Nintendo really did release this at the most perfect time. Days after reeling from the gloomy, brutal brilliance at the heart of The Last of Us, stuck in the doldrums of man flu, Animal Crossing: New Leaf has invaded my life bringing with it bright pastel colours, awfully dressed penguins, and an idyllic life so utterly charming that I cannot fail to smile every time I prise open my 3DS.
This is, as the Animal Crossing series always has been, pure, joyous escapism.
In many ways New Leaf is yet further refinement of the original's template. That's the thing with perfection: how the hell do you go about bettering it? Well, you don't, not really. Players will still find themselves browsing for furniture bargain, scavenging whatever fruits and shells and bugs and insects and fish can be scrounged to trade for Bells to pay off their obscene mortgage. You'll decorate your house, build a new wardrobe and stuff it with ridiculous clothes, you'll plant all sorts of flowers and trees, and spend your days nattering with a bunch of anthropomorphic animals. And writing them letters.
Unlike other games of life, though, Animal Crossing: New Leaf cares not for the little fundamentals. You don't have to worry about getting hungry or ensuring you sleep at least eight hours a night. It's a terribly languid game, presenting a world free of cynicism, judgement, and conflict.
But while previous series entries were a little self-centred -- that is to say you only really had any responsibility to yourself and your house -- New Leaf has you stepping into the mayor's mantle as soon as you get off of the train to whatever you named your new town. Like never before, every little action has a little more meaning as you set about shaping the future of your budding hamlet. Instead of always being on the make (in the best possible way), as you could potentially view previous Animal Crossing titles, you'll find yourself going to extraordinary lengths to service the needs of your neighbours.
I was but selfish little imp named Fuzzwigg when I arrived in the sleepy town of Frontbum one night. I spent the first few days desperately gathering as many pears and shells and bits of coral as I could. Then I bought a fishing rod and a butterfly net, and packed off to the new island where it is always summer and you can go mozzie hunting at night. Within no time, I was the richest man in the village. I'd decked my house out splendidly, I was paying back Tom Nook's loans for my glorious abode, I'd surrounded myself with beauty and bought myself a jaunty hat. Several, in fact! I was raking in the cash, and soon I'd be able to plonk down a coffee shop, work some shifts in it, and become even more wealthy.
MWAHAHAHA...wait...this is all wrong.
But then I stopped by the Town Hall and listened as a small puppy reeled off the list of grievances that Frontbum's inhabitants had with my tenure as mayor. Flowers were wilting and dying, the museum was empty and attracted no tourists, a disgruntled crocodile was thinking of leaving.
Of course, I could have ignored all of that and gone on merrily living my life of personal gain or, worse yet, embraced the role of bully and villain, gone and trampled my neighbours' flowerbeds and uprooted all of their trees... but I didn't. I invested in a police station, I wrote apologetic letters to squirrels, I started a program of public works including building a night club and a police station, I leapt online to trade rare items with friends for the greater glory of Frontbum, and to spend an hour or two engaged in minigames (really good minigames) on the tropical island.
The tropical island is a simple but wonderful addition and, as with many things in this game, the charm is in the details. To get across to the island you ride along in a boat driven by Kapp'n -- a piratical character who tells stories of his time on the waves and sings seas shanties (or awful love songs if you're a female character...tut tut, he's married!) every time you make the journey. Of course, then you find out that he's an animal is based on a species of Japanese mythological water demons who drown children and take their souls. Still, the bugs you catch there are worth loads of Bells.
The characters are all marvellously written, providing a quirky ensemble who make you want to get to know them, and the nature of the setup -- the one that sees you placed front and centre as mayor -- serves to deepen those relationships like never before in an Animal Crossing game. Here, you can be as integral as you want to be, but if you want to cultivate those connections and boost your approval rating, there are more reasons to do so than ever before. Gone is that slight feeling of alienation that comes from being the lone human in a town full of animals and woodland critters.
The expanded online options help with that feeling of togetherness, expanding the ecosystem to include other players in a broader way than before. You'll leap online to take turns around the towns of your chums, trading design tips and marvelling and one another's floral arrangements, before retiring to the tropical island for a little friendly competition. Yu'll meet strangers via StreetPass who become new friends, and you'll sneak a look at their towns too, because you can. See something you like? You'll be able to pick it up at a premium.
In an industry where so many games are predicated on conflict and aggression, Animal Crossing: New Leaf eschews all of that by subtly rewarding community, camaraderie, and, of course, collecting things. So too, does it reward patience. There's no "winning" in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you set your own goals and go about them in whatever way you want to. As such, in an age where you can pay to make things go faster, where the result has often become more important than the journey, New Leaf winds back the clock and defers your gratification for just a little while at times.
But that's fine because it's a game that you'll dip into each and every day as it tracks your progress, and the rotation of the Earth in real time. One of the first things you're asked is your date of birth, just so that the game can throw you a party when it rolls around. But the mayoral duties, the high costs of Nook's rate of interest, the growing desire to make your town better, the fact that this is the most accessible Animal Crossing yet with its choice of town layouts and unbreakable shovels and fruit stacking! means that you might actually grind, not that it feels arduous in this game. New Leaf provides players with more things to do, but also presents options for streamlining to allow them to do more before real-life comes calling.
In amongst the birthday parties, the gorgeous music, the stereoscopic 3D that really serves to pull you into this weird and wonderful world, the desire to snaffle up as many fortune cookies as you can to unlock Nintendo-themed items for your house, the beach-combing, the scuba-diving, training as a barista to serve coffees to deer, there's a game that caters to all comers of all ages. It's a game of impressive choice and freedom, a lush ecosystem of curious characters and endless opportunities. It's truly special, and a game that you'll check in with, and open your 3DS for each day, just to see what amazingly unique thing will happen on that particular day.
And that's a bit magical.
- There's SO MUCH to see and do
- The dip-in-and-out gameplay finds a perfect platform on the 3DS
- Cracking ensemble of wonderfully written characters
- Effortlessly charming and stuffed with whimsy
- Some great new details and features
- Being mayor makes you feel more connected than ever before
- If this isn't your first Animal Crossing it might seem less special
- Still resting on decade-old laurels
- If I'm writing this I'm not playing it
The Short Version: Animal Crossing: New Leaf is an utter delight, but then you knew that already. For all of the little tweaks and new treats, the core experience remains the same. But stepping into the role of mayor connects you better than ever before to this joyous world of camaraderie and generous spirit. New Leaf is a game that lets you fashion an identity in whatever manner you choose, and then share it with the world. It's the best game in the series so far.