Animal Crossing: New Leaf Review

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a welcome return to the world of unabashed materialism that should entice veterans and novices alike.

There's a party in Pancako, and everyone's invited. In the southeast corner of the city, where the river cascades to the ocean below, the citizens gather in joyous revelry. Flip wears his finest clothes for the occasion--a blue sweater vest with no pants--while Isabella commands the rapt attention of the eager townsfolk. For the past week, the city has been taking donations for a public works project that promises to elevate Pancako from a forgettable stop along a winding train route to a burgeoning metropolis replete with eye-catching architecture and bountiful entertainment. After the mayor gives a brief speech, the animals cheer, streamers fly into the air, and the commemoration is complete for this glorious addition to the city: a yellow bench.

You're probably all wondering why I called you here.
You're probably all wondering why I called you here.

In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, there is no success too small to celebrate. The townsfolk happily congregate whenever a lamppost or scarecrow is erected, never showing a hint of irony as they welcome a new landmark into their town. Letters flood your mailbox, pouring out prodigious thanks for the common pear or ordinary seashell you sent to your anthropomorphic neighbors. And that happiness isn't limited to your friendly animal companions, either. Their unrestrained yearning for material goods and basic relationships is infectious. Just try to withhold a smile when you snag an endangered coelacanth from the icy depths or receive a silver fishing rod from Celeste. New Leaf transcends its simplistic nature to offer a deceptively absorbing and rewarding experience.

Free from the shackles of ordinary home life, you set off to a far-away town in search of a new beginning. Relaxation is action in New Leaf. You walk through the bustling hamlet, visiting stores and talking to citizens as you unwind from the daily grind. When you first fire up the game, you must name the town and choose the general layout, and you continue making important decisions when you settle in at your own address. Through mistaken identity, you're granted mayoral status, and the citizens willingly prop you up to be their leader as they follow your every utterance. No mere puppet, you shape the town as you see fit. Ordinances shift the behavior of the populace, demanding that stores adjust their hours to meet your needs or that everyone sprout a green thumb to keep the town looking beautiful. Only one ordinance can be accepted at a time, so choose wisely; the cost to shift is high enough to discourage indecisiveness.

Laws are but one way in which your actions impact the town. Not only are you in charge of the landscaping, but as mayor, you decide which public works projects to construct. These include signs, fences, and fire hydrants, along with larger structures such as bridges and fountains. Build enough, and more options are open to you. Once you complete a few yellow benches, for instance, you can start churning out metal benches, if you so desire, and certain store owners even request renovations. The museum curator, Blathers, may plead for a second story to be added on to the museum, but only if you've proven that you're willing to pour money into the city.

The picture of contentment.
The picture of contentment.

In theory, these projects are supposed to be citywide endeavors. Once you decide where to erect these structures, a gyroid is placed there, asking for donations from the citizenry. Unfortunately you are forced to bear the brunt of the cost. The cheap animals who populate the town may throw a few hundred bells into the pool, but you have to fork over tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands of bells to make up the difference. It's hard, costly work being a mayor. And even after you pour more than a million bells into improvement, the animals still demand more. When you visit your town secretary, Isabella, she tells you what people are saying behind your back. More likely than not, they want more public works projects, even though they refuse to part with their precious bells to help out. If only there were a way to tax these lazy beggars.

As a result, much of your time New Leaf is spent trying to earn more money to meet your construction needs. Digging fossils from the ground and striking rocks to earn bells and precious gems is an easy way to make a quick buck, but you're going to have to put on your hunting hat if you want to reap serious rewards. Rare fish and bugs are worth a pretty penny, so your fishing rod and butterfly net are the quickest ways to move from rags to riches. You can clean out nearby rivers and oceans if you want, and shake trees to find creepy crawlies that have hidden away, but if you want to earn the most bells, you need to travel to an island paradise.

Day and night, Kapp'n sits at the dock, waiting to ferry you to the island. For 1,000 bells, he not only transports you, but serenades you as well. His rhyming songs are often ludicrous, with the delightful imagery of iced tea being used to cool hot feet and other such goofiness, which makes the long voyage delightful. Once on shore, you can roam the beach in search of pricey fish (including sharks!), or nab terrifying insects resting in the trees. If you have entomophobia, watch out, because some of those beetles are downright nasty looking. But they do fetch a good price, so you're likely to earn more than 100K in just a short trip to this vacation resort.

Earning money isn't the only reason to trek across the ocean. A variety of minigames set you loose in undeveloped enclosures in search of precious goods. You may have to unearth specific fossils or reel in exotic fish, all while a clock ticks down to the end of this excursion. Your reward? Medals. This is the only currency accepted on the island. New items are on sale every day in the store, and you can nab yourself nautical shirts and flip-flops, a shiny silver axe, or even a wetsuit. Scuba gear lets you explore the shallow waters near shore. Diving for sea anemone is a neat idea, but you move so sluggishly underwater that there's not much fun in the hunt. Plus, reselling most of these creatures nets only a small profit, so there's little reason to voyage back to the sea once your museum is stocked.

You wouldn't want to ruin your style by taking off your glasses before diving.
You wouldn't want to ruin your style by taking off your glasses before diving.

Sadly, many of the activities lose their appeal before long. New Leaf's date and time is tied to your system's clock, and the available fish and insects change with the seasons. Catching a surgeonfish or red snapper the first dozen times may be exciting, but after you drag hundreds of these things from the briny depths, it grows tiresome. The thrill of the catch is replaced by the drudgery of a job; you cast your line only to pay for the costs of town improvement. Because of this, New Leaf is best in short bursts. You can visit all the stores and dig up all the fossils in less than 20 minutes, so you have to wait until another day rolls around before anything new happens. Fiddling with the clock on your 3DS is one way to ensure new things happen, or just create your own entertainment.

Thankfully, for those with a creative mindset, there are ways to have a good time while waiting for the months to go by. Write letters peppered with threats or vulgarity if you choose, or maybe filled with pangs of unrequited love if you're in that kind of mood. Dress in the most outrageous fashion you can find. Moldy dress, balloon hat, and cyborg goggles? Why not? You're the mayor, after all. Complain daily that Peaches speaks rudely, or encircle Groucho's home with fire hydrants. See how many different kinds of toilets you can fit into your attic, or turn your basement into a torture chamber and see how your neighbors react. New Leaf lets you go crazy if you so desire, so there is plenty of fun on offer if you're the type who likes messing with virtual animals.

Now you can modify the exterior of your home!
Now you can modify the exterior of your home!

Still, no matter how clever you are, there are small annoyances you have to endure. The animals in New Leaf like to talk a lot, and have no problem repeating themselves. So be prepared to listen to the same spiel about insects from Blathers whenever you go to the museum, or to hear Isabella joke about washing Peaches' mouth out with soap when you issue a complaint. It's tiresome cycling through the same lines over and over again, which makes communicating with others less appealing. Eventually, you may become a recluse because of the repetitive dialogue, fishing by the light of the moon without ever so much as acknowledging others. It's a dark prospect, but one that seems ideal after listening to Lloyd's pointless instructions for borrowing tools for the umpteenth time.

The user interface is still incredibly clunky, something that has been true in every version of Animal Crossing. New Leaf is a game about collecting, and yet you have room in your pockets for only 16 items at a time. Considering that tools take up spots and you should carry a net, slingshot, fishing rod, and shovel with you lest a rare creature or event surfaces, you're down to just 12 spots. This ridiculous restriction means you have to frequently return to your home and to stores, limiting how much time you can spend exploring your city. Furthermore, transferring items is a pain. You can't just select all of the items in your inventory at once. Instead, you must tap (or drag) each item individually, which is a silly requirement that makes trips to the boutiques or lockers more tedious than they need to be.

Despite these issues, New Leaf is still an enjoyable diversion, and one that packs enough new content to entice experienced Animal Crossing players. Assuming the role of mayor adds lots of possibilities, and there are buildings to fund and new proprietors to meet as well. Kicks runs, well, Kicks, a shoe store that offers even more flexibility in how you dress. Leif is in charge of the garden shop, and even plucks weeds if you're lax in your gardening duties. Talk to Cyrus if you want to modify your furniture, or visit Club LOL if you want some laughs. Stop by on Saturday night to be serenaded by the famous K.K. Slider. None of these elements are outstanding on their own, but there are enough additions and surprises in New Leaf to keep even Animal Crossing veterans hooked.

Oh, nothing much. Just holding a butterfly net while an anthropomorphic duck looks on.
Oh, nothing much. Just holding a butterfly net while an anthropomorphic duck looks on.

And if you're ever lonely, New Leaf can be played with real-life friends along with your virtual companions. Invite a few buddies into your town and watch in horror while they buy all the furniture the Nook brothers are selling, or write notes trying to convince your animals to move to their town. They'll shake your trees to bring different kinds of fruit abroad, and possibly chip in a bell or two to the gyroid to help build another lamppost. Multiplayer adds to the charming nature of New Leaf. Part of the fun of building your humble town into a tourist destination is showing off your hard work. And you don't even have to interact directly with another person to reap benefits. By StreetPassing with anyone, you can see how they've decorated their abode. Plus, if any piece of furniture catches your fancy, you can purchase it for an inflated price.

New Leaf is a very strange game with an appeal that seems nonexistent to outsiders. The moment-to-moment activities are so banal that it's not readily apparent just how engrossing the small-town life can be. However, the more you play, the more invested you become in the well-being of your city, and the more exciting each small success becomes. When you receive perfect town status, it's hard to contain your joy, because you've had to work long and hard to earn that recognition. Animal Crossing: New Leaf is an expected sequel that doesn't stray far from its predecessors. Still, the happiness of your citizens is so intoxicating that it's easy to be sucked into this portable adventure as you live out your dreams as an all-powerful mayor.

The Good

  • Interesting mayoral powers
  • Quirky cast of characters
  • Tons of different customization options
  • Lots of new additions

The Bad

  • Endlessly repeating dialogue
  • Clumsy user interface

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