Review by MTLH
Playing New Leaf is like being wrapped in a nice, comfortable blanket.
Animal Crossing started life on the Nintendo 64 in 2001, a title that originally never left Japan. It was soon ported to the GameCube however and that one did saw a worldwide release. Sequels for the Wii, Nintendo DS and 3DS followed in the years since. It was the latter instalment, New Leaf, that finally convinced me to give the series a try. I was always a bit apprehensive about it's reputation of being something of a timesink. That is now over a year ago and although it most certainly is one, as it turned out that really isn't such a bad thing after all.
The visuals are bright and airy but also contain a surprising amount of added layers. The colours are certainly bold and omnipresent but fortunately not in a sugary manner. The detailing really is a highlight. Take the smartly modelled items and flora and fauna, for instance, where it doesn't really matter how small they are, as they always sport a good amount of detail. Walk into a shop or home and just look at how intricate the merchandise and interior looks. Animation is rather simple but the game manages to do a lot with relatively little, adding a good deal of character to the villagers in the process.
Special mention must also be made of New Leaf's use of the handheld's 3D capability. It's used in a relatively subtle manner, going more for highlighting things rather than pushing them in your face, which works very well. Truth be told though, after a while you do get a bit used to it and the whole 3D business does become less noticeable. The best example of the effect, and the one that is not really subject to wear, is due to the game's world apparently being a rather small sphere. This causes objects to flip into view when travelling across it and seeing that in stereoscopic 3D is and remains a joy.
The soundtrack fits the game like a glove. It's calm, soothing, never imposes itself too much and really reflects the time of day it's played alongside. The effects are very well done. Just take the sounds made by the protagonist's footsteps, for example, and notice how they differ in accordance with the varying terrains. Alternatively, listen to the sounds made by the objects you can place in your home such as for instance the sizzling of the eggs in the pan on the stove. Such details may appear to be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things but they do ultimately make all the difference. As with the music, the effects stay a bit in the background and only reveal their splendour when you start to pay attention.
Animal Crossing revolves around life in a small village with the player taking on the role of a newcomer. The aim is getting to know the town and it's inhabitants and to make a living. How that is actually done depends entirely on the player. Are you going for the perfect town? Perhaps the nicest home or wardrobe? Want to become rich or fill up a museum? Why not all at once? The choice is yours.
An additional factor in this is that the townsfolk mistakenly belief that the player is the new mayor. Ultimately they are left under that impression, with the blessing of the intended one, which is nice since the position comes with quite a few options. As mayor, the player can instigate ordinances and commence public works. The first sets a few guidelines for the town which can, for instance, boost the economy or puts the focus on keeping the place tidy. Through the public works, objects can be placed in the town such as bridges, lampposts, certain shops and suchlike. What can be built is depended on the villagers, who will regularly make some recommendations and requests.
One neat aspect of New Leaf is how unlocking new things is handled. In a way, this is quite a methodical process. If you know the requirements necessary, it's simply a matter of working down a list. What the game does very well, is hiding this process from the player. Some of the things become available in a rather straightforward manner, such as how the main shop and it's stock expands after a set amount of money have been spend. Others however appear to be more random, such as the availability of the cafe being dependent on the museum. It's this that makes discovering new items and buildings so compelling as it's always a surprise whenever something shows up.
Actually placing an object in the town can be rather fiddly at times. Each requires a certain amount of space around it which must not overlap with that of the objects and landmarks already there. Especially when the town's construction has progressed quite a bit, such space can become a surprisingly rare commodity leading to a lot of toing and froing when looking for the perfect spot to place a new landmark.
The game manages to give the town's population a good deal of character. Each villager adheres to a certain personality type which ranges from rather dour to bouncy and from lazy to very active. These types inform the way they respond and, to an extent, their behaviour. This, for example, amounts to the time they wake up, the way they greet the mayor and the hobbies and activities they prefer.
It are the villagers who bring a town to life, especially when there is a nice variety of character types present. They will want something from the mayor, whether it concerns delivering parcels, coming over or asking for his opinion and the way they react makes all the difference. I eventually became quite attached to my townsfolk and could become quite sad whenever someone announced he or she was leaving, let alone if that actually happened.
The townsfolk also form the strongest connection between the game and the player's actual life. New Leaf has a twenty-four hour time schedule that runs concurrently with that of the real world. If it's three o'clock in your home, it's also that in your town with the same principle also applying to the passing of the seasons. So when you agreed to have someone come over, it's probably best to have the game running on the agreed time. This doesn't just apply to the villagers but also to specific events such as during holidays and competitions.
The primary thing to remember about New Leaf is that nearly everything costs bells, the game's currency of choice. Right from the off, the mayor starts out with a mortgage on his home and things only get more costly from there on out. That applies to furniture and clothing but also even the ordinances and public works. Bells are earned by performing certain tasks such harvesting fruit, digging up fossils and plants, catching bugs and fish, finding furniture and subsequently sell the lot at the shops or to the other villagers. Initially, you will struggle, scrapping together the bells needed to pay off that mortgage or finish that bridge.
Eventually such monetary issues won't be that much of a problem anymore as plenty of profitable opportunities will present themselves. One way of earning a steady income, for example, is by planting scores of fruit producing trees. These ripen after only a few days and, if you plant enough of them, the bells will simply roll in.
Still, there is more to New Leaf than just paying the bills. A special day or period will regularly present itself which will bring the town into a festive mood. These range from birthdays to Animal Crossing's versions of Halloween and Christmas. They usually offer some opportunities to collect rare items, special activities will be organised and, more importantly, the daily routine is suspended. There are also other things to do, such as working at the cafe and getting to know the coffee preferences of the customers, visiting other towns, learning to emote in exchange for fruit and even going on a holiday to a tropical island filled with mini-games. All this ensures that New Leaf is able to keep the player busy.
There is a fine line, however, between being kept busy and having to perform busywork. As mentioned, to get the most out of the game you need bells. Earning them means working in some capacity which can easily devolve into a daily grind.
Furthermore, the townsfolk can also be a demanding lot. Their frequent requests can become a tad cumbersome, especially when you're strapped for time and someone wants you to come over later that day. You can say no of course, but the sheer happiness that permeates every pore of the game can make that a tad difficult. Then again, I can be somewhat of a softie.
If you let yourself be immersed, chances are you will end up spending a few hundred hours on New Leaf. This isn't the kind of game you'll play for hours on end though, it wasn't for me at least, but you will likely check up on your little town on a regular basis. Again, there are no real goals to strife for except the ones you set yourself and, in a way, the experience New Leaf offers depends a lot on what the player is willing to put in. Delve in deep and the experience becomes more compelling. Linger at the surface however and the chance of ending up with a shallow grind increases.
Play the game often enough, though, and eventually some cracks do begin to appear in it's facade as the internal machinations become more exposed. As it turns out, New Leaf is quite a mechanical game. While the processes for unlocking things are hidden well, other mechanisms are less so. It thus becomes noticeable how villagers will repeat themselves and how consequences tend to be a tad immaterial. For instance, ignore a villager's request on the day itself and he becomes quite upset. Return to the game the next day instead, however, and everything seems forgotten. The systems underpinning New Leaf don't seem to support a more enduring approach. Then there are instances such as the same number of fossils appearing each day, some people popping up at regular intervals you can set your clock by or how certain situations are handled in exactly the same manner each time. New Leaf's sheer charm compensates for a lot, as does the attachment it generates, but the above can put some dents in New Leaf's carefully crafted illusion of village life.
The systems underpinning New Leaf go deeper than you might think based on the game's relatively simple appearance. It isn't a thoroughly intricate simulation of village life, New Leaf arguably never set out to be that kind of experience, but the interlocking mechanisms do create a compelling sandbox of sorts which reveal more layers as it goes along. Your town seems alive, there certainly is a lot to do and the town can be shaped to your hearth's content. The game also offers a lot of surprises, both big and small, through the way those systems work. The polished presentation doesn't do New Leaf a disservice either.
Although the systems go deeper than you might initially think, there are limits to what they can do. Play long enough and certain cracks and dents do become noticeable. Villagers repeating themselves for instance, or the clockwork nature of certain situations. Another issue is that placing objects around the village, an important part of the game, can become increasingly fiddly.
I can imagine New Leaf is the kind of game that will appeal to people in different ways. I played the game on a nearly daily basis. Keeping the place tidy, checking up on the townsfolk, earning a few bells and so on, while occasionally doing something more elaborate such as visiting the tropical resort or rearranging the town's layout. Other players will perhaps do more with the game while there are also probably some that will do far less. New Leaf is accommodating in that regard in the sense that you get what you put in. Whatever you do, this is still a game that will gobble up a lot of your time and ultimately I was more than happy to let it do just that.
OVERALL: an 8,5.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Animal Crossing: New Leaf (EU, 06/14/13)
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