During the three weeks since its release, I’ve thought of little else. In body I may be at work yet my mind continually drifts back to Buneaton; to its colourful residents, its sandy beaches, and to the community that I’m building there. I think of the circle of trees I’m nurturing around the standing stone we recently unearthed, the letters I need to write to thank my kind neighbours, and the projects I should execute as Mayor to move the town forward. It is all consuming.
All consuming, and yet unassuming. When it welcomes you in with its bright colours and big heads it’s easy for the uninitiated to wonder where the draw could possibly be. How could a game that looks like it could be a candidate for a CBBC show see grown men and women setup whole Facebook groups dedicated to what fruit each other are growing in their back garden?
Well, it begins with a train journey to a far off town.
Upon arrival you’re welcomed by the townsfolk, an enthusiastic collection of colourful creatures, they crowd around you excited to greet their new mayor. There’s been a case of mistaken identity but they won’t hear your protests, such is their eagerness to make you feel at home. But before you can take it all in, your new mayoral assistant Isabelle has whisked you away to Town Hall for a meeting with property mogul Tom Nook to break ground on your official residence.
A whirlwind introduction to the town sees you scurry back and forth between your home, the shops, and your office, catching fleeting glimpses of meandering rivers and groves of fruit trees as you rush by. They at least hint at the sense for the idyllic country life you’d originally signed up for. Thankfully the last piece of paperwork is soon signed and you’re left on your own. From the solitude of your tent it feels a lot like being on holiday; despite an exhausting journey there’s a sense that you should be out doing something but you’re not sure what.
A quick stroll, maybe, round down to the beach, possibly with a touch of shell collecting. Turn those in at the local shop for some bells – the local currency – and you get a fishing rod, leading to a trip to the riverbank. There you may pick some fruit so plant a few trees, discovering a world of insects in the process. But what’s that, a fossil? Scamper off to the museum to get it checked out. And now the curator suggests you donate one of everything you find to him, better get fishing again… it’s a series of constant distractions.
Such is the aimlessness of it all some could wander around and lose interest, but equally the discovery can easily draw you in. A few inquisitive paces in one direction or another could be all it takes as you start to unearth your village’s treasures. Shaking a tree here or talking to a fellow resident there, this is where Animal Crossing starts to bite. I envy those discovering strange marks in the earth or floating presents for the first time as there’s a wealth – quite literally in some cases – of distractions that can pull you this way and that. It may not be the fully realised world of a Fallout or Oblivion but there are just as many treats that will cause you to forget where you were running to and pull out a fishing rod.
Those who do wish for a more directed sense of progression can look towards their Mayoral duties. Up until this point in the series Nintendo has let you simply live in the world, enjoying all it offers but with minimal ability to guide it. In New Leaf you can now direct how the village grows. This may be as minor as installing a park bench, as useful as building a new bridge to cross the river, or as fulfilling as constructing a new wing to the town’s museum, and with each opportunity it feels a far more personable experience. Many of the stalwarts of the series are hidden behind this urban renewal too, causing you to squeal with glee as names from the past are hinted at by Isabelle as she hands you the proposed list of projects. This already has caused Animal Crossing to have a far longer tail than before. The need to work for old friends – or even discover new ones – is a huge draw, and keeps you playing the turnip market in the hope of a huge profit and the ability to pay for the coffee shop that you know will herald your favourite pigeon’s return.
Be it a beverage serving bird or the red tree frog who lives next door, the characters you meet play their part in keeping you hooked. They may be dim enough to continuously try and walk through trees but the personality their little AI possesses causes you to remember them, to seek them out for conversation or even to wish they’d leave you in peace. It’s like true village life as you hope for gossip and exchange pleasantries, even if the undercurrent of all your interactions is secretly hoping your “friends” will hand over presents if you’re nice enough.
Large portions of Animal Crossing are wrapped up in the ideal of community and conversation. Even basic operations such as character creation and heading online are disguised as normal chats, the latter hidden behind a train journey metaphor. At times this wordy approach can be draining as you just want to get things done speedily, but to reduce it down to a simple menu wouldn’t be half as charming. It’s part of the Nintendo ideal and here the clunky nature pays dividends.
What is also surprising is how fluidly the online integration works as four villagers can meet together for fun and frolics. An area set aside from the main town is dedicated to simple mini-games based around day to day activities, and if that’s too much you can all just potter round one another’s houses, critiquing the décor, and hitting each other with spades. It’s the epitomy of New Leaf as you’re as much the creators of the entertainment as Nintendo.
In a world of Dark Souls and The Last of Us, this is the ultimate retreat. A casual affair that allows you to dip in and spend some time cleansing your mind of demons and the collapse of mankind as you stand on the beach fishing as the sun sets behind you. Cynics may look too deep, past its charm and relaxing nature and question it, but not everything has to be a mentally taxing or rewarding feat.
As ever, it’s easy to dip in short stints during the train ride to work, but it also rewards those that want to put the time in and invest in their town. The rewards may not always be immediate but they’re subtle and plenty. New Leaf will coax you in and encourages you to stay.