[PAX East] Hands On with Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Written by Abram Buehner

A Saturday afternoon surprise

The afternoon of Pax East Day Three is when the fatigue started to hit me, and as such, I needed a break. Resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to secure hands-on time with Animal Crossing: New Horizons considering I couldn’t secure one of Nintendo’s Warp Pipe Passes, I sat down on the periphery of the Nintendo booth. I was tantalizingly close, but unable to get inside. That said, I’d convinced myself that if I couldn’t go hands-on with the game, I’d at least sit near it, relax, and try to live vicariously through those who got to experience the next generation of Animal Crossing. Then, the skies opened up. A single, glistening ray of sun bathed me in the best news I’d heard all day: The Animal Crossing: New Horizons demo was now open to everyone—Warp Pipe Pass or not. I leapt to my feet and claimed the forty-fifth position in line. In my life I’ve rarely been so excited to stand in a line for an hour, but knowing what awaited me at the end made the time soar by.

When I finally got to the demo kiosk, I was greeted by a somewhat strange setup. The PAX demo was multiplayer only, and as such, each person at the demo station took turns being the leader with the other three being followers. For those unfamiliar with the multiplayer in New Horizons, only one player at a time can decide where the group will go, access a full inventory, or interact with the lion’s share of the game’s mechanics. It is a system that will work well enough in certain applications such as a family play session, but it isn’t conducive to getting a robust taste of the game. As such, I was not able to see everything I would’ve liked during my session with the game, but I did see more than enough to know that New Horizons is going to be absolutely phenomenal.

Follow the leader

I assumed the role of leader first and used my time to explore the island’s geography. The demo took place in a save file that was fairly early on, and as such, the island itself was rather untouched. This gave me the ability to really soak in the geography in its natural state and engage with familiar mechanics. We shook trees, caught bugs, and went fishing—typical gameplay beats that are par for the Animal Crossing course. As one would expect, they all felt just as good as ever. In some ways they’ve been made even more robust, as with fishing and the implementation of bait. This is more of the minutiae, though. The big takeaway is that the islands themselves are incredibly dynamic.

I was immediately reminded of the GameCube Animal Crossing title, where the towns were sprawling and multi-tiered. The islands in New Horizons crank that up to eleven. The landscape here is truly mountainous, and my demo group made ample use of the new tools to traverse the island’s verticality. Both the ladder and the vaulting pole truly make traversal much easier. Whereas past games have restricted movement in a way that makes getting around somewhat cumbersome, forcing the player to cross rivers and climb cliffs in designated areas, island exploration here is fairly effortless. It’s a phenomenal quality of life change that makes engaging with New Horizon’s scenery that much more enjoyable.

Immersive adventuring

There is a sense of scale here in New Horizons that I didn’t anticipate, but one that I fully appreciated. The environment feels so lively and varied topographically, nothing feels flat anymore. Even the beach, which has long been fairly uninteresting, is now elevated—literally—by shelves of ocean rock that the player can get on and fish from. The world here feels legitimately organic, which I love to see. The game’s immense level of detail helps with this as well. From the subtle patterns on the ground to the gentle rustling of tree leaves, Animal Crossing has never looked this good. In a word, the game is visually stunning. This is easily one of the best looking Switch games, and considering what else is on the platform, that is a true achievement.

After we patrolled around the island, I passed off the leader role to another member of the group who wanted to try his hand at crafting. The Nintendo representative at our station, who was the fourth player in our group, led us to an outdoors workbench where we could see the new mechanic in action. Crafting is simple and resources are plentiful. As we explored the island we collected a lot of materials, which provided an extra level of engagement and even more to do in the minute-to-minute gameplay. Crafting isn’t effortless though.

Only items that you have the recipe for can be crafted, so not every item will be available from the start of the game. There are many different ways to obtain new recipes, from villager requests to Nook Miles, and as such, the crafting system reminds me a lot of New Leaf’s Public Works Projects in practice. As someone who has struggled with the RNG aspects of collecting crafting recipes in other games, I hope that collecting recipes in New Horizons isn’t as tedious or time-consuming as a title like No Man’s Sky. Only time will tell.

Old faces in updated places

After we had seen this mechanic in action, the leader role was passed off once again and we began to explore inside some buildings. We briefly stepped inside Timmy and Tommy’s shop, which has seen some changes since New Leaf. We visited in the shop’s early stages, and as such, it had not been upgraded to house a ton of items. However, it still had a fairly wide selection of things to purchase, as there is now a cupboard in the back corner of the store which holds things such as saplings and flowers. Naturally, the decorations and knickknacks that the brothers have always sold still stand out on display, but many of their wares have been moved into these shelves. Even with this update, the shopping experience still felt largely familiar, and we exited the shop before too long.

After visiting Timmy and Tommy, we made our way into the Museum where we spent the rest of our demo session. In past Animal Crossing titles, I’ve always been disinterested by the Museum largely because it wasn’t that interesting to walk around in. New Horizons completely changes that. The building itself is enormous and teeming with interesting sights. We first checked out the insect room which is designed like a life-sized terrarium; filled with lush plant life, flowing rivers, and engaging displays that encourage the player to stop and admire the scenery. From there we continued left into the butterfly garden, which was equally detailed and fun to explore, further illustrating the development team’s commitment to creating a fully-fleshed out Museum.

Continuing deeper, we found ourselves in a room with an ant farm and research labs, where, presumably, Blathers and Celeste do their work. This room had some charming visual storytelling, something I didn’t expect within New Horizons. There was a cup of sweet tea that had been left out on a table, and the ants from the farm had escaped and were marching over to the cup, attracted to the sugar. Little details like these are sprinkled all throughout New Horizons, and they help to make the world of Animal Crossing even more dynamic and lively than ever before.

Say cheese!

After we had seen the Museum, the Nintendo employees called time and we had to move on. As we exited the demo station, we were handed exclusive Animal Crossing tote bags featuring the Nook boys and ushered into the next phase of the Animal Crossing experience. The New Horizons booth was split in half, with one side being devoted to the game demo, and the other half being a life-sized recreation of an Animal Crossing town. Here, we were able to take plenty of goofy photos with various tools and items from the game. The highlight, though, was getting to take pictures with the Animal Crossing characters themselves. Isabelle, K.K. Slider, and Tom Nook were taking turns posing for photos, and I was able to take a picture with Tom Nook, the main man himself. This was an incredibly charming and fun way to wrap up my time with New Horizons, and I left the booth with a huge grin on my face.

Considering that I initially didn’t expect to be able to check out Animal Crossing at PAX, getting to spend some time with the game was certainly a highlight of the convention. My hands-on time instilled complete confidence within me that New Horizons is not only going to be my next obsession on Switch, but another top-tier exclusive for the system. Expect plenty more Animal Crossing: New Horizons coverage very soon, as the game is a few, short weeks away. It’s almost here!

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