Animal Crossing is a strange series. What may seem like a chore simulator to one person is a lovable, living breathing world to the next. There’s really no silver bullet explanation as to why the franchise is so great — you basically have to experience it for yourself, and make an immediate decision as to whether or not it’s for you.
While the newest iteration, titled New Leaf for the 3DS may not be as “new” as the moniker lets on, it’s still a solid entry point into the franchise.
Once again the classic premise of building up and paying off your house in a town full of eclectic animals is back (as is your lovable loan shark, Tom Nook), but this time, with a slight twist — upon arriving at your new town, you become the accidental mayor. It will take a few days of real time (possibly a week) to actually become the mayor, but it’s a new core element of the game that attempts to mix up the formula a bit.
At first, it may be difficult to figure out what you actually need to do, as the game gives you little direction outside of doing chores, cleaning up the town, meeting its inhabitants, and earning cash to pay off your first house payment. Then you realize that in true Animal Crossing fashion, that is the game — you simply live your life the way you want to — that’s it. Visually this may be the most impressive Animal Crossing game yet, as the 3D visuals are absolutely gorgeous, and work wonderfully with the globe style “rotating” camera while traversing the world.
Time zones return, which essentially means you are restricted to visiting shops during certain real life hours, which may cause you to tailor your life around the game. Only the Re-tail shop (the core store) is open 24 hours a day at first (until you tweak the hours later as mayor). Certain events are based on both the date and the time, which takes an even further commitment from you when say, a resident offers to stop by your house at 5:30 PM local time.
The game doesn’t really start until you become Mayor (which is roughly 5-10 hours in). Only then can you start to circumvent some of the game’s rules like store hours, town layouts, and more. The previous Mayor will also spill the beans on his current situation eventually, and thus unlock a new mini-game island to play on (which you can experience with friends). So while the game is slow to start, it crescendos into a much deeper experience if you’re willing to put the time into it. Piece by piece, you slowly start to unlock new content and options, like the ability to “dream” into other player’s towns — although, if you’re not playing with them locally, you won’t be able to actually take anything back with you or affect their town in any way.
As you’re performing your duties, you’ll also meet more and more townsfolk to keep track of. The more you play, the more shops will open up and residents will continue to move in. Holidays will play out in real time, and there are tons of surprises that await you if you keep playing. It’s the kind of game you can play for a few minutes every day, or pick up every so often and enjoy in equal measure.
Unfortunately, being the mayor — the main new hook of the game – is not all that great. After a ton of buildup to get there, the actual leadership role involved is extremely minimal — as in, all your doing is essentially creating more goals inline with house payments over and over. Ordinances that slightly change the way your town operates (such as boosting the economy) are cool at first, but most “public works projects” devolve into “pay for it yourself” structures, essentially just elongating the meta-game of paying off Tom Nook.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of things to do if you’re looking for a classic Animal Crossing experience, and customization is king in New Leaf. You can customize your outfit, the town flag/logo, your wallpaper, and pretty much everything you want once you enact your political ordinances. It’s a simple system, but it can get rewarding and flattering when residents of your town start to wear your designs. There’s also tons of collectibles in New Leaf, almost to the point of absurdity. In classic series fashion, you can donate practically any collectible, from creatures to fossils into the museum, to help grow your collection. Outside of building up and paying off your house upgrades, this is one way to look at “beating the game” — although there is no real end.
New Leaf could have stood to use a few actual new mechanics, as the mayoral system is not as deep as it sounds on paper, but the Animal Crossing experience is faithfully preserved. Playing with local friends and streetpassing together and comparing towns will help increase your enjoyment tenfold, but if you’re flying solo this time around, New Leaf is probably best for hardcore fans and newcomers — not for most gamers who are in-between.
This review is based on a digital copy of the 3DS game Animal Crossing: New Leaf.