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a group of characters enjoy each other’s company around a comfy-looking picnic table in Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

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Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a much-needed escape from everything

This trip to an island paradise couldn’t have come at a better time

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Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

If ever there were a time to hop on a plane and kick it on a deserted island for a few months, it’s right now.

But that’s not really an option for most of us. Maybe this is why so many people have been looking forward to the newest Animal Crossing game, seeing it as a viable vacation simulation in the face of self-imposed isolation. It’s been two weeks since I set foot in the Polygon office, and I’ve been keeping my time outside to a minimum.

And so Animal Crossing: New Horizons is my vacation now. I plan on making the most of it.

Getting away from it all

Animal Crossing: New Horizons begins the same way as the four previous games in the core series: A childlike human finds themself in the middle of the wilderness. Suddenly, a large raccoon appears from the shadows with a proposition.

“Come live here!” he says. The child agrees. It seems nice, after all. But suddenly, the child is saddled with the debt of their first house, and must sell bugs and fish to settle up.

New Horizons doesn’t deviate from the core gameplay of Animal Crossing much at all. It’s a low-pressure life sim where you’re free to fill the days however you like. If you’d prefer to plant trees and make a forested wonderland, you can do that. If you’d rather focus on gathering critters to donate to the local museum, developing an extensive arrangement of living exhibits, that’s also an option. Or maybe you just want to make your house as pretty as possible, filling it with matching furniture and wallpaper?

There’s satisfaction in finding a new, rare fish you’ve never caught before, or saying hi to a neighbor, only to receive the perfect birdbath as a housewarming present. It’s about living in a world where the biggest concern is whether your apples are going to be ready for picking today or tomorrow. It’s about finding a new home.

The shift in New Horizons is that this all takes place on a tropical island instead of in a nondescript wilderness. The setting doesn’t have a major impact on the story or gameplay, but tonally, it does add an air of chill to the whole thing.

Tom Nook, the famous raccoon/oligarch, starts off your visit to his island with a luau, complete with fruit cocktails in front of a roaring bonfire. Random animal villagers talk about how they needed a break from the world and came here for some peace and quiet. Which ... like, fair.

And his place really is peaceful. I hike out to a remote beach on the north side of this island on my second day and just look up at the open, orange sky as the sun slips below the horizon. All I can hear are the waves and the wind rushing through the trees as the game’s soundtrack takes a minimalist turn. I feel the spray of the sea on my face, and I breathe deeply.

New Horizons is the first full Animal Crossing game in HD, and the impact is dramatic. These beautiful moments were previously muddied up and obscured by the 240p Nintendo 3DS screen in the otherwise-excellent Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

But the boost in resolution isn’t just for the atmosphere; it has an impact on the entire game. One of the main activities in Animal Crossing is catching and selling bugs. A pillbug on a 240p screen is basically a dot. A centipede is reduced to a wiggly line.

New Horizons offers a much higher level of detail on even the smallest of critters. It helps the island feel alive. Each creepy centipede leg is visible the moment it pops out from beneath a rock, for better or worse.

Bits of furniture have always had some level of interactivity to them, but now you can clearly make out the hands of a clock as it ticks away, or the record player as it spins the latest K.K. Slider jam. Even though these visual details are purely aesthetic, they all combine to make the environment feel bustling and vibrant.

The king of the island

Despite the jump in visual fidelity, the heart of Animal Crossing hasn’t changed. New Horizons is still about waking up each day, making friends with local animal characters, laying out furniture in your home, and donating dinosaur fossils to the nearby museum.

While this is all presented as an experience with no clear objective and a “do-what-you-feel” vibe, there is a main goal in New Horizons: to make the best damn island possible. It’s in this implicit challenge that this installment goes above and beyond what past games have offered, letting you create a truly customized habitat for you and your animal friends.

I would make plans for my village layout in older Animal Crossing games, but the most direct control I had was deciding where my starting house was going to be. Sure, I could plant trees where I wanted, but there was nothing I could do about it if a new villager decided to move their house directly in the middle of my carefully arranged orchard.

a young pink-haired girl and a smiling frog enjoy the rain near a tent in Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

New Horizons makes enormous changes to the island construction process, putting me in complete control over every major decision. I decide the location of the housing plot for every new villager, before they even move in. I decide where the museum and the shop will be built. If I don’t like where I placed my house initially, I can move it for a modest fee.

Forcing new villagers into perfect, Manhattan-esque grids is somewhat tonally inconsistent with the happy-go-lucky nature of Animal Crossing, but how much you obsess about this stuff is really up to you. I found immense satisfaction in lining up all of the major establishments of my island on Broadway, even though it took a comical amount of planning. But that’s part of the fun for me. It may not be for you, and that’s fine as well.

New Horizons also frees me up to place furniture items wherever I’d like on the island, whereas furniture could previously only be displayed indoors. Maybe I want to make a beachside zen garden with a flamingo chilling right there in the middle of it? That’s my prerogative.

The level of control is thrilling, and that’s even before unlocking the much-vaunted “terraforming” feature, a late-game addition that lets me carve out my own rivers, roads, and cliffs to sculpt my island however I want it. It may take a few weeks, but eventually every New Horizons village will be a true representation of the player who created it.

Making my way

The island customization ties in nicely with the other new addition to New Horizons: the ability to make my own furniture and tools. These objects used to be gifted to players by friendly villagers, or purchased in a store. But now it’s possible to make a bed, or shovel, from scratch, assuming I have the recipe and the proper resources.

New furniture recipes can be purchased in recipe packs or gifted by your animal neighbors simply as a way of saying howdy. Recipes will then require resources (stone, wood, and iron, for example) to create. Thankfully, most of the resource requirements are pretty tame, requiring just a minute or two of walking around while smacking rocks and trees; gathering resources never felt like much of a chore.

The do-it-yourself furniture crafting systems in this game are lovely. They give me a feeling of ownership over the objects I create, letting me customize small details, right down to the design on the bedsheets. I recreate a pixel art design of Waluigi I find online, and suddenly I have a Waluigi bed in the middle of my house. In previous Animal Crossing games, these custom designs were limited to canvases hung on the walls or to specific outfits, but now I can see my creations all throughout the island.

Unfortunately, having to create my own tools lacks that same thrill. Tools constantly break when used, which seems like an outrageous decision in a game filled with so many other quality-of-life improvements. A couple of weeks into my island adventure, I’m still using bug nets and fishing rods that break after 30 uses.

a blond-haired young man announces they made a flimsy axe in Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

If you’re on a truly dedicated bug hunt, you’re liable to find yourself having to make a new net every 20 minutes. I’ve started carrying a crafting station and resources wherever I go, just so I don’t have to hoof it back to my house to make a new slingshot.

It should be mentioned that, yes, I’m still just a few weeks into the game, and it’s possible that more durable tools unlock in later months. But there’s no telling when, or how, to unlock these upgrades. Until then, I find myself rolling my eyes whenever my shovel pops out of existence.

A year of mystery

It’s particularly hard to review Animal Crossing: New Horizons before its public launch because there’s just so much about the game I don’t know or can’t try. Right now, I find myself yearning for more variety in my daily activities. Over the course of two weeks, there have been occasional vendors and special guests in my town, offering micro-challenges like “find three large fish” in exchange for being able to sell fish at a slightly higher price. But none of these encounters have felt exciting or dramatically different from the normal day-to-day.

I can travel to tiny, remote islands to spice things up, but there aren’t any activities to be found there. Mostly they’re just there to help me with additional resources, or to host new villagers I can invite to my town.

Nintendo has said that it has a yearlong schedule of events planned, starting in early April with cherry blossom season and “Bunny Day,” but these events will roll out as free downloadable content when they’re ready. There should be around one special event per week, if New Leaf is any indication, but we don’t know whether that cadence will continue in New Horizons. If it does, it would alleviate my concerns about variety or the long-term prospects of the game.

Online functionality is also inaccessible at the time of this writing. Given how crucial multiplayer is in Animal Crossing — whether it’s trading furniture or securing new fruit trees by visiting my friends’ towns — its arrival will certainly be a boon, though I can’t speak to those aspects just yet.

The escape we need

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a respite from the current state of the world. I find my general anxiety slowly subside as I run through my town, water my plants, and build furniture for the sassy chicken gentleman living down by the beach. It’s exactly what I need right now.

There are moments when I look up from a long session and realize that I’ve been ignoring everything around me. Then I take a look around at what actually is going on around me, and realize that maybe I’d better stay in my island paradise for a little while longer.

Update (Mar. 26): After spending over a week with online connectivity in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I can confirm that the game becomes even more enjoyable with company. Being able to visit a friend’s town to trade fruit or desired furniture enhances the feeling that I’m living in a connected world, rather than being stuck on my own desolate island.

The online play does have some unfortunate quirks, though. A comically-long connection time that pauses the action for all players in the session (both for departures and arrivals) makes it a bit of a pain to have a gang over to visit. Thankfully there are new, streamlined ways to send gifts and letters to friends without having to visit in-person.

Despite some online clunkiness, Animal Crossing: New Horizons remains a spectacular game and an easy recommendation for anyone with a Nintendo Switch.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons will be released March 20 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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