It all starts suddenly. At first, you are sitting on a train making small talk with a curious blue cat that asks numerous questions about you and your destination. Next thing you know, you step out of the station to find a small group of animals cheering at the sight of your arrival. As it turns out, they have chosen you as their mayor; the one whose responsibility will be to develop the town and bring their suggestions for public works projects to fruition. Although that added power is the biggest shift New Leaf presents in relation to its predecessors, it is far from being the only one that is remarkable. After City Folk, the Nintendo Wii installment, changed almost nothing in the general scope of the series, Nintendo was fully aware that Animal Crossing needed to take a considerable leap, but without forgetting the quirks and care that have always made it such a fantastic franchise. As it turns out, they have pulled it off in amazing fashion.
In its beginning, New Leaf is extremely wise in its pacing, welcoming veterans with the necessary freedom, and aiding newcomers in finding out what exactly there is to do in this lovely world Nintendo has crafted. After settling into your small tent, the humble beginnings of a house that can transform into an enormous mansion, Isabelle - your helpful assistant - will tell you that the ability to build projects around town is not available until you have achieved full approval from your neighbors. She will, therefore, offer a number of suggestions as to what can be done in order to improve your popularity ratings. As a consequence, while veterans will be enthralled in the quest for the permission to start creating their dream town, beginners will be engaged in the discovery of the little activities that make Animal Crossing what it is.
All of the series' major staples make a return: fishing remains as fun as ever, catching bugs requires a lot of patience and silence, and digging up fossils is a daily delight. All of those activities, much like the entire game, work together with the system's internal clock. Most fishes and bugs are only available during a certain season, month or hour; new fossils appear as dawn comes, each of the town's shops have their own working hours and have different available items everyday, the weather and the town's visual changes as the year passes, some special visitors come around randomly during the week, and while some villagers wake up very early in the morning, others will only be up a little bit later and will be walking around town until the late hours of the night. If there is one thing that defines Animal Crossing is its ability to renovate itself with every passing day, making those that are engaged by it feel as though they have a brand new game to play with the arrival of every morning.
Another one of the series' main achievements, and one that is very much present in New Leaf, is how such a little and simple game map makes up for so many hours of gameplay. Although one can walk through the entirety of their town within a couple of minutes, it is not rare to spend over one hundred hours with the title. Those hours, though, do not come within a few days, as Animal Crossing is a game that is best enjoyed on daily bursts of about forty minutes. It's not time-consuming, even if its packed with so much content that most players will not be able to sort through it all and embrace everything. That quite intriguing distinction comes from the fact that Animal Crossing forces players to be patient and wait, and New Leaf emphasizes it more strongly than any other installment. The game is full of unlockable shops, abilities and constructions, and even though there is a large number of requirements that need to be met in order to be able to enjoy them, one requirement is shared by all of them: the passage of time. Some shops are only renovated after a week, or more; some characters only appear once a week; and after a public project has been fully paid for, players must wait for the next day to watch it materialize. The joy of Animal Crossing is in the little things, like the humble celebrations that are held when a construction is done, and while the game does not offer any kind of stressful challenge, it makes players feel rewarded in their waiting.
If there is some challenge, other than playing the waiting game, to be had in New Leaf, it certainly is earning money. Previous Animal Crossing titles put a heavy emphasis on finding ways to make money, and New Leaf takes it to a whole higher level. Regular items like furniture, clothes and tools retain the same average price, but not only does it take much more money to fully upgrade your small tent to a glorious six-room mansion, but the public work projects are also very expensive. Some of those projects are extremely useful, such as the club on the shopping district where it's possible to earn facial expressions and songs, or the laid-back coffee shop; while others only serve the purpose of making your town prettier, like the windmill or the fountain, something that is of very high importance in the world of Animal Crossing. As a consequence, earning the money to make both your town and your house look exactly like your sketched dreamy plans is an absolute must.
Thankfully, in order to balance out the game's increased hunger for cash, Nintendo has added a tropical island to the mix. This paradise is in perpetual summer, which is precisely the time when the most valuable bugs and fish are available to be caught, and, as a consequence, a forty-minute visit to it will leave your pockets filled with beetles and sharks that can be sold for great prices. Aside from aiding players in the creation of money-making schemes, the island also offers a few random tours that change everyday. Those tours work like timed mini-games of varied theme - catching a certain species of fish, popping balloons in the sky, picking up the right fruit or planting the right flowers - and reward players with medals, which can be exchanged in the paradise's shop for island-exclusive items. However, its most important benefit to the game is a great multiplayer activity to players who like to visit other people's towns over the Internet.
Speaking of traveling to foreign villages, it is important to note that it has become a much more engaging activity, and not just because the new Dream Suite allows players to visit random virtual versions of towns that are uploaded by players, but because New Leaf puts such a heavy focus on customization. Once upon a time, all players could do to make their town distinguish itself from others was planting trees, flowers and putting patterns on the ground to simulate sidewalks. This time, however, with the vast group of public projects, towns are even more distinguishable, allowing players to combine their gardening abilities with the precise placement of their desired structures. The customization leaks right out of the landscaping and it affects other areas of the game like the clothing, as unique shoes and even socks are available to be purchased; the exterior of your house, since Tom Nook has abandoned the retail business to focus on real estate; and even the furniture, which can be customized by the alpacas that run the recycling shop.
Fishing, hunting for bugs, looking for fossils, gardening, shopping, landscaping, customizing the world, visiting other towns, and even diving for sea-life (a brand new mechanics); it is all a whole lot of fun, but Animal Crossing wold not be complete without its charming cast of characters who are given life through the hilariously quirky dialogue. All of the NPCs, whether its the fixed characters who run the shops or visit town every once in a while, or the villagers that come and go as times moves on, all of them leave their mark one way or another, and there are not many games out there who have such an impressive and lovable supporting cast as Animal Crossing does. They add a lot of life to this virtual life, and they are bound to make you smile either for the simple fact that you have seen them, or because they have delivered one nice line of dialogue.
New Leaf is not just the series' peak in terms of content and value, it's also its highest point in technical terms. The game's visuals are absolutely stellar, and the cooperation between its unique, and slightly improved, art style with its relaxing and nearly rural feeling makes playing Animal Crossing come as close as gaming will ever come to being a therapeutic experience. Everything is tied up together by a soundtrack that hangs out in the shadows, but pops up quite nicely once one pays close attention to it. The hourly shift from one tune to the other is absolutely magical, and among the game's twenty-four unique town compositions - not to mention the incredible tunes played on Saturday by the great K.K. Slider - every single player will find a dozen of songs to cherish.
While stellar, New Leaf is not free of flaws, but all of them are so minor that they never grow pass the point of being slight annoyances or silly nitpicks that could only be pointed out by longtime fans. On the spectrum of slight annoyances is the fact that the game's inventory system is a little bit too restricted, as your character can carry around seventeen items at a time. It sounds like a good quantity, but when one factors the number of tools that are vital for daily activities (four), and that there is a whole lot of daily shopping to do, seventeen slots means that players will be doing way too many trips to either store what they have purchased in their house or to sell those items somewhere. Meanwhile, on the side of silly nitpicks, lies the fact that the difference between the types of personalities of the villagers has been diminished, meaning that - for instance - cranky villagers are not that cranky anymore and snotty ones are way too nice; and the return of grass deterioration, a heavily criticized feature of City Folk that is present here on a less aggressive manner, but that still works heavily against a game that puts so much emphasis on making one's town look good, punishing gamers that play the game too often by turning certain spots of grass that are too frequently walked over into muddy areas.
In the end, New Leaf is a game better described through the use of superlatives. It is one of the most charming games Nintendo has ever released, the most relaxing experience one can have while playing a videogame, and it's a title of unparalleled value, being able to renovate itself with each passing day and remain fresh not for weeks, but for years. It's a game that, in its general description, might sound dull or mundane; but once one comes into contact with it, and starts developing some kind of relationship with their town and the characters that inhabit it, it becomes increasingly more difficult to put down. It's not a guilty pleasure; it's a daily joy to be treasured, shared and enjoyed.