Animal Crossing: New Leaf review: owing a debt

By Steve Watts, Jun 04, 2013 10:00am PDT

More than most other series in Nintendo's library, Animal Crossing is iterative. Since its Gamecube debut, each installment has made very minor tweaks and improvements to the last, culminating (so far) in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. This one's twist on the familiar isn't quite enough to make the experience feel completely fresh, but the friendship simulator is still a welcoming place to while away some time.

Animal Crossing has always been, and remains, a game about tiny tasks. Getting a house, decorating, doing small favors for friends, filling the local museum with fossils and animal species, and pulling off odd jobs to pay the mortgage are all still present here. Even Tom Nook is back, and despite his diminished role he's still handing down exorbitant real estate rates.

The pace is uniquely peaceful, in stark contrast to the usual violent or brain-teasing tasks games put you through. You don't lose in Animal Crossing. The closest the game has to a fail state is becoming disliked in the community of anthropomorphized animal friends. Even then, writing a letter or two will turn around their spirits quickly enough.

New Leaf's most radical riff on the Animal Crossing formula is that it puts you in charge of the town. Upon arriving in your burg, the townsfolk mistake you for the new mayor and immediately hand you supreme power over them. The townsfolk are trusting to a fault, and more than willing to obey the whims of a total stranger. The Night Owl ordinance, for example, requires shops to remain open later and denizens to stay out longer. I appreciated the convenience, since I played mostly at nighttime, but I found some humor in an entire town staying up late merely based on my personal preference. Surely I was some kind of hyper-localized despot.

The mayor also has power to create public works, ranging from small token items like fire hydrants to much larger business-focused ventures. These can be expensive, but you don't take on the burden alone. Instead they're paid for by donations, a sort of voluntary taxing system. Of course, as mayor, you're expected to chip in some of your own wealth. Seeing a town littered with these projects adds a nice personalized touch.

This all plays like a logical extension of Animal Crossing, which has always been primarily centered around customization. Instead of merely tailoring your house, you now have a whole town as your canvas. The changes were somewhat superficial, though, and I found myself running out of things to do after a short bursts of play. These games are best experienced in regularized, tiny doses. Visiting every day for a half-hour will be infinitely more fulfilling than plowing through a three-hour session once a week. Changes take effect on a timer, and you can really only raise so much money in a single day for new clothes, furniture, or town projects.

Online functionality returns as well, but it's as limited as one might expect from Nintendo's safe network environment. Visiting friends' towns is tightly controlled by permission settings, integrated slyly in the game by opening a gate to let visitors in. I was disappointed by the inability to simply ride the rails to a stranger's town. I'm sure safety concerns are at play, but it discourages a level of exploration that the series sorely needs. Much as the game emphasizes the importance of friendships, it makes forging real ones tougher than it should be.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is doubtless the best yet of its kind, but its new additions don't stray too far from the formula. Even spaced as far apart as the games are -- the last one was City Folk in 2008 -- New Leaf felt over-familiar to me. It's an adorable game that has been polished and improved through the years. That makes it a perfect game for eager fans, and like Pokemon, any game is someone's first. Enjoyable as it was, though, it's my fourth time going through these motions. I'm pining for an Animal Crossing to hook me with innovation like the first one did more than ten years ago. That would truly be turning a new leaf. [7]


This Animal Crossing: New Leaf review was based on a digital copy of the game provided by the publisher.

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