‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ provides endless joy in bringing life to a deserted island

Elise Favis

THE WASHINGTON POST – Your new home is overrun by weeds. Only a couple friendly faces and buzzing insects serve as company. It’s a near lifeless island, but you turn the place around. Now it’s bustling with villagers, infrastructure and varied flora. Bridges form over rivers, shops pop up, homes receive renovations and the town centre is filled with fountains and stalls – some of which are handmade by you. Seeing these advancements throughout your island is rewarding: A bare plot of land is now humming with life.

This transformation is the beauty of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the new game from Nintendo’s life simulator series, in which you mold an entire island to your heart’s desire and befriend your anthropomorphic neighbours.

With new tools like terraforming and crafting, New Horizons gives you more control than ever before. Water glimmers and trees sway in the wind, making for a gorgeous atmosphere, and massive amounts of clothing and furniture bring customisation galore. These additions make New Horizons not just a blast to play, but also the most enjoyable Animal Crossing game to date.

You spend your time accumulating money by performing menial tasks like fishing, catching bugs, chopping wood and digging for fossils. Although the tasks themselves aren’t all that exciting, what you do with your hard-earned cash is, such as bringing much-needed improvements to your island and house or donating discoveries to a beautiful museum. Seeing the tangible results of your labour, and being able to fine-tune the layout and aesthetics with more precision than ever, is what makes New Horizons so special.

Completing small tasks may sound monotonous, but a new tool wheel helps streamline that process with easier swapping between tools like your watering can and net.

ABOVE & BELOW: Photos show screenshots of Animal Crossing: New Horizons: PHOTOS: FARUQ B, LINA G & DEEKAY J

New Horizons finds a happy balance of repetition and creativity, as you split your time between designing and foraging.

Discovering a routine within this loop brings a sense of solace and comfort. It’s a rewarding process. Every time you gather enough funds to beautify or upgrade the island, your community benefits from it.

Sure, these virtual villagers aren’t real people, but the more you chat with them, the more they start to feel like little beings with different personalities. It’s fun to walk around the town as they go about their day, sometimes chewing on a sandwich by the river or sweeping in front of their homes. Their characterisations don’t go terribly in depth, but there’s enough there that I grew fond of new characters like Reneigh, a fashionable and deeply caring horse.

New Horizons is Zen-like: your island has a soothing aura, with happy-go-lucky residents and low-risk gameplay. With no overarching time constraints, you play your way without worry, differentiating the experience from other sims that put emphasis on micromanagement. For those who do want to micromanage, you absolutely can, but New Horizons is a game with immense flexibility and a slow pace that’s best played in short bursts.

The game progresses in real-time, tied to your console’s clock and a geographical location (you choose a northern or southern hemisphere, which will change the appearance of seasons). New Horizons offers discoveries in abundance, as each season has rotating critters and your island resets daily with more secrets (fossils to dig, money to find inside rocks and by shaking trees), like past Animal Crossing games.

Although you can track the months and hours that specific animal life spawn, an element of unpredictability remains as you cast your fishing rod or turn a corner to catch a bug. Even though I’ve caught an oarfish a number of times in both New Horizons and New Leaf, my jaw still drops whenever this massively long and narrow fish jumps out of the water. Moments like this are incredibly entertaining, because you can never completely plan what comes next.

Searching for DIY (crafting) recipes has some unpredictability too. Although some can be bought, you also find them via random scenarios, like in a bottle while walking down the beach or when visiting a villager’s house. DIY recipes are used to make tools, furniture and decorative items and it was one of my favourite things to do. Once built, they are added to your eclectic collection used to spice up your town and house.

Crafting also plays an integral role. Your axe is no longer the only breakable gadget: Unlike New Leaf, other tools like your watering can and net fall apart too. Without a health gauge for them, though, it’s difficult to know when they’ll break which can be frustrating.

Not all furniture can be customised, but much of it can, and various styles and colours bring a personal touch (slick combinations also get you a better ranking from Happy Home Academy, who award you with a gift after judging your home).

Alongside furniture, many other things like clothing and pathways can be customised with beefed up design tools. You draw on a grid like past games to make a pattern. You can import designs you made in Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer too, which is great for those with a collection of designs in the previous title.

Customisation doesn’t end there. New Horizons features character creation for the first time, letting you choose your avatar’s skin tone as well as hairstyles, facial details and clothing that aren’t restricted by gender.

It’s not the most in-depth character creator, but your look can be changed any time and more options are added down the line, so it’s fun to work toward unlocking them.

As you progress, you also unlock exterior items like lawn mowers, picnic baskets, telescopes and playground slides for decorative purposes. Placing these small additions around the island makes it feel more lived in.

The most thrilling addition of all, though, is the Island Designer app on your NookPhone (your in-game smartphone with a slick new user interface), which you use to activate special tools. With them, you form rivers like magic and craft cliffs as if they were sculptures.

Terraforming controls take some getting used to – I occasionally made cliffs in places I didn’t want to – but you can easily rectify errors. Path-making adds a nice aesthetic too, with textures like brick and sand. Only one block can be placed at a time, so it can be a chore to build long walkways. However, these kinks were never drastic enough to distract from my positive experience.

Your island is entirely malleable. The most fun I had with New Horizons was when I handcrafted a tall cliff with a waterfall, and stuck my house atop it. This Minecraft-like layer of detail is impressive and gives a wide range of town layout possibilities. These design tools aren’t handed to you, and you work towards unlocking them by completing certain quests. But it’s worth the wait.

Steady progression bolsters the gameplay, like a batch of scripted quests from character Tom Nook and a long list of objectives to earn Nook Miles, a new secondary, in-game currency.

You’re rewarded just for playing the game, so a lot of goals are met naturally: Sending villagers letters, fishing and even buying items grants you Nook Miles. This currency can be traded for furniture, new DIY recipes, hairstyles and clothes. With so much to unlock, it will take a long time to earn everything. Sixty hours later, I still haven’t come close to seeing all of New Horizon’s content. And that’s an exciting prospect.

If you need Nook Miles in a pinch, Nook Miles Plus objectives (short-term tasks for lesser rewards) are quicker to complete, such as taking care of plants. However, I started ticking off these boxes just for the sake of the reward. Even if I didn’t need wood, I would chop trees anyway because I was disappointed to realise I had limited options.

A lot on the island resets the following day, so this is a bigger problem if you’re binging, but Nook Miles Plus objectives remain low in variety.

If you run out of things to do, you can always visit a friend’s island. Nintendo hasn’t patched in online multiplayer yet, so we didn’t get the chance to do this. But we did play local co-op. On a single Nintendo Switch you can register eight different accounts to live on one island. This is a wonderful addition: NPC villagers will inquire about the new player resident and it’s fun to see what kinds of changes friends or family members implement on the island in their own time.

You can explore your island simultaneously with others via online or local play, but it comes with restrictions. You designate a leader who can do almost anything they normally would, and other players follow.

Followers don’t have nearly as much agency. They can’t pick things off the ground, the controls on singular joy-cons aren’t intuitive and if the leader opens up their inventory while another player is fishing, for example, it jarringly halts that activity by automatically reeling in their rod. Of all the features in New Horizons, this is an area that is lacking.

To curb griefing, Nintendo implemented a smart mechanic where any old visitor can’t terraform on your island without permission. Only those tagged as “best friends” can make sweeping changes to your island layout. Considering visiting other players’ towns is a big part of it, this may be a relief to those who put numerous hours into building their towns.

I’m hooked on New Horizons, and I expect to be for a long time. It has a treasure trove of content that unfolds from day-to-day, month to month, and likely even year to year, since Nintendo announced seasonal events and post-launch content will come. I’m excited to see what else the game offers as I keep growing my town, one day at a time.