Review: Animal Crossing: New Leaf
At last I’m moving to my new town, looking at the verdant countryside running by out of the train’s window, then a strange cat invites himself to sit across me. He starts asking weird questions, almost like he was trying to gauge me.
When the train reaches its destination, and I finally manage to get rid of the inquisitive cat, I inhale the fresh and clean breeze coming from the sea. Yet another surprise is waiting for me. A welcoming committee is waiting just out of the station, and they suddenly hail me as their new mayor.
This is just the beginning of a magical adventure named Animal Crossing: New Leaf.
Let’s get something out of the way. If you’re new to the Animal Crossing series you’re in for a few surprises. First of all, it’s a “Life simulation” game. There’s no goal besides the goals you set for yourself. There’s no “finishing” it or “rushing” through it. As a matter of fact, the game deliberately goes on with a slow and relaxing pace, just like the countryside life that it’s trying to simulate.
What’s even more important, is that the cutesy and simple art style should not trick you into believing that this is a game designed only or primarily for kids. There’s more depth and complexity in Animal Crossing: New Leaf than in most of the games out there that try hard to look and feel “adult”.
The game’s visuals lean very solidly towards the best the 3DS can offer. Not only they’re exceptionally clean and crisp, perfectly supporting the idea of playing with a miniature village, but they sport one of the best 3D effects I’ve seen on the console. Depth is almost perfectly balanced across the board, and Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the first game on Nintendo’s portable in which I never felt the temptation to just deactivate the effect.
If you want to see more of the game’s visuals, you can enjoy 307 screenshots in the gallery above.
While the polygon count isn’t miracle-worthy, what makes everything stand out is the game’s lovely art style. If you know me, you also know that cutesy looks aren’t my thing…at all. Yet it’s basically impossible not to be charmed by this game’s heart-warming art direction, that creates a world echoing the dreams of a child without being childish at all. It seems to be intentionally designed to relax the player, and in my case it managed perfectly in that task.
The apparent simplicity works perfectly with another of the game’s main visual strengths: customization. The game’s engine is built to be fully modular, allowing an almost infinite number of combinations. Most of that personalization potential is left into the hands of the player, while quite a bit is handled by the engine itself, ensuring that no village you’ll visit will ever be the same.
You can customize almost everything, from the look of your clothes (to the point of designing their texture yourself, as you can see from the sleek DualShockers shirt my character is wearing in many of the screenshots), to the anthem and flag of your little town. Every flower can be uprooted and planted anywhere you like (including your hair if you so wish). You can turn a barren area into a forest bearing a variety of fruits into a matter of days. For something so apparently — and deceivingly — simple, the power Animal Crossing: New Leaf places at your fingertips is simply amazing.
Paradoxically, the only thing that goes slightly against this sensation of freedom is the initial character creation. The look of your “animal crosser” is determined by the aforementioned questions you get asked on the train, and you won’t be able to change much about it until much later in the game, when you’ll even be able to put on a “Mii Mask” to look like one of your Mii.
Despite the lacking initial customization, that was expected as it’s a staple of the series, there’s something to be said about the way the game introduces you to your first choices through Rover the cat’s questions. It’s very immersive, and immersion is one of the strongest points of this title.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf does everything it can to make you feel part of its charming and very personal virtual world, going to extremes that few other games dare to tread. Everything happens in real time following the clock of your 3DS. If it’s morning in the real world, the sun will rise over your village. If it’s dark out of your window, it’ll be night time on your 3DS screen as well.
A day in the game will last exactly 24 hours, and time will continue to go by even when you’re not playing. There’s no in-game way to speed the process up. This means that, especially at the beginning, the game can feel slightly grindy. It’ll take a bit for events to start building up, and your initial life as a mayor may include some waiting.
Of course, there’s a way to cheat by changing the date and time of the console, and the game seems to be able to take it in stride (even if you go backwards), but if you abuse this possibility you might easily ruin a significant part of your experience.
I’m sure many gamers that don’t know the series will wonder how it’s even possible to play a game at such a slow pace, as today’s video game industry has created in us the habit to seek instant gratification in our hobby, but embracing Animal Crossing‘s deliberate pace is one of the main keys to enjoy it to its fullest.
Once you manage to leave behind the temptation to hurry things towards the next goal, you’ll notice that there’s simply no need to rush. Every step in the growth of your village will come in due time, and in the meanwhile there are so many things to do that rushing would simply be a pity.
This is one of the most charming and devilishly addictive aspects of Animal Crossing: New Leaf: every time you open your 3DS there’ll be something new to discover, whether it’s a new shirt gifted to you by one of your grateful villagers, or an entirely new gameplay feature.
At the beginning, the game eases you into its realistic pace by putting a few clear tasks in front of your nose: from gathering fossils, bugs and fishes for the village’s fantastic museum, to paying the mortgage on your home, then it switches gears considerably a few days in by opening the tropical island resort, increasing the number of activities exponentially. From then on it’ll simply bombard you with more stuff to do, mini-games and little random perks and discoveries that will warm your heart and potentially keep you busy for several years.
The best part of this all is that there’s almost nothing you have to do. Almost no task is so important that it cannot be done the day after, and while the game definitely encourages you to dedicate your whole life (and soul) to your little hamlet, it never punishes you for enjoying it in small bites, making it perfect for its portable form factor.
You’re completely free to chose how to enjoy your Animal Crossing life. You can go small or big. You can be a busybody that sticks his nose in everyone’s business and overturns every tile of your virtual domain, or simply do your thing inside your little room for a few minutes a day. New Leaf will give you exactly what you want, and keep on giving it as long as you want.
The game’s incredible longevity is also due to the fact that the amount of content is simply boggling. There are hundreds upon hundreds of items and enough different pieces of furniture to fill up a city. If you have a collector’s heart, Animal Crossing: New Leaf will capture your life and simply won’t let go.
Of course, Nintendo Fans will enjoy the wealth of collectibles even more, as an enormous quantity of fan service items and clothes are provided alongside the rest, going from Mario’s stars to your own Metroid in a tank, passing by Toad’s hat.
A relevant new element coming with this new chapter of the series is the fact that you’re not just a simple villager anymore. You’re the mayor, and this doesn’t just add a plethora of gameplay features, but it also gives you more power in shaping your ideal village as your heart dictates.
You can enact ordinances to change the behavior of your citizens, for instance. The simplest example is changing them into early birds or night owls to better fit your lifestyle and ensure that your village will be active when you have the most time to play. You can also create public works that go from simple street signs to bridges and police stations. Again, the power is placed right at your fingertips, provided that you have enough Bells (the game’s currency).
If you thought that the previous chapters of the Animal Crossing series gave you a lot of room for customization, New Leaf will surprise you, as, besides a few fixed elements, you can make your village truly your own by deciding it’s layout and the placement of almost every element.
The possibilities are so numerous that it’s very hard to even understand them all. I was pretty proud of my own hamlet after a couple weeks, but when I first visited the town created by a veteran Japanese player (the game has been out in Japan since last November), I was humbled by the design solutions she devised and that I had never even thought about.
This brings us to New Leaf‘s multiplayer gameplay, which expands its already incredible longevity even further.
The first element you’ll probably meet is the ability to share your house and your designs, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After completing a few easy mini-games on the tropical island you’ll be able to play them together with other players, but while that’s interesting and quite fun, it it’s not yet the best the game can offer.
The true delight of New Leaf’s multiplayer is the simplest element you can imagine: getting to meet other players and visiting their villages. Let me tell you a story:
I was a bit lost. Since the game hasn’t been released in the west yet, I didn’t have many people to meet, and I was starting to feel lonely. Looks like other reviewers don’t exactly visit the game’s multiplayer features often. Then I decided to brave the game’s international waters.
I was thrown on the tropical island together with a Japanese lady named Kukkii. Despite the fact that I wasn’t able to respond in her own language (unfortunately the western version of the game doesn’t allow writing in Japanese, which is an bit of an oversight and can be a little awkward when you’re trying to communicate with someone from that part of the world), she immediately made an effort to talk to me in English.
Little by little we found a middle ground in communicating, expressing ourselves with simple sentences and patiently helping each other understand what we meant whenever we hit a language barrier. Soon she asked if we could become “best friends” (the game’s feature to keep track of each other’s activity).
Just like that, after half an hour, I was visiting her village, learning about her love for flowers (she literally had roses everywhere), and visiting the tastefully themed rooms of her lovely house. She even gave me a rare blue rose (that is now proudly planted in front of my own house) and a pinwheel.
Of course, this isn’t the only game or social environment where you’re able to meet and socialize with other people, but the completely nonthreatening environment and the extreme focus on creativity make it special and rather unique on consoles. Given today’s extremely competitive multiplayer environment, there’s something absolutely lovely in a game that lets you simply rejoice in running around a colorful flower field together with someone that lives on the opposite side of the planet, without worrying about frags and scores.
The only little obstacle to that lovely interaction is the usual nasty friend code that is still a thing on the 3DS, but I think this is the first time in which I’ve really felt compelled to remember mine. Not that I really do remember it, but I’m trying hard, which is quite new for me.
It’s honestly very hard to find relevant flaws in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and most of the ones I can find are inherent to the console more than to the game itself. The biggest one is probably the lack of an auto-save function during single player that can really spell trouble if you forget to save before quitting, especially given how easy it is to just close the game without really wanting to by touching the power button.
If you do touch it, the game will automatically close with no warning or confirmation dialogue, and if you didn’t save recently, you can kiss goodbye to your progress since the last save. It happened to me a couple times, and the curses that came out of my mouth were definitely inappropriate to the theme of the game.
This is especially frustrating considering that there is an auto-save function during the multiplayer portion of the game, so it’s not like there was some technical limitation preventing its widespread implementation. Add to that the fact that the game will actually go out of its way to scold you for closing it without saving as you reopen it to see how much you lost, and you’re going to give your 3DS the evil eye, that’s pretty much guaranteed.
That aside, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is one of the most solid, charming and devilishly addictive games available on the 3DS. If you have the patience to embrace its philosophy and pace, it has the potential to satisfy your portable gaming needs for years to come. No, I’m not exaggerating, and if you played the previous titles of the series, you probably already know what I mean.
Unless the genre is completely foreign to your gaming taste, if you have a 3DS there’s simply no reason not to purchase New Leaf. If I had to pick a single game on Nintendo’s portable to recommend to my best friend, this would be the one.