Say my name
At the height of my Animal Crossing: New Leaf fruit tycoon empire in the village of Telebuni, I was pulling in something like a quarter of a million Bells per week from harvesting alone. Replacing all the non-productive trees (and most of the indigenous cherry trees) with far more valuable imported peaches, mangoes, lemons, and more, money literally grew on trees for me... 1200 Bells per tree every three days, to be specific. I was like a perpetually smirking cross between Walter White and Monsanto. There's a new Heisenberg in town, and his name's "Rocket."
No doubt this technique will sound familiar to anyone who's ever played any Animal Crossing game ever, because it's been a viable tactic in every iteration to date. Just about all your primary activities in New Leaf come over whole cloth from previous chapters of the series, because glacial change is the nature of the franchise. Nintendo stumbled onto a good thing nearly 15 years ago with the original Animal Crossing for N64, and every follow-up since -- from the GameCube remake to New Leaf for 3DS, and in that inimitable Nintendo fashion they haven't so much created sequels as shuffled around specifics into new configurations.
Needless to say, if you've found previous Animal Crossing outings to be tedious or pointless, New Leaf will do practically nothing to change your mind. As ever, its daily routine consists largely of doing chores, finding ways to earn scratch to pay for housing upgrades, having surreal one-sided conversations with the obsessive-compulsive creatures who populate your town, and occasionally letting other players into your town to show off your loot under the guise of trading rare items with them. There's still nothing resembling traditional "gameplay" in the shooty action-adventure vein. No bosses, no challenges, not even a concrete goal to speak of besides monetizing every venture imaginable within the tiny walls of your village.
Wherein the choir is preached to
I don't really think Nintendo cares about winning over the disinterested, though. New Leaf is business as usual, and if it sinks its hooks into you, it can devour an hour or more of time a day for months on end -- possibly longer. This sequel is designed more to lure newcomers and bring back the faithful who have strayed after mining 2005's Wild World or 2009's City Folk to the point of exhaustion. For the former audience, it simply offers the usual trappings of Animal Crossing on a new platform as enticement. For the latter, however, it remixes a lot of the series' underpinnings, somehow improving the experience without really changing anything meaningful.
The most overt change in New Leaf happens at the very beginning. Once you choose your town name and map configuration, you arrive at the train station and promptly find yourself installed as the new mayor. At first, this seems like lip service, but the longer you play the more you find your fresh position of authority opens up new possibilities. Not only can you spearhead public works to help determine the personality and appearance of your village beyond the traditional "carpet bombing the place with fruit trees and flowers," you can also declare ordinances to affect the way your town works. Grown-ups with real-life responsibilities will probably jump immediately to the law that requires local businesses to stay open late for people whose only free play time comes well after standard business hours, but there are other possibilities as well.
Of course, all of these new features offer you even more things to spend your precious Bells on over and above the house that you can easily sink a million or so Bells into, but in response for New Leaf's expanded economy Nintendo has made it far easier to rake in dough. Even if you don't institute an arboreal eugenics program the way I did, you can score big by placing a wager on the equivalent of the stock market (trading turnips), talking your neighbors into buying your overpriced knickknacks at the flea market, or importing all manner of exotic wildlife from the neighboring tropical island to sell at a premium.
The longer you play, the more new things unlock for you. New Leaf front-loads a lot of limited-time events -- within a few days of starting my new town I'd had nearly half a dozen visiting NPCs pass through the village -- and does a remarkable job of doling out other novelties to keep the day-to-day play from feeling overly routine. The improvements it makes over its predecessors seem fairly subtle, but they have considerable impact on the overall feel of the game. It's faster-paced, and you have a lot more choice in the approach you can take to monetizing your tiny town.
And while it's hardly a revolutionary feature by now, the fact that you can download New Leaf and have it permanently on your system makes digital distribution on a portable system feel like the only proper way to experience the series. Remember back in the day, when we had to swap cartridges and discs and dedicate a block of time to play Animal Crossing instead of just booting it up when we had a few minutes free? Life was so primitive back then.
Social, but hardly socialist
In a lot of ways, Animal Crossing is one of those games -- along with The Sims and Nintendogs -- that helped define what we think of today as "social games." In that light, I find it particularly interesting that Nintendo passed up what must have been the enormous temptation to build monetization hooks into New Leaf. Animal Crossing could go free-to-play seamlessly, but Nintendo has stuck with the old school model in which you pay for a game once and have access to everything in the game through sweat, labor, persistence.
Of course, using the term "social game" to refer exclusive to simplistic Facebook filler is a total misnomer, because New Leaf absolutely relies on socializing. You'll never be able to shatter your village's fruit monoculture or acquire some of the coolest items in the game without swapping goods with your friends. On the contrary, half the appeal of upgrading your home is impressing others with how swag your pad has become, and New Leaf offers more socialization options than ever. Beyond local and Internet-based home invasions, it also employs Street Pass to let you exchange info and home models -- good news for those who attend nerd magnets like PAX and Comic-con, though probably not much use elsewhere in a world sadly bereft of people carrying their 3DS around on their daily routine.
There's something almost comforting about the determinedly slow burn structure of Animal Crossing. While Nintendo has designed it to occupy your odd moments throughout the day, it's not meant to be a disposable experience that you can simply buy your way through with virtual coins or whatever. Animal Crossing demands you build a relationship with it, a long-term commitment through the seasons. Certainly it's not for everyone, but what is?
That being said, New Leaf could stand to do a better job of shaking up its core activities, especially at the outset. This is the third time I've populated that stupid owl's museum with the exact same bugs, fossils, and fish, and it's getting a little long in the tooth. I'd much rather just sell off those items straight away and jump straight to earning cash... but of course Animal Crossing is designed to tug at the little corner of the Type-A brain that demands tidiness and full completion, so every day I trudge over to the museum and let him look at my latest fossil finds, content to subsist on my earnings from Blathers' leftovers. New Leaf also marks the third time I've upgraded my home from tarpaper shack to mansion, built up the local businesses into massive superstores, jockeyed for the home owners association's favor, and watched my favorite villagers bail on me for other people's towns only to be replaced with what surely must be the lamest and most annoying inhabitants of my friends' burgs. The under-the-hood revisions keep me playing New Leaf, but the series could definitely use a more dramatic shakeup rather than holding backs its most interesting features until you've invested several weeks into the game.
I was going to start my comment by saying that I've never played an Animal Crossing game before, but that would be semi-lie. I played it briefly in its original N64 incarnation some, what, 12 years ago? I remember enjoying the novel concept of an open-ended sandbox game - and was highly entertained by the idea that Animal Crossing’s strange, gaudy-colored world continued to tick along when the cartridge was pulled out of the console. But when I had PS2 Onimusha Warlords, and an imported copy of Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec tempting me like the sexy videogame sirens that they are, I never looked back after that first, short session. Until now.
When I launched New Leaf, I was surprised to see something that felt vaguely familiar. So I YouTubed the original game to see if my memory was failing me - but no! It’s the Animal Crossing I remember. Refined and tweaked, but looking very similar to it did when I saw it all that time ago, like some kind of gaming Peter Pan. I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing - I’m sure if I’d played other games in the series and they’re all like this, I’d probably feel the latter. But coming in pretty much as a newbie, the game feels fun, enjoyable and cute. Even if, for some reason, its looks slightly disturb me. The big heads. The spindly limbs. The incredibly friendly, helpful and enthusiastic NPCs. I feel welcome - but also like I don't belong. Like a grown man turning up at a playground with no child in tow.
Still, I enjoyed New Leaf’s immensely varied, and surprisingly deep amusements. I found myself mostly playing the game while “second screening,” when whatever I was watching on TV was leaving me with mental bandwidth to burn. Or having a quick session at opportune moments, like when I was waiting at the Doctor’s the other day. It’s the perfect game for that, and in essence a perfect mobile game. You can sit and play for ages, or dip in and out sporadically. And there’s always something to do. Indeed, so many things to do! I can see why people get so obsessed with it - it could very easily become a second job.
If I was reviewing it objectively, I’d sign off right now with something along the lines of “for 3DS-owning kids and kids-at-heart, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a terrific game with a mind-boggling amount of stuff to do. Prepare to enjoy many, many hours of delicious, empty gaming calorie snacking”. But I’m not. This is a personal take on the game, and the truth is, the moment I knew I’d played New Leaf enough to write this comment was the moment I knew I was never going to turn it on again. I appreciate its smorgasbord of joyously creative things to do, am tickled pink by its many charms, and most certainly recognize it as the lovely little game that it is. But unfortunately it’s just a bit too twee for me, and requires just a little too much of my attention for me to feel fully rewarded. Ultimately, New Leaf is competing for my timewasting time against a myriad of other timewasting timewasters – mostly on iOS – that are just a bit more to my personal taste. That makes me a little sad, because I know somewhere inside me is an inner child who really wants to spend more time in Animal Crossing's world - but my selfish outer adult is simply distracted by the noise of other stuff, just like it was twelve years ago. Still, I'm very happy this review made me spend some quality time in New Leaf's funny old world, because it really helped me appreciate it for what it is. And indeed understand why many people will completely disagree with me, and will be more than happy to devote many hours in this colorful little corner of gaming, making it their very own.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: New Leaf's graphics serve their purpose of creating a cute little town to live in, and the simplicity helps the vast amount of customization available work well. The realistically modeled art, bugs, and fish that you can acquire stand at odds with the cartoon style -- watching a lifelike bug squirm in your little hand as you hold it aloft in triumph is curiously revolting.
- Music: As ever, the musical noodling doesn't stand out as the most exciting video game music ever. Yet the tunes prove to be catchy little ear worms, and there's one for every hour of the day, which helps convey a sense of time and transition. The diegetic tunes, like KK's performances and the goofy sea shanties of Kap'n the boat guide, play a large part in building New Leaf's quirky charm as well.
- Controls: Given that there's very little action to speak of in New Leaf -- switching to a bug net in time to snatch a hornet once you knock its nest from a tree is about as tense as it gets -- it works perfectly well as a low-impact stylus-driven affair. It can be a little clumsy, and the menu interface feels too pokey at times, as the cute little cursor animations prevent you from rapidly making stylus selections.
- Lasting Appeal: If you "get" Animal Crossing, you'll probably find this entry the most satisfying to date. It offers a greater variety of events and tasks, not to mention more expansive social features. Of course, if you don't "get" Animal Crossing, feel free to keep walking right on down the aisle when you see this one for sale.
With New Leaf, Animal Crossing stands right inside the borderline of complete stagnation and defiantly places a single foot just outside into the realm of change. It offers plenty to keep this from feeling like the exact same thing you played four years ago, or eight years ago, or 11 years ago... but only if you're willing to invest a few dozen hours into it.