“Animal Crossing: New Leaf” review

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Animal Crossing: New Leaf has been given  a warm welcome as indicated by the sales numbers and positive reviews. I have fond memories of the first instalment of this series, just named Animal Crossing, back on the Gamecube. My brother and I had the game during the summer holidays when we were kids, and we were both addicted to it. Whoever got out of bed first had the luxury of playing the game first, sometimes for hours at a time. It wasn’t just a game, it was a ritual. I owned the DS follow-up, Wild World, although I skipped the Wii version, Let’s Go to the City. New Leaf just came out for the 3DS, so I picked up my first AC game in approximately 7 years.

Animal Crossing is a game that I find is very hard to sell to people with words. Even the name of the series seems unmarketable. What the series represents is a fun life simulation experience that will last you a very long time. It’s not a game you play a few times with six hour sessions; it’s a game you play hopefully every day for under an hour at a time as there are gameplay mechanics that can only be done once or a few times a day or will take effect the next day (eg. new fossils every day, house expansions being built the next day). AC is a unique game experience that anyone can enjoy, but it’s not an experience that will strike everyone’s fancy.

The main premise of all four games in the series is the same: your human player character has just moved into a rural town populated by talking animals. Once you have settled into your home, what you do from then on is essentially up to you. The twist in the 3DS instalment is that your character is mistaken for the town’s mayor, and your confused character ends up saying “ok sure” and runs with it. The game uses the 3DS’s real time clock to reflect the time of day and the seasons, which in turn leads to day/night, opening/closing hours for stores and events in game (some based on real world holidays).

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Something about the game that still annoys me is that the seasons are still only set to the Northern Hemisphere and can’t be set for the Southern Hemisphere. It’s not a big deal, but it also takes away from the experience a little when I’m playing the game in summer even though it’s winter in real life. Can it be that hard to swap? I’m sure nobody will mind if you keep the snow, or even a Christmas in July thing, but it’s disappointing that Nintendo doesn’t seem to think that Australia, New Zealand and South America deserve acknowledgement.

There is no ultimate goal in the game, but there’s so much room for activities and goals that you can work towards. The game only stops when you no longer feel any enjoyment out of it or perhaps when you feel like you’ve become too addicted to it.

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Part of the charm is your interaction with the townsfolk. You and the citizens can trade stuff, play hide and seek, send and receive letters, and you can run errands for them and change their catchphrases. The developers have made an effort to ensure that in New Leaf these virtual talking animals act more townsfolk-like than ever, allowing the town to (I hate to say it…) ‘come to life’. One thing that annoys me is you can’t just straight out ask them if they have any errands for you, like back in the Gamecube version. You may just randomly be given a job when you have a conversation with them, but I can’t see why I can’t just ask for a job when I want to do something or just chat when I can’t be arsed doing favours.

This franchise is renowned for its customisation, and New Leaf has an overwhelming arsenal of options. You name your player character and your town before you move in. You can reinvent yourself with clothes, hats and accessories. Being the town mayor gives you even more ways to adjust your town to your liking. Isabelle, your secretary, helps you with your mayoral duties and consulting her allows you to do such things like changing the town tune (heard when you talk to animals or when the bell rings each hour), find out the citizens’ satisfaction or even complain about problematic townsfolk. She can also help set up ordinances, allowing laws to be passed such as having shops opened earlier or later, keeping the town clean, or increasing the cost of everything (therefore allowing you to sell things at a larger profit). She also helps you set up development projects (mostly funded by you) towards the building of simple things like a garbage can and a street light, to much bigger investments such as a police station or expansion of the museum. Now this whole mayor system sounds all well and good, and it is, but it’s not as deep as it could have been.

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Another of the major goals of the game is to pay off your home loan to upgrade your house. You start with a tent and can work towards a multiple storey house with a number of rooms as well as a basement. Of course with the open ended free roaming nature of the game, you are never obliged to pay off the debt if you don’t want to, but if you want the extra room for more furniture in your house, you’ll have to. Infamous raccoon dog Tom Nook is the mastermind behind houses in your village, and he resides in his Nook’s Homes store to discuss expanding and exterior decorative options. To pay for all this, I guess you’ll have to make some money, and a ton of it.

The game’s currency is bells. Tom Nook’s nephews Tommy and Timmy run a store, and while you can also sell stuff there, you will make more bringing it to Re-Tail run by a pair of alpacas, who specialise in buying your old stuff. Another store is run by the Able Sisters, who specialise in fashion and also help you create your own clothing designs. Spending money at these stores as well as fulfilling other conditions leads to their expansions as well as new shops opening.

Another major building in the game is the museum run by Blathers the owl. When you move into your town, you’ll find that the museum is completely empty and Blathers relies on your donations. The museum accepts paintings, fossils, bugs, fish and other sea creatures. As you wander around your town, you can catch bugs and fish with a net and fishing rod respectively once you’ve acquired those tools. X marks the spot of fossils on the ground, and you can dig them up with a shovel.  A new feature to the game is the wet suit, which lets you swim in the ocean, where you can dive to catch sea creatures.  If you’ve already donated that fish, bug, fossil or painting, you can sell them for glorious bells. Walking through the museum and seeing your donated items feels like a great reward for your hard work, and everything inside the museum are real life dinosaurs, bugs and fish etc. They all have descriptions, which is a great way to add educational content to the game. Bugs, fish and sea creatures that can be caught depend on the location (river, beach, village or island) and the time of day as well as the season. This means it’ll take at least a year to catch ‘em all.

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You can hold a ton of items in your locker, which can be accessed from any wardrobe, dresser etc in your house as well as at the train station, even in other towns, which is really convenient. However, the game still has a frustrating low number of inventory spaces, which becomes more annoying when you fill it with all the tools and have even less room. This makes catching fish and bugs more annoying as you make frequent trips to Re-Tail or your storage to sell or store items.

The multiplayer and online functions have expanded from Wild World. You can visit the towns of your friends both through local and online communications to help them out or to wreck havoc if you’re a bad friend. All towns have a local fruit, so if you visit a friend with different local fruit, you can bring it back to your town and plant to create a fruit tree as foreign fruit sells for much higher at your local store. Streetpass is also put to excellent use here as 3DS owners can send and receive ‘copies’ of their houses, so you can see other AC players’ houses, which is very cool and an unprecedented number of 3DS owners I Streetpassed have New Leaf.

There was an island you could visit in the original Animal Crossing with Game Boy Advance/Gamecube connectivity, but Nintendo has created an island you can visit anytime you want (once it’s ‘unlocked’) in New Leaf. It’s also a great source of multiplayer fun as you can play mini-games together to win medals that act as a currency on the island. My friends and I enjoyed these multiplayer options, and it’s a great selling point for the game.

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The AC series represents two characteristics I’ve noticed about Nintendo. The first one is that undeniable mass appeal that inhabits their games. The Sims tries to be realistic, and Harvest Moon also mostly involves human characters. Rare’s Viva Pinata series about pinata animals gardening is an exception, probably being the most out there concept on any Xbox console line. The usual Nintendo charm and creativity is all over the game with the vibrant graphics, the happy music and the cartoony characters. Only Nintendo would have a mole named Mr. Resetti tell you off when you reset the game without saving; only Nintendo would have you draw a face on a faceless cat named Bianca; and of course only Nintendo would make a life sim game where the characters are animals.

The other Nintendo characteristic that New Leaf presents is the company’s reliance on releasing follow-up instalments in franchises while not incoporating enough core gameplay changes. Only Nintendo can release the same games and get away with it. All of Nintendo’s consoles lately (including handhelds) have had a new Mario Kart, a ‘new’ New Super Mario Bros. game and a new Animal Crossing game, but most of these new instalments don’t have enough new stuff. I say this with experience; after I played the hell out of the Gamecube version of AC, I felt that Wild World on the DS was just more of the same, despite a few noticeable additions.  I did not get nearly the same enjoyment out of it, not just because it felt so samey, but because I had to start from scratch after completely paying off my debt and filling out the museum in the GC version. I skipped the Wii version purposely because of this reason, plus I also noticed it was criticised for feeling so much like the DS one. In New Leaf, much of my time has been spent once again paying off my debt and filling the museum AGAIN.

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Nintendo may have been aware of these criticisms and added a ton of new stuff for New Leaf, but it’s still not enough for me to shake the feeling that I’ve been here before. I was going to skip New Leaf just like the Wii one, but when I discovered that my friends were getting it and saw the very positive reviews, I caved. I can see that it’s easily the best one I’ve played, but obviously doesn’t have the same impact of the GC version. After I put 35 hours into it, I decided to give the game a rest because despite the sameyness of it, I still was addicted and played it nearly every day and well…university holidays just finished. So it’s a compliment to the game that I had to stop myself playing, and it’s not the game’s fault I’ve grown up with less time for games.

I must say that the New Leaf subtitle did not quite gel with me because while you indeed have to start a new life with a new job as a mayor, the game feels very familiar nonetheless and having to do the same stuff again is annoying. This is something I don’t think future instalments of this game can ever shake off. The new additions are great, but the game needs a change for the inevitable Wii U version (which I bet they just started developing). This series is much better suited as a handheld game anyway as it’s easier to find time to play it.

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The 3D effect compliments the visuals nicely, especially when you are looking at your donations in the museum, but I decided to leave it off for most of this game because AC is a game to just sit back, relax and do nothing, and not stress about holding the 3DS in the perfect spot for the 3D effect. Plus the 3DS battery life is rather short so I’d leave the 3D off.

If you’ve never played an Animal Crossing game before and own a Nintendo 3DS, I can highly recommend this game as it’s perfect for newcomers. Now, there’s a ton of new additions to the series to entice veterans to come back, but I would only recommend it if said veterans had friends to play with. Only hardcore fans of the series would enjoy a single player only experience as it’s more of the same.

From a critical standpoint, New Leaf is easily the best Animal Crossing game in the series. It’s a charming, relaxing and involving experience that can easily become an addiction. Newcomers should buy it immediately, and veterans should think over how they feel about starting over to enjoy the new features.

Rating: 4/5.

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Do you guys agree with this review? What’s your experience with the game?

New Leaf has been selling like crazy, so Nintendo probably has greenleafed a new instalment for the struggling Wii U. What new gameplay mechanics do you think Nintendo should add to the game?

Would love to hear your comments below!

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