Animal Crossing: New Leaf Review

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Animal Crossing is not so much a game as a day-to-day experience. There’s no combat, no Game Over state and no rigid time constraints. You are a new villager come to town, just like in every other game in the series, just living your life, catching bugs, fishing, digging up fossils, talking to your anthropomorphic animal townsfolk and acquiring currency for a bigger and better house.

There are 24 real hours in every game day and you’re never guaranteed to experience the same exact thing twice. Stores open and close, events occur on set and unset dates and it isn’t always possible to see and do everything if you don’t have the time for it. What sets New Leaf apart are the many things you can do outside of the norm, most of which are enhanced by very fun local and online cooperative play. The amount of freedom you’re given to shape your experience is more than enough to make New Leaf easily the best in the series.

You start off on a lonely train ride, save for the perpetually traveling cat, Rover. A few prying questions later and you’ve picked your gender, the name of your character and town, your basic appearance and the initial layout of your village. As soon as you get off the train, you’re immediately thrust into the role of Mayor by Isabelle, your adorable assistant, and given a place to live by the chummy realtor, Tom Nook. It isn’t apparent at first, but your newfound political clout is one of the biggest and most satisfying changes to Animal Crossing. Aside from it, everything pretty much sticks to the formula.

Animal Crossing is a life sim similar in some ways to The Sims. You’re tasked with paying off your home loan and making your town a better place and what you do in between is pretty much up to you. Small things like how you decorate or behave towards your randomly generated townsfolk and how developed or underdeveloped the town is will dictate how satisfied your villagers are. Friends might surprise you with warm letters and presents or decide to outright move out and be replaced with someone else depending on various factors. It’s hard not to get a warm, fuzzy feeling when one of your new friends gushes over a letter you wrote or gives you a new shirt just ‘cause, but the unfortunate reality is that far too much of what they say is canned.

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That sounds, uh, great, Marcel…

From a casual glance it’s fine, but repeated chats will reveal far too much of the same dialogue. This is especially annoying when they carry on the 3DS tradition of reminding you like a doting mother that you should probably take a break from your decadent life of sloth and video games. That aside, the writing is solid and lighthearted, often worth reading the first time for a laugh or some insight into a character’s personality. To be fair, there’s an absolute ton of it, and it’s still super easy to get attached to the characters. Some of the villagers can be the epitome of cute with their animations and high-pitched speech. They’ve also received a much-needed upgrade to their AI and will now randomly do things like water flowers, shop, fish and so on. You never know who you might run into or what they might be up to. Even with repeated lines, the cast still exudes an enormous amount of character, whether it’s the slick, fast-talking Lyle or the jaunty sea captain, Kapp’n. They’re a big part of what’ll keep you coming back.

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Always be on the lookout for deals!

Just talking to them and running errands is a start, but you need a little more coin to go big. You need money, called Bells, to impress with more elaborate decorating and to enhance and beautify your town, so it’s fortunate that it literally sometimes grows on trees. You can sell fish, seashells, bugs and all sorts of items at one of two resale shops. Nookling Junction acts as your main general store and is pretty much the same as before, only twice as adorable, but the new one, Re-Tail, is where you’ll spend most of your time. Aside from offering more for what you sell, you can buy items off of the other villagers and put your own up for sale, as well as recolor some furniture. Acquiring and upgrading your various shops is one of the biggest motivations, since most of your worldly possessions are garnered from them.  Some of it just takes time, while others require you to undergo public works projects.

That’s where you get to flex your mayoral muscle. You can collect signatures to spice up your village’s nightlife with a nightclub, fund a Dream Suite that lets you run amok in a dream version of someone’s town, or add another floor to your museum. Like everything else, it’s completely optional, but seeing it through will eventually lead to the ability to start numerous construction projects wherever you please within the game’s parameters. Tired of having to walk around the river to get to the market? Build a convenient bridge. Want to see some new faces? Make a campsite and have random prospective residents show up. It really gives your town a more personalized feel and lets you decide what gets built based on your own priorities. Some are merely aesthetic, others are whole new shops or activities, but all of them look great and add a lot of flair. You can even enact one of four ordinances that determine how late or early stores are open, how easy it is to make money, or how often you have to water plants.

There's a lot you can do to customize your paradise.

There’s a lot you can do to personalize your paradise.

There’s also the allure of filling your town’s museum with the nearly 300 bugs, fish, fossils and fine art found throughout the world. It’s pretty staggering, sure to keep you busy not just for hours, but potentially years. Since collecting things is really the crux of New Leaf’s gameplay, it’s important, then, for all that STUFF to be pretty COOL stuff and for collecting it to be fun.

The answer to both of those is yes, mostly. Fishing, catching bugs and now swimming are all pretty entertaining, but nowhere near as deep as more laser-focused games. The controls are very simple and responsive, though not quite as precise as you would want for fishing. Movement is now restricted to the analog nub, which works very well, but you can seamlessly switch between using the stylus or buttons for conversations and organizing items. The one thing it’s sorely missing is a “Sell All” sort of option. You can no longer tap to move or interact with the world, so how you position yourself is especially important when digging or trying to reel in that next big fish. Things like positioning furniture can also require a bit of trial and error. Despite Animal Crossing’s simplicity, the rarity of some species and the quiet patience required when hunting for this or that at different times of the day and during specific seasons manages to keep it exciting and subtly addicting. Planting fruit and flowers is also simple and fun and nowhere as involved as, say, Harvest Moon. Finding impressive fossils and art, meanwhile, is almost completely luck, which isn’t really bad.

One big change to the flow is that you can now save and quit anywhere without needing to return home. It makes it even more excessively easy to slip into the world of Animal Crossing for a few minutes and get something out of the experience. It’s a good thing, since the 3DS’s battery isn’t the best. It’s much more about the long haul, doing what you can each day, rather than plowing through. You can play for long periods of time and have fun, but if you’re hoping for new things to do all the time, you’re likely to burn out. New Leaf is at its best when you’re strolling through your orchard, hearing the waves crash on the beach below or casting a line in the river while the infectious, relaxing music coerces you to stay for just a little longer. The music is understated, but there are a few great tracks that will almost surely get stuck in your head.

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New Leaf is full of feel-good moments.

New Leaf has the same assortment of online options as previous titles for visiting the towns of your friends for trading, chatting and general tomfoolery, save one major enhancement. You can now set your friends as “Best Friends” and chat with them even when they’re not in your town. Finally, you don’t have to call up your friends up just to tell them to open their gates! If you’re lacking an internet connection, you can also bring your 3DS with you and use Street Pass to see others’ homes and purchase their furniture in the Happy Homes area. That’d be enough to make the experience far better, but where New Leaf really shines above its predecessors’ activities is the island.

The island offers offline, online and local mini-games called tours that are best played in a room full of screaming friends frantically looking for matching pieces of furniture or wacking away at a robotic acorn-lawnmower… thing. It offers something legitimately fun for you to do with friends other than compare the sizes of your coelacanths and plays perfectly into Animal Crossing’s existing systems. You can also win medals, which are yet another way to collect rare items.

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You can do a lot of new things in New Leaf, including swim.

Many of the items are recycled from previous games, but everything is a little bit smoother and more detailed. The adorable art style is a tad love it or hate it and certainly not pushing the 3DS, but it allows for a lot to be going on at a smooth frame rate even in multiplayer sessions. It has an overall clean and cheery look to it that looks good in 2D or 3D, with little things like realistically moving insects and rain that drips from your umbrella that do a lot to pull you into your virtual world. The fossils, wildlife and furniture are what really stand out; especially the super cool Nintendo ones you can win from fortune cookies. On top of the steady stream of clothing and furniture items available, you can also compose your town’s theme song and design your own patterns for clothes. The tools are surprisingly flexible and easy to use and the addition of QR codes means the options are only limited by the creativity of the community. It’s just one more way that you can make the experience your own.

Animal Crossing isn’t for everyone. Those seeking a challenge or twitch excitement need not apply for residency. If you’re looking for a slower-paced way to take a break and while away your gaming hours, you’ll find a cozy home in New Leaf. For what it is, it’s at the top of its class. The freedom allowed by public works projects and ordinances makes your town feel like it’s truly your own, from city hall right down to the shoes on your feet. The added mini-games and online features make New Leaf not just an engrossing experience but also a very fun game to play in general. If you let it get its adorable claws in you, it won’t soon leave your 3DS.

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