Many games attempt to create a sense of a living world and while they may be well drawn they are often only active as long as the player is active within that world. However, once they have left everything simply stands still awaiting for their return. Animal Crossing: New Leaf, as with the prior entries of its series, takes on a life of its own even after the player has closed the lid on their 3DS.
Sitting in a train carriage en route to their new home the player is greeted by a cat who will ask them a series of questions which will give them the option of naming themselves and the town to which they are heading. New players may be confused by the lack of a visual character adjustments that can be made in this opening scene but depending on how you answer the questions the cat asks you can customise your characters appearance to a limited degree.
Upon arriving in their new town the player will be greeted by the anthropomorphic animal community welcoming you in as the new mayor much to your confusion. As part of your first day in the town you will plant a tree to commemorate your arrival, pick a spot for you to build your house and then get acquainted with the rest of the community. Beyond that, players will soon find they’ll have to wait until they boot the game up the next day to see their house built and are able to progress in their Mayoral duties.
The real-time clock that sets the Animal Crossing series apart from other similar games returns for this installment. While it is possible to forcibly propel time forward by changing the time on the 3DS system clock, doing so defeats the point of the game. This isn’t a game to be rushed into as doing so will likely be a frustrating experience as everything is designed around you visiting your town every day, although skipping a few won’t punish you in any harsh fashion.
There are a variety of little tasks that players can do in order to cultivate and maintain their town. Planting trees will grow fruit which is ready to collect in a few days and sold on while placing and watering flowers adds some decoration to your idyllic home. Weeds will also grow sporadically that need to be pulled or dug up in order to keep everything tidy. It may seem needlessly fussy in terms of gameplay but as with most things in the game there isn’t an immediate need to take care of it immediately. Players can also go fishing, insect hunting or dig up fossils that can be sold at the local recycling shop.
Your town will initially be home to several villagers with more eventually moving in as time passes and as mayor you will need to keep them happy by interacting with them frequently. Chatting with them often leads to surreal conversations where they will profess their love for cucumbers or brag about their bodybuilding skills and the variety of different amusing conversations to be had with the townsfolk ensures it doesn’t become repetitive. Sometimes they may ask a favour of you whether it be delivering an item to a neighbour, trading items with them or obtaining an item for them. It’s also possible to write letters to them, writing about whatever you want and they will be grateful for it, even more so if you attach a present to it as well.
Stripped out of context each individual activity in an Animal Crossing game can seem quite mundane and lacking in any real skill beyond patience, but after a short time the game as a whole does become hypnotically addictive. Catching bugs or fish doesn’t exactly demand that players possess any extraordinary skill beyond patience, but for completionists slowly filling up your encyclopedia with new species does strangely keep you coming back to catch more.
As Mayor the player will be able to initiate two main objectives for their town: public work projects and ordinances. A public work project will involve constructing a new requested town feature such as a fountain, park bench or a new bridge while an ordinance can make changes to the town's economy or schedule. For example, if you find yourself playing a lot at night when the shops are closed you can allow them to remain open for a few extra hours before they shut for the night, allowing for the game to be a little more flexible for players who need it.
On the main high street of the town there are several shops and businesses that will slowly expand as time passes. Most shops have a limited amount of stock which will be replenished and rotated the next morning so players would be encouraged to make a purchase of a particular item or piece of furniture they want before the store closes at the end of their trading day. There’s also a museum that will display artwork, bugs, fish and fossils that the player can donate and help expand as well.
There’s a large amount of customisation available to the new Mayor on both a personal and larger scale. There are patterns that can be freely edited using the touchscreen to create designs that can be used for clothing, the town flag or carpets and bed sheets. The freedom to essentially create whatever you want so should you want your house to be a shrine to Satoru Iwata then you have the tools to create that very specific, strange idea. These designs can also be shared online with the use of QR codes allowing those creatively minded to show off their creations for others to use as well. There’s simply a huge amount of furniture and decorations for your house as well ranging from sofas and beds to arcade machines and asteroids that float around the room. By spending Play Coins from the 3DS’s pedometer you can also buy fortune cookies and redeem the fortune for a Nintendo themed item at random whether it be a wearable Link’s hat from The Legend of Zelda or a decorative Arwing from Starfox to show off in your digs.
For the first time the town feels like it’s actually yours. In past Animal Crossing games you were simply a resident with no real responsibilities or tasks beyond that would really affect your surroundings beyond a house you live in. The overall size of the town isn’t huge but there is more than enough room to arrange everything to your liking. You will personally choose where new constructions are placed and where plants are grown, giving each and every user a unique town of their own. Players will also feel a great sense of pride in their town as they see how far it has come since that first day when you didn’t even have access to build anything of note.
There are various different multiplayer options available to players accessible through both local play and online. By linking up locally players can visit each other’s towns and trade items with access one another’s shops and items that may not yet be available in their own town. Players who have exchanged friend codes can visit each other online. It is possible to visit random player towns while asleep in the Dream Suite which allows players to see how others have developed their town albeit without the ability to visit any shops or permanently alter the place. There are up to four save slots that can be used for families who might not have multiple consoles or copies of the games with the first new game acting as the Mayor with any subsequent players being added acting as regular citizens who can perform any tasks that don’t require interacting with Isabelle, the Mayor’s assistant.
After a few days it’s possible to unlock transportation to a tropical island where players can partake in various mini-games such as hide-and-seek, bug catching or pairing up buried items on which they will be awarded with tokens to buy exclusive items. One item is a pass to access an online multiplayer island where up to four players can roam around or participate in the mini-games as well as have access to a limited chat function. A minor annoyance when roaming the island online is the constant stopping to save whenever a new player joins or someone else drops out sometimes preventing you from netting that pesky shark you’ve been trying to get. The hoops that are required to jump through in order to play with new people online do feel unnecessarily restrictive but once you do get access it is a lot of fun despite the additional lag when performing various functions. Players who StreetPass others with a copy of the game can trade houses with each other which does provide quite interesting comparisons as you can see exactly what each individual person feels is important to the aesthetic of their home.
While New Leaf doesn’t really reinvent the successful formula of the previous Animal Crossing games there are some welcome refinements which do speed up the various different actions the player will take part in. Speaking to neighbours is snappier than before and being welcomed into shops is sped up, reducing the repetitive dialogue each time you enter. The inventory system is now much more user friendly thanks to the ability to stack up fruit into the same slot and trade multiple items with shops and the museum. Tools can also be equipped and cycled through with the D pad rather than fiddling around in the inventory menu. They may be small changes, but they do go a long way in reducing the tedium of constantly donating single items or assessing only one fossil at a time at the museum and wading through the same text boxes each time.
Playing New Leaf is a relaxing experience much like many other life simulation games like Harvest Moon. By sticking to the manageable tasks you set yourself each day the game will likely provide you with more replay value than any other game on the 3DS throughout its lifetime. It provides a nice change of pace from the more exciting or intense titles, requiring much less of your time in a sitting than Fire Emblem Awakening or Resident Evil Revelations. After extended breaks from playing the game you’re not going to lose your sense of place within the world even if weeds grow everywhere, flowers die and your neighbours become irritated with you in the time between sessions, making for an ideal game to play through in between the more demanding fare as well.
What’s great about the game is that pretty much everything can be approached at your own pace without any real sense of urgency. You can choose to simply go around catching fish or planting trees and forego expanding and filling up your house with furniture or you can just hang out on the island chatting to people. There’s no correct way to play the game and everyone can essentially spend their time as Mayor however they wish.
New Leaf retains the simple aesthetic of its predecessors with a few notable tweaks such as characters now being taller in order to better show off the new clothing styles that can be worn. The locations are similarly simple but pleasing in appearance and the rolling environment does work effectively with the hardware’s 3D effect activated. The music is also relaxed and minimal, adding to the calming atmosphere of the game. Some players may find the townsfolk’s garbled dialogue a little annoying but overall the game is very well polished.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the best entry in the series yet. While it doesn’t radically change the existing formula, the tweaks and additions do reduce the amount of drudgery that inevitably built up over time in the previous titles. The only real disappointment comes in the form of the antiquated online system that makes it difficult to connect and share with new players. It provides a welcome change of pace from many of the more heavy-hitting titles available for the 3DS and is a more than welcome addition to a console that has already had a great year already.