build something to be proud of. It's a brilliant new twist on the series that adds a level of depth to everything you do that wasn't really there before.
You'll still pull weeds, collect fruit and fish to sell, donate to a museum, and talk to villagers - all that standard Animal Crossing stuff. But there's a really clever cyclical design at the heart of New Horizons that means everything, and I mean everything, you do in-game has newfound meaning and contributes to the improvement and creation of your very own island paradise.
You might be catching fish, spending bells, paying off loans, or even breaking tools from overuse (a feature that some of you will hate), but you're always making progress. This is usually made evident in the form of Nook Miles, another new feature that, along with your brand new Nook Phone, gives you the chance to buy special furniture, hairstyles, upgrades, and other surprises.
It's not like most of us ever needed an endgame or sense of progression to enjoy the simple pleasures of Animal Crossing, but having this ultimate goal of a "perfect" town to work towards made me that much more invested in my sweet little patch of land.
But while it's great to have something to work towards, and I'm a sucker for the dopamine rush every time I open my Nook Phone to get more miles or sell fruit at the store to get more bells, it's the truly gorgeous level of attention to detail that really keeps me coming to back to New Horizons.
It really is a beautiful game whether you're playing handheld or on the TV, and it's peppered with little moments guaranteed to make you smile. The way Blathers, the museum curator, recoils in horror when you present him with a bug. The way you can spot villagers doing lunges or practising singing as you wander around town. The fact that you can look out of the window of your house when it's raining and see tiny water droplets racing down the glass. All of this and so much more, coupled with a delightful soundtrack, equates to one of the most relaxing video game experiences you'll have this year.
Then there's the way you can change up your own look and the look of the entire island. The level of customisation in New Horizons is truly staggering. From the bigger stuff like working out where to put a new shop or house, or funding construction efforts for a new bridge, to furnishing your house with a brand-new, in-depth decoration mode, or even choosing your outfit from an extensive wardrobe, everything that happens on the island is up to you.
Eventually, you'll even unlock the ability to place or remove entire cliffs, rivers, and waterfalls. This, coupled with being able to place furniture inside and out, as well as create all kinds of new materials and decorations via a pleasingly in-depth crafting system means that you can make your island, your way. Watching it develop from nothing into an actual community is a thoroughly rewarding experience. I really can't wait to see what other players come up with once the game is out.
On that, I just want to briefly touch on multiplayer. I've tried my hand at local and wireless multiplayer so far, and found both to be enjoyable. The former is a nice form of drop-in co-op where another human player who shares your island can pick up a joy-con and run around gathering materials with you. The latter involved me heading out to somebody else's town to explore their own little island and gather any supplies that were lacking back round my way.
I'll obviously have a better handle on how New Horizons multiplayer works when the game is out properly, but so far? Yeah, it's pretty much exactly what it was in earlier games, and that's fine. Great, even.
New Leaf had a feature where you could eventually explore other player's towns without the need for multiplayer, and I feel like that'd work much better in New Horizons. I've no idea if it's in the game eventually, but I do hope it's something we'll be able to unlock, because people with much better imaginations than me will doubtless be coming up with some really cool island designs.
I've only had my hands on the game for two weeks, but in that time I've brought in a handful of adorable new villagers, a gorgeous museum, a local shop, and a town hall where I can further plan the development of my budding town. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game that runs in real time, so your ideal town won't be constructed overnight, but that's part of what makes it so engaging.
While you can use the Switch's internal clock to skip ahead in time and see everything before the rest of us, it's not recommended. Instead, settle into a schedule. Dive in for a little bit a day to talk to villagers, gather materials, sell fruit - whatever, just relax and enjoy.
Realistically some of you will not get along with the slower nature of the game and the fact that you can only really play for a few hours a day. But adjust to its pace, and you'll find a game that you will be picking up play for the rest of the year - because one of the best things about New Horizons is that there's always a reason to be excited for tomorrow.
Shops will have new furniture in stock. Plants and flowers will have grown. Construction efforts will have inched that much closer to completion. New and strange visitors will have come to town peddling excited wares. I already can't wait to see what summer, autumn and winter have in store, with their own seasonal events, fish, and bugs.
For now though, I'm just happy to take my time, pay my loans, water my plants, and live my best island life at my pace. While New Horizons doesn't do much - or anything at all, really - to win over anyone who didn't "get" Animal Crossing previously, veteran fans and interested newcomers alike will find 2020's sweetest, most wholesome game yet.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is out March 20th for Nintendo Switch. Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
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