It’s been nearly twenty years since the original Animal Forest was released in Japan, and a lot has changed. The heart of the Animal Crossing experience has always been about having a relaxing life in a small forest village with cute animal neighbours, and this unusually chill approach to gameplay is what helped the series stand out. Daily activities might include catching bugs, fishing, digging up fossils, chatting to the animals in your town, or decorating your house. And when I say daily, I really do mean daily. Animal Crossing has always been played entirely in real-time. So when it’s night time in our world, it’s night time in the game, and what you can do in-game changes based on the time. For example, certain stores will be shut after 10 pm, or specific characters might be asleep. It also tracks what day it is using a real calendar. Real-life celebrations like Christmas happen in-game on Christmas day, and so on, making each day you login feel like a unique experience. These details make for a game that’s always been a little hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t already played it.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review
New Horizons has for the first time, given the players the freedom to truly do anything they want with their town

Early games in the series would be described as life-simulators, but when Animal Crossing New Leaf came out for 3DS in 2012, it added more of a town-management aspect. In it, you were tasked as the town mayor, with the added power of adding outdoor decorations to your town and managing your town rating with the help of your puppy assistant Isabelle. At the time this felt like a big deal for the series, but after playing New Horizons, it was only a baby step towards what the series could really do.

New Horizons has for the first time, given the players the freedom to truly do anything they want with their town (now a desert island). Gone are the days of a hundred resets while Resetti grills you over and over in an attempt to get the perfect villager to move in, or to have their house spawn in a spot that doesn’t ruin your carefully planned garden. Nintendo saw the blood sweat and tears we put into making the perfect town, and they responded with mercy. Animal Crossing is not “just” a humble life-simulator anymore. Now it’s a life-sim, town-building, town management, social-sim, mostly-sandbox, crafting multiplayer game all tied up in an extremely cute wrapper.

So what do I mean by that exactly? The short answer is that there’s a lot to do. You start life in New Horizons by moving to a deserted island with two randomly chosen animal neighbours, and Tom Nook as your guide. Before letting you run wild on the island, Nook teaches you the ropes, including the brand new crafting system which until now had only appeared in the mobile spinoff Pocket Camp. Nook also appoints you as the Island Representative, asking that you help him set the place up. One of your first tasks for Nook is to find a suitable house plot for the two islanders who came with you. That’s right - New Horizons finally lets you choose where all the buildings go! I’ll never have to fear for my garden patches again, and this is just the start of what you can get creative with.

The crafting options in New Horizons seem pretty expansive so far. A returning feature from New Leaf is the ability to customise certain items with different colour palettes or patterns too, but this time it’s totally in your hands, and the finished product is instant. This alone gives players tonnes more to do throughout the day. I have to admit the volume of crafting you can do at one time is a little counter to the “relax and play slowly” philosophy some of us might be used to. But note that it’s all fairly low pressure, and usually only there for when you have the time.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review
Filling out a museum is a labour of love, and walking through the completed collection is for me one of the game’s greatest rewards.

Like in the previous titles there’s also a tonne of stuff for you to collect for yourself, or for the Museum that gets built on your island. Apart from who-knows-how-much furniture and outfits, the game has 80 insects, 80 fish, and over 60 fossils to find on your island and donate to fill the Museum’s collection. The insects and fish that appear in-game change depending on the season and time of day and some are much rarer than others. Filling out a museum is a labour of love, and walking through the completed collection is for me one of the game’s greatest rewards. New Horizons' revamped museum design is a work of art. Each area is designed with multiple levels to the architecture, with subtle interactive areas to discover. The perfect place for an online quarantine date with a friend. Details like this throughout the game keep taking me by surprise. Things like leaving footprints in the sand, seeing your neighbours out for their morning exercise, or the cute little hops your character does over holes. There are so many wonderful little details in this game.

One of the other major additions is a currency called “Nook Miles”. These are themed as airline miles in the game which you can use to redeem furniture, DIY recipes, and special tickets to visit a “Mystery Island”. Unlike the New Leaf Island Tours which were a bit more predictable, Mystery Islands in New Horizons seem to be randomly generated from a set of possibilities and are primarily used for resource gathering. There are no mini-games this time around, but you can still earn a fortune if you get lucky. One island I visited spawned infinite sharks, and another island only spawned rare insects. My spoils from both were able to instantly pay off some hefty loans. On top of the resource gathering, you’ll sometimes find characters camping out on the mystery islands which you can invite back to live with you. This is similar to the campsite feature New Leaf introduced (but not a replacement), and is one of the reasons I’ve been playing nonstop. To visit a Mystery Island I need Nook Miles, and I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to get Nook Miles is to complete mini objectives, such as “catch five fish” or “plant a tree”. They’re extremely simple objectives to complete which give small amounts of Miles each, but by putting a bit of time in, you can easily grind through half a dozen Mystery Island visits in an evening. It’s a dangerous loop to get stuck in, and I can’t stop.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review
if you share a switch with someone else, and want to have your own islands to play on, you will need to purchase yourself a separate Switch

Another way to travel in-game is by visiting a friend’s island, which is an experience that somehow manages to be both extremely delightful and tedious at the same time. I’ll start with the bad. Every time a player joins your island, the game decides to completely pause for some kind of slow loading sequence that announces their arrival. Note that up to eight people can be playing on one island at a time, and every time someone joins or leaves the entire island has to pause and sit through the longest loading screen of their life. Lucky for Nintendo that visiting each other is a lot of fun then. The new level of creative freedom in New Horizons means you want that online experience to show your friends what you’ve made, by taking them on an in-game tour. And I’ve personally spent a lot of time doing the rounds at each other’s clothing stores, to compare and stock up. The stores in Animal Crossing, like with everything else, are on a daily timer and have limited random stock. Being able to visit even one friend opens up a lot of possibilities for your wardrobe. Still, I haven’t found the visiting experience very fun or even practical for bigger groups yet. I do hope this gets addressed in a later patch.

Speaking of multiplayer (and problems), one of the biggest complaints about New Horizons is how the island seems to be saved to the switch itself rather than the player’s account, or even the game cartridge. Meaning if you share a switch with someone else, and want to have your own islands to play on, you will need to purchase yourself a separate Switch, or resign to living on the same island together. This is apparently true even if you do purchase two copies of the game. It’s an odd choice, and certainly feels a lot like Nintendo are trying to strong-arm us into buying more consoles. In terms of how playing on the same island works though, it seems to be in line with what the previous games were like. The first player to start the game is assigned the island representative role, which has some extra power around unlocking milestones. Still, apart from that, I haven’t noticed anything the second player is missing out on. Though that could be because I’m not giving them much time to find out...

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review
Two weeks in and I have so much creative freedom that I’m planning my island’s layout on paper.

Both complaints around multiplayer seem pretty valid to me. But they’re also issues with an entirely optional part of the game, parts that I still really enjoy. So unless you seriously can’t share an island with someone to the point where buying the game might cause arguments, then none of this should deter you. My two weeks with Animal Crossing: New Horizons have been a delight. Being able to connect with friends via online gaming is feeling pretty crucial right now, and I’ve heard multiple people say New Horizons has been a much-needed way to relax while stuck at home.

To be honest, I was a little worried about some of the changes going into this game. I love having the freedom to change my appearance any time I want, but I miss going to Shampoodle’s for a pamper-session. And I know a cafe isn’t the most important thing for a deserted island, but maybe Brewster would like an invitation too? But this is a different game, with a slightly different pace. And my worries have quickly melted away as I settle into my new island life. Now I feel free to create and explore at a level I’ve always felt like the series has tried to push back on. I’m not just choosing what wallpaper to use in my house, I’m free to choose anything I please. Two weeks in and I have so much creative freedom that I’m planning my island’s layout on paper. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll need to wrap this up. My island needs me.