If you’ve never played an Animal Crossing game, each one might look pretty much identical to you. Nintendo has taken measures to make every game feels different for those who play them, though. The main way they’ve done that with Animal Crossing: New Horizons is by setting it on a deserted island, and pitching it as a vacation getaway that quickly turns into a full-time life change. Nobody’s on this island when you and your small travel group gets there, and it’s up to you to turn it from a campsite into an actual community.
That’s a totally fine hook for a new Animal Crossing, but it comes with one disappointing, almost distracting result: this deserted island is too deserted.
At the start of New Horizons there are only six people living on this island: your character, Tom Nook, his sons (or nephews, or wards, or slaves) Timmy and Tommy, and then two animals selected randomly from the game’s large pool of villagers. (Mine is a workout gorilla named Louie and a penguin named Flo whose main personality type is being pleasant, as far as I can tell.) Nook and his boys serve clear-cut in-game purposes, whereas the other two animals are simply there to socialize with. These adorable critters and their unpredictable reactions have long been the heart of these games—the promise of Animal Crossing, from the very beginning, is to live with the animals. And not like the real-life kind, that run away in a panic whenever some dumb human comes stomping around, but human-like cartoon animals that generally have the personalities of middle-schoolers.
It takes a while for New Horizons to really deliver on that promise, though. Two animals simply isn’t enough for a village, even a fledgling one like your island. Their interactions are limited and repetitive at this early stage, and they’re effectively non-entities your first several days on the island.
Animal Crossing’s defining trait is how it hides its by-the-numbers collecting beneath a metric ton of cuteness. Catching fish doesn’t feel like an aimless waste of time when you’re doing it to fill up the town’s museum, or trying to raise bells to pay off your house, or trying to catch food for one of your hungry neighbors. Running around the village whacking rocks with a shovel feels less like a chore when you have several adorable friends to talk to. Errands don’t seem like errands when you’re doing them for a character you actually care for.
The first few days of New Horizons lack those relationships. You’re simply acquiring the exact stuff the game asks you to—driving up a number until it hits the specified mark, and then starting over again with a different number and a different kind of stuff. I’ve played every day since the game was released at midnight last Thursday and so far the only amenities that have opened on my island are the museum and Nook’s shop—and that last one required traveling to three different other islands in order to find enough iron nuggets. (Anybody who’s played this game so far knows the pain of trying to find enough iron nuggets.)
Again, collecting has always been crucial to Animal Crossing. If you don’t like doing what would seem like menial busy work in other games (or in life), you probably won’t like Animal Crossing. In the past, though, the game has done a better job of justifying that work, or at least offering enough opportunities to engage with the animals that it wasn’t quite as glaring.
There’s a wider problem with New Horizons that this intersects with, which is that it doles out its upgrades and unlocks over too long a period of time. If this is the first Animal Crossing game somebody has played, then it makes sense to take things slowly. If you’re familiar with the series, though, it’ll just feel like you’re spinning your wheels for little reason. It shouldn’t take several days to get to a point where you can travel over the rivers in your town, or use a shovel, or until basic features like the museum and store are open. Sure, it shows a commitment to the game’s theme—it does make this place feel deserted—but it also just feels like the game is stalling, which is weird for a game that is meant to become a part of your daily life for months to come. It’s also reminiscent of the original Super Mario Maker, where it took several days to unlock everything the game had to offer, no matter how many hours you put into it each day; that structure didn’t return for Super Mario Maker 2, and it’s surprising to see Nintendo implement something similar in a series that’s been around for 20 years.
This is not to say New Horizons is disappointing, or frustrating. There’s a tremendous amount to love about it. That doesn’t include the tediously slow and restrictive roll out of fundamental aspects of the game, though—especially at a time when everybody’s stuck at home and has little else to do. New Horizons’ deserted island can be beautiful and relaxing, but it takes a little too long to really come alive.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.