There’s only so much you can do every day in Animal Crossing. Part of the fun of its real-time clock is going to bed wondering what you might wake up to in the morning–how your town might change, who might move in, what special visitor might be there tomorrow. So far, I’ve played Animal Crossing: New Horizons for 80 hours over 17 days, and that anticipation hasn’t yet gone away. While I’ve spent a lot of time developing my island so far, I still feel as if there’s plenty left for me to do and see–there’s a lot in New Horizons to occupy your time with.
Unlike in previous games, you’re not moving to a lived-in town in New Horizons; the island is completely empty when you and two animals arrive as part of Tom Nook’s “getaway package,” save for the tiny airport. There’s no store or museum, all three of you live in tents, and Tom Nook himself operates out of a tent that he shares with his adorable nephews, Timmy and Tommy. Tom Nook clearly expected this whole thing to be a bit more glamorous (or at least popular), and in typical Tom Nook fashion, one of his first actions is to put you to work collecting tree branches and fruit to make a fire pit and drinks for a welcome party.
The party serves as an introduction to the resource-gathering aspect of New Horizons’ new crafting system, but it’s also the first of many endearing moments with the animals. In their high-pitched, sped-up way of talking, their chit-chat centers around friendship and helping one another on the island. One of my villagers played a tambourine, shifting back and forth to his own beat while smiling, while the other sipped juice by the fire. Tommy, the more precious of the Nookling duo, stood by the tent, holding a small flag that seemed to be part of his welcome getup. It feels like a proper community from the start, despite the small population size and total lack of amenities on the island.
The first few days are all about establishing the basics of any other Animal Crossing town, like the museum and Timmy and Tommy’s store, and this sets the stage for crafting. In addition to catching fish and bugs and picking fruit to make money, you also have to spend a good chunk of time at the start gathering resources to craft the furniture requested of you (and, in one case, to build a whole building). Because I wanted to unlock and upgrade things as quickly as possible, I spent hours each day for the first three or four days running around picking weeds, chopping trees for wood, shaking the same trees for branches, hitting rocks for clay, stone, and iron, and selling whatever I couldn’t use to craft for some extra Bells.
It was a bit overwhelming to do all that in the name of fast-tracking my island progression, but generally, crafting fits neatly into Animal Crossing’s established daily chores loop. The act of gathering resources happens simultaneously with the other things I want to do each day–I shake my trees because two of them per day drop furniture instead of fruit or branches, and the branches I do get are a bonus in my search–and actually makes those tasks more lucrative than they were in previous games. Now that I’m past the first few days, I no longer have to go out of my way to get the resources I need to craft the furniture, tools, and other assorted items I want.
You start out with an assortment of crafting recipes, and you can get new ones in a variety of ways that, like resource-gathering, are a natural extension of the existing Animal Crossing formula. You can buy some of them, find new ones most days washed up on the beach (in message bottles with letters attached, of course), or get them from your neighbors, among other methods. Finding a new recipe is an exciting reward for going about your day, because crafting goes beyond furniture and tools–I’ve found some surprising and creative recipes using ingredients I didn’t expect, like a giant teddy bear you can craft using regular teddy bears you might buy from Timmy and Tommy’s store.
Complementing all of this is the Nook Miles program, which is based on real-life travel rewards points. Nook Miles are a separate currency you can use to buy special items and abilities, like new hairstyles and colors you can switch to at a mirror–you can even use Nook Miles to pay off your first loan and get a real house. You get Nook Miles for doing all sorts of things, from getting stung by a wasp to catching 100 fish in a row without failing once. You can even get Nook Miles for shaking furniture from trees, which makes it the third reward for doing something I wanted to do for only the first reward.
The Nook Miles system adds just enough direction if you aren’t sure what to do without being overbearing. So far, I’ve only felt the need to chase the particularly difficult Nook Miles achievements; I’ve gotten most of my Nook Miles just by doing Animal Crossing things and having a nice time, and even though I spend some every day, I still have tons to spare.
New Horizons balances all this with fantastic detail and charm as well as incredibly flexible options for customization and self-expression. This starts with your character. You can actually choose your appearance for the first time in the series, including skin color, and none of the options are locked to gender. In fact, villagers will exclusively refer to players with gender-neutral pronouns–so when a friend visits, your villagers will talk about them instead of him or her. All hairstyles and clothing options are available to anyone, and you can change your face and hair at any time. Dressing up is further improved by a dedicated outfit menu that lets you preview a full outfit rather than switching in and out of clothes until you find something you like. It has never been easier or more enjoyable to express yourself through your character’s appearance in an Animal Crossing game, and I’ve been having a ton of fun trying on goofy outfits and changing my hair to match just because.
Crafting is, naturally, a big part of customization. You can’t craft everything–some kinds of furniture are only available in the shop or found randomly–but there are entire sets of furniture that can only be crafted, and those are largely the pieces that you can further customize with different colors and finishes. At first, I crafted whatever pieces I needed but hadn’t been able to buy, like a mirror, but I ended up styling an entire room around furniture I’d crafted and customized, and it’s currently my favorite room in my house.
More importantly, you can now place furniture pretty much anywhere outside. I found a sandcastle in a tree and put it along my beach; later on I got a beach chair and a beach ball and created a whole scene on one part of the shore. I even crafted a cabin-inspired chair I would never put in my house because it fit the woodsy feel I wanted for the hills on my island, which made me realize how much use I could get out of furniture that isn’t necessarily my style. At this stage, I’ve barely decorated my island, but I already have a lot of ideas.
The same is true for Island Designer, New Horizons’ brand-new terraforming feature. I unlocked it pretty recently, and as a result I haven’t done much of it yet, but the ability to alter your island to fit your grand plans is exciting. So far, I’ve mostly used the path feature, which is a huge improvement on paths in past Animal Crossing games–they’re easy to place and impossible to remove on accident, and you can even dig into certain types of paths. I’ve made flower beds using the dirt path and a brick walkway leading from my airport to the main Resident Services building, where Tom Nook and Isabelle work, and it looks nice.
Animals will even stick to any paths you put down when walking around, which is just one of the little details that make them more lively and endearing. I often stop what I’m doing to watch a villager do their thing. Animals will drink tea or stargaze or try to catch bugs, and some of them will put on reading glasses to read books at home. You can even run into them at the museum, where they’ll comment on the exhibits. Each of these details gives dimension to villagers; I wasn’t sure if I liked Stu, for example, until I stumbled upon him singing an adorable song to himself in the middle of town. I watched him for a very long time, and Flurry even walked up and watched him with me. Now they’re my two favorites.
Outside of how cute villagers can be, New Horizons is just beautiful to look at. The museum in particular blew me away; the exhibits are incredibly detailed, and walking through each of them genuinely feels like walking through a real museum. The fossil wing, for example, has lines along the floor that seem to chart evolutionary lines for different animals. Following the lines takes you from one display to the next, and at some points, the camera will even pan to get you a better view of whatever’s on display. The massively improved visuals are just the cherry on top.
After 17 days, my biggest concern is that not much has upgraded in a while. Nook’s Cranny, which usually evolves into a bigger store after around a week in previous games, still hasn’t upgraded. I have that store, the Able Sisters clothing store, and the museum; so far I haven’t met mainstays like Brewster, who runs the coffee shop, or Redd, who sells art of questionable legitimacy. I’m not sure what else there’s left to discover in terms of infrastructure, so I’ll keep playing over the next few days to see what happens.
New Horizons certainly has a slower pace than other Animal Crossing games, partially because you have to work to get things up and running on the island at the start. And while I’m impatient to discover what upgrades might be coming my way (and I need to mess around with Island Designer more), I still feel as though I’ve done a lot on my island. I’ve crafted tons of furniture, upgraded my house seven times, picked thousands of weeds, and done far too many drastic outfit changes. I’m as excited to see what random events await me each morning as I am to decorate my island and make it my own, and that’s sure to keep me coming back for the foreseeable future.