Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a much-needed, pleasant distraction

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

These past few weeks, the measurable and palpable growth of anxiety in myself and all those around me has been almost equal to the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases all across our increasingly isolated (and stressed) little planet.

For gamers struggling just as much as anyone else right now, Animal Crossing: New Horizons couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Every single cute little detail serves to distract you from the tragic, and sometimes scary, realities we’re all living in. Quite frankly, I’m embracing the island life with open arms.

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From the moment you start the game up – with the twin Nooks, Tommy and Timmy, greeting you and prepping you for your flight to your very own deserted island – Animal Crossing: New Horizons smacks you across the face with its incomprehensible cuteness. Everything is there, from adorable language quirks like finishing sentences with “stubble,” to ridiculous personalities that somehow mix debasement with delight.

The “tutorial” stage of New Horizons is as long as any of the previous entries, allowing you to play the entire game at your own pace, possibly never even advancing past your first humble staked tent. It’s this laid back attitude that is so appealing to players, though. You could easily get lost in comparing your progress to your friends online, but the second you get that rock climbing wall set up in your room, you just don’t care anymore.

Everything about the game is as joyful and frustrating as it has always been. Catching fish, snagging bugs, shooting down presents from the sky. You just feel a sense of calm doing it all (mostly). The game never rushes you, so after some initial flurries to get your first home set up, you just sort of settle into a calm routine of living on your island.

There is also the fact that what is in the game works almost spectacularly well. There are still the frustrating moments like casting a line at a fish that has just turned away from you or smacking a net just to the right of that incredibly rare bug you were hunting for hours. But, generally speaking, it’s a skills-based blunder, not a mechanical one.

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Quite a few of the new features in the game reel players back in with more frequency (fishing pun intended; deal with it). The Nook Miles system is quite genius. Previously, you cycled through getting a new home, incurring debt, and then running around doing things in your town to earn bells to pay back Tom… who somehow never felt like a Boston-area landlord, instead gently coaxing you for payments.

With miles, achievements have ostensibly been parsed out to tasks that guide you around the island, allowing you to earn miles for completing simple tasks. This is further enhanced with Miles+ tasks that cycle on a constant basis. While you can unlock quite a few neat quality of life features with your miles, the real golden ticket is just that, a ticket to a randomized island getaway.

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This island has everything: new fruits, flowers, and occasionally a friend to join you on your island. You sit there with your single inventory, and you just stock up on everything you can find, basically stripping the island of all of its natural resources before leaving it in a desolate state as you fly off with your bounty of coconuts and tulips.

Surprisingly, the best feature was one that sounded the least appealing: local co-op. When it was revealed that the only way you could play with live players on your island was through a local co-op feature that further limited you to a leader and follower(s) system, that was cause for a great deal of concern.

My wife created an account on my Switch. We loaded up the game and had her join me on my island. After she got her tent set up, we started messing with the playstyle possibilities. Switching the leader is as easy as shaking your controller to pass leadership and then shaking the controller (or pressing the A button) on the new leader’s controller.

There are definitely ways you can troll all the followers. The leader doesn’t need to wait for anyone for any reason. If the leader wanders off, all followers are forced to the leader in a puff of smoke. If they open their Nook Phone, or their pockets, whatever the followers were doing is interrupted. Yeah, that big catch you had on your line gets away instantly when the leader does this.

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Luckily, my wife and I do not hate each other, so this hasn’t really been a problem except when done accidentally. The bright side of this is how well this works when you’re actually cooperating. The follower can shake trees or chop them while the leader wanders around picking everything up. This really did increase our efficiency in getting my wife caught up to me in-game. It was a lot of fun to be able to experience the island together.

The only other downside to the local co-op is the decisions on inventory management. It is understandable that some concessions had to be made, like having all items that followers collect go to the recycle bin (which I hope is upgradeable). The fact that the animation for items to poof from your hands to that bin takes a noticeably longer amount of time than normal item pickups is really annoying, though.

You’re also unable to access your tool wheel as a follower. For those who have filled their entire favorites’ wheel, this can lead to some frustrating panic moments of trying to cycle all the way from your fishing rod to your bug net when you see a spider on the ground.

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In all though, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been a pure and unadulterated joy. From the moment it loaded up, my mood has brightened significantly. There are no longer hours where I’m checking stats, or reading increasingly distressing articles. I’m simply enjoying my island life and sharing my exploits across the internet with a surprising cadre of friends who have also picked up this game.

If you have a Switch, there really isn’t a reason to skip New Horizons, particularly with the world as it is around us. Enjoy your day with the Nooks and company on an island of your very own.

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