Animal Crossing: New Leaf Review – The Extended Cut

animalcrossinghouseThere are a lot of things I don’t understand about politics. I don’t understand most of what it’s become, and I don’t know if I even care to understand it on a bad day. With that said however, I’m pretty sure the process hasn’t degraded to the point where we crown any old joker the mayor from the second he marches off the inbound train into town!

Nonetheless, this is how Animal Crossing: New Leaf begins. As with previous games, that same nosy cat named Rover comes and approaches your faceless self, asking you uncomfortable questions that ultimately dictate your gender and appearance. Why Animal Crossing still can’t just give you a character editing suite, I don’t know.

Even stepping fresh off a train and being set up with nothing but a dirty old tent however, you’re almost immediately directed to City Hall to start learning how to run the place. In all fairness though, this is the best new idea that New Leaf has; Letting you run the show. In prior games, if you didn’t like some element of your randomly-generated town, be it a building or a citizen or whatever else, you just had to deal with it and hope that it didn’t get in your way too much.

In New Leaf however, you can just deal with these undesirable elements directly. You can change when shops open and close, when and how new buildings are built and demolished, and basically anything else that might ruffle your mayoral feathers. You can even rebuild the Reset Center and put that crotchety old Mr. Resetti back into a job after he seemed to have been unceremoniously fired between games. Who says the system doesn’t work?!

news-animalcrossing-3dsIn all fairness however, it’s hard to find an undesirable element when the game looks as great as it does! The adorable patchwork graphics have never looked better than they do on 3DS, with an astonishing amount of detail placed into both character models and village environments, particularly for a handheld game! Part of the reason why it’s so easy to lose yourself in the quaint lifestyle of *insert your potentially immature town name here* is simply because it’s so peaceful and easy on the eyes.

It’s a good thing too, since New Leaf allows you to take photos whenever you want. These photos aren’t just saved in-game either! You can store them on your 3DS’s SD card, and even upload them to Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter. Now you can surprise your family, amaze your friends and bore your lovers with so many screenshots of you fishing, collecting seashells and opening that new bridge… Ok, when I find a better photo op in New Leaf, I’ll let you know.

The graphics only get better when you crank up the 3D as well. The round-world environments really appear to stretch vast distances with the power of 3D behind them, and it serves to further suck you into the atmosphere of your town, especially at night, which is dictated in real time. Yes, you could theoretically extend your influence from mayor to almighty deity in this respect, since you could alter your 3DS clock to make the time of day whatever you want it to be, but as long as the citizens are blissfully unaware of your god-like hardware-manipulating powers, it likely shouldn’t cause too many attempts at overthrow.

Even with all of this political might at your disposal however, you’ll still spend much of New Leaf doing what you do in any other Animal Crossing game, only now as a valued member of office, and not just the layabout eccentric with the pathological need to dig holes everywhere. Most of the game is still about lining your pockets with even the most mundane of swag, including fruit, seashells, bugs, fish, and just about anything else that you stopped finding interesting when you turned seven, then subsequently offloading it on the pawn shop for Bells, the in-game currency.

Animal-Crossing-New-Leaf-Review-Image-2Oh, and just as with the previous Animal Crossing games, New Leaf lives and dies by your desire to collect more Bells than an overblown Christmas special. Yes, of course Tom Nook is bugging you for loans just to give you a decent living space, as with any game in the series. Now that you’re mayor however, your incessant need for money goes far beyond pleasing the raccoon loan shark.

As mayor, you need to fork over cash just to pass a new law. Because politics. Not only that, but when you look over your lengthy list of unreasonable citizen demands, and decide whichever one is the least unreasonable, your citizens will contribute almost nothing to your construction efforts. This leaves you to spend time wandering around by yourself at night, desperately trying to accumulate enough mysterious island bugs for your limited inventory space to hawk off at the pawn shop, along with that entire twin bed that your mother sent you in the mail.

Why the citizens of your town are so cheap, I have no idea. They have no problem pestering your assistant, Isabelle to whine about how the town is either too forested or too congested, isn’t building the right buildings, or has a mayor that runs around in a suspiciously copyrighted green tunic digging holes everywhere. Despite that however, they won’t actually do anything to change the place they live in. It’s all on you. I know I said this in the abridged review, but hasn’t anyone in this little slice of virtual purgatory heard of taxes?!

Taxes are about the only thing you don’t have control over however, and despite some passing flaws, like how irritating your citizens can sometimes be and how inexplicably constrained your inventory still is four games later, New Leaf remains so strangely addictive. There’s something so oddly satisfying about even the simple things like painting your roof blue, or giving yourself a beard, or building the latest monument to your tyrannical reign of the world’s laziest hamlet.

AnimalCrossingIt essentially makes New Leaf the equivalent of the video gaming simple life. It’s a game for people who enjoy farming sensibilities, always craving work to do, and not minding the fact that much of their routine is the same old repetitive grind. To that end, New Leaf is a great game to pull out when you just want to relax and live a hyper-peaceful, free existence on your 3DS. The fact that it’s the best refinement of the series’ fundamentals yet certainly helps too, even if the series still has room for improvements and polish.

Even with all of these refinements however, I can’t help but find one element of the game extremely annoying, especially when I have to publish multiple reviews on it; Its incessant need to procrastinate. That new shop you opened? It doesn’t actually open until tomorrow. That new fossil you contributed to the museum? It won’t be displayed until tomorrow. Tom Nook turning your dirty tent into a humble condo? Well, he can’t be arsed with doing it until tomorrow… Ok, actually, the fact that he does that in a single day is kind of impressive. You win this round, Nook!

Still, you see my point. On the one hand, it’s very clever, because it continually keeps you coming back to the game every day, a la Brain Age. On the other hand however, if you’re actually trying to go for a hardcore play session and make a bunch of progress in developing your town and pleasing your citizens… You can’t really. The game will exhaust its daily round of activities in less than an hour in most cases, simply leaving you to wander around and waste time until tomorrow. Yes, you can make your own fun by beaning your citizens in the face with your bug-catching net, or just changing your town flag to the lone word, “BEER!” or something, but even that will only last most players so long.

Animal Crossing- New Leaf - Gameplay 3Of course, on some days, it’s a little easier to pick up and play New Leaf when you can enjoy a social component, beyond you spamming your Facebook timeline with a slide show of your character constantly changing outfits, which will at least get you engaged with the cease and desist demands of your peers. This element comes in many forms, and I do mean many forms! I’ve got to give it to Nintendo here, they spared no potential co-operative element within the 3DS hardware!

First and most obviously, if you have friends that own a 3DS and their own copy of New Leaf, you can invite up to three of them to wander around your town with you. It is a little more fun when a group of you are smacking your citizens with nets as opposed to just one, plus, you can show them exactly how much effort you’ve sunk into trying to maintain that 100% approval rating that is initially demanded of you to actually be allowed to do your job in the town (seriously), or how much you’ve run it into the ground to spite the animals that won’t offer funds for your whimsical construction delights. It works if you know some people who love Animal Crossing as much as you do.

If you’re the type to take your 3DS on the go with you, then you can also accumulate StreetPass hits that allow you to explore showcases of other people’s homes via an obnoxious homeowner’s club that loves to tell you all of the things you’re doing wrong with your own house. You obviously can’t do anything with any permanent consequences in someone else’s house, so I wouldn’t get too excited with ruining the scenery of course, but there is one element of this that is undeniably cool; The ability to purchase furniture. Yes, it costs more Bells than it otherwise would to buy StreetPass furniture, but surely you’re not going to let some stranger that you’ve never met be the only big shot with a beanbag chair in his or her house, right?!

Animal Crossing- New Leaf - Gameplay 4If you have access to a Nintendo Zone location, Nintendo themselves will actually offer you unique, limited-time items via SpotPass as well. Sure, a pumpkin pie is pretty simple, but hey, when Nintendo baked that pie, you know you want it.

In fact, if you really love Nintendo and are among the small selection of people who already own a Wii U, there’s an app on the console called Animal Crossing Plaza. It’s essentially a private variation of Miiverse made solely for Animal Crossing fans. There’s a scary thought.

Within the app, you can post comments on Miiverse about the series in general, and your exploits in New Leaf specifically, talk to in-game characters directly (probably to tell them that they annoy you), explore the kind of experiences that other players have had with New Leaf, and wonder frequently why an app was made for a game on a much more successful handheld for a console with a currently low install base, and will only be temporarily available at that. Better let Isabelle know that she’s a blithering airhead soon, because you won’t get a chance to do it in 2016, and then you’ll just regret it…

I won’t lie; I feel like there’s a lot of reasons why I should dislike the Animal Crossing series as a whole. It’s very banal. It has lots of annoying elements between the mandatory short-burst play, paltry inventory and brain-numbingly repetitive dialogue. It’s constantly a grind for money, especially when citizens refuse to donate even though none of them have an actual job besides Isabelle. I hate Tom Nook and everything he stands for too!

And yet despite all of these points… I don’t hate Animal Crossing, and I especially don’t hate New Leaf. I don’t know what kind of witchcraft Nintendo puts into this franchise, but somehow, amidst all of this, they make Animal Crossing so strangely addictive once you get into it. After a while, you begin to savour the continued promises of tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. You actively indulge in changing the colour of your roof from blue to green. You even talk to Tom Nook without immediately wanting to beat him to death with your fishing rod, even though the urge gradually still grows with every second of conversation…

Animal Crossing- New Leaf - Gameplay 5At that point, you know that Animal Crossing has you. You can’t explain why it clutches you in its iron grip, but you know that you will keep coming back to your endless quest to perfect your shiftless town. There’s no reward beyond the simple act itself, and you know it, but it still calls you, and you always come back. Back to see if a StreetPass hit might have that bear skin rug that would really tie the room together (would that be legal in a game called Animal Crossing?), or back to see if Nintendo baked you a blueberry pie for hiking all the way to your nearest Nintendo Zone hotspot.

Somehow, this recipe is at its deadliest in New Leaf. The increased freedom and suite of options only sucks you even more into a grind of a game with no end, and yet a game I strangely enjoy. Sure, it’s refused to address several of the series’ more annoying elements, and it comes with the slack, directionless gameplay that all virtual life games are so proud of. Still, judged by scale and in terms of what it sets out to do, New Leaf is a nigh-flawless experience that makes for one of the most feature-packed and well-designed games in the entire 3DS library!

Try as I might, I just can’t figure out what makes Animal Crossing such an intoxicating experience. The series is at its best on handhelds too, at least in my opinion, since you can keep plugging at your town on the go. Yes, the game pretty well demands that you merely play it in short, daily bursts, but that’s what makes the franchise feel so at home on handhelds compared to consoles. Like I said, as its own particular flavour of relaxed 3DS gaming, New Leaf may stand as one of the handheld’s best offerings to date, period!

Animal Crossing- New Leaf - Gameplay 6So, if you have also been hopelessly bewitched by the grind of bug-collecting, hole-digging and citizen-whacking, and you love this series as a result, then New Leaf is far and away the best Animal Crossing game to date! Consequently, if you’re a more casual gamer that enjoys the value of an accessible experience, or even a more hardcore gamer that just wants a directionless game to relax and unwind with, then New Leaf is exactly what you’re looking for.

The game presents endless value, and as a result, the experience never truly loses its lustre… Until whatever Nintendo’s next handheld ends up being comes along, with its own zombifying and inexplicably addictive Animal Crossing offering. I’m sure that the series will inevitably make a pit stop on Wii U as well, but it probably won’t be the same as being able to take the experience on the go like in this game, or in the previous Animal Crossing: Wild World for DS.

In fact, I know this is my premiere of an all-new Eggplante feature and all, but I suddenly can’t remember why I’m sitting here typing this. I mean, an arcade cabinet would look pretty good in my homestead about now, and someone needs to put a few more trees up to disappoint those damn environmentalists (herbivores, I tell you!), and I’m pretty sure Isabelle was pestering me about participating in the Bug-Off this weekend, as unfriendly as that pun sounds…

You know what, that’s it. Inexplicably awesome 3DS game. Done. Feature over. I have bugs to catch, so shoo! OUT! That K.K. Rider nightclub isn’t going to pay for itself!