Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Animal Crossing: New Leaf (Review)

So in addition to everything else going on in my life right now, I picked up Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS) after discovering that I have $40 sitting in my eShop account. Actually, I stopped in at my local EB Games to pick up a physical copy first, but they were sold out (not impressed, EB Games! Work on that!) One of the reasons why I went in to buy an actual copy of the game is that I have a spare 3DS sitting around, and once I'd finished with it - not yet realizing that Animal Crossing: New Leaf is not a game that you ever FINISH, exactly - I was planning on giving it to my fiancee. Now that I've been playing it for a few days, though, I can see that this probably won't ever happen unless I end up buying a second copy for her.

Before I get to my thoughts on New Leaf, I want to take a second to talk about a couple of issues I have with Nintendo, and their policies surrounding eShop downloads. In the eShop, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the same price as it is in the store ($34.99 plus tax - I ended up paying about $40 for it). With an actual game cart, I'm free to play it, trade it in, return it, or give it to someone else to play when I get bored of it or am finished with it. With a digital eShop copy - which again, let me remind you is the EXACT SAME PRICE - I do not have those options. Sure, there's the system transfer option, but that takes EVERYTHING from my current 3DS and copies it to another one, so there's no picking and choosing. As things stand right now, this copy of New Leaf is semi-permanently attached to one system. I really wanted to play it, and as I mentioned I had forty bucks in eShop credit that I'd forgotten about, so it made sense to buy it at the time. But this will probably be the last time I purchase a non-exclusive title from the eShop. The restrictions are simply too draconian, and don't make sense.

None of this is the fault of New Leaf, however. For those who have never played an Animal Crossing game (and I was one of them), it's difficult to describe how it plays - in fact, it's difficult to justify how, exactly, it's a game. Prior to picking it up, I read a semi-sarcastic review of New Leaf on Amazon complaining that the game didn't have any enemies to fight or any action whatsoever, and while this was hardly a surprise to me, I still wasn't quite sure what I was getting into. A game like New Leaf represents such a dramatic paradigm shift in what a videogame is, it almost feels like a parody: "Go catch bugs and water flowers! This is the nicest game ever!"

I've been playing it for about two days now, and I have to be honest: I'm still not entirely sure what I've gotten myself into. On the basis of overwhelmingly positive reviews on other sites, I was expecting something slightly different than the cutesified small-town simulator that I ended up with - it has an 87% positive score on Metacritic, and on Kotaku's review roundup for the game, Destructoid had the lowest score at 70% while IGN gave it a 96%. Critics, it seems, really like this game. But for my own part, I'm still not quite seeing it.

This is not to say that there's anything wrong with New Leaf. Sure, it's a different sort of game than the ones I usually play, but that doesn't make it automatically bad. Part of the problem with something like Animal Crossing is the very slow, regulated pacing: it isn't meant to be played through in a weekend, but - like a Tamagotchi (remember those?) - is a virtual environment to be cultivated over months and even years. Getting a good impression of what New Leaf has to offer in the span of two days, even two days where I've logged at least two and a half hours per day, isn't really fair to the game. I mean, I only just got my house this morning, and my overall approval rating is something like 47% the last time I checked. I didn't buy a bug-catching net until this morning either. So for the last couple of days, I've been learning how to fish, shaking every tree in town, picking and selling flowers, and chatting up villagers. It's a little bit on the repetitive side, but I know that in the coming weeks the game will open up much more and I'll be swimming and playing minigames and adding onto my house and more.

Patience is a virtue in New Leaf, more than any other game I've ever played. There's a certain admirable bravery on the part of the designers, in choosing to dole out parts of the game as rewards for sticking with it; it also means that while I haven't been exactly overwhelmed with options, there has still been a lot to do every day.

Note: I started writing this last week, so I'm now about nine days in at this point.  I've managed to get a 100% approval rating and open up ordinances, so shops are open later.  I've unlocked the island and its minigames.  I've made some additions to my house and I've gotten a pretty good sense of what this game is all about.  And I have to say, I am getting BOOOO-OOORED.

As I mentioned, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a very well-received and well-reviewed game.  I'd like to offer a dissenting view.  I think that for what it is, it's relatively well-crafted and charming, but there are a few aspects to it that I just don't care for at all.  And while I have invested more than a week into it, I'm getting pretty close to throwing in the towel, because frankly, I just can't be bothered to care.

I said earlier that Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a small-town simulator.  This is only correct on paper - New Leaf is more of a chore simulator than anything else.  It's a very adorable, cheerful, and even occasionally clever chore simulator, but you will spend 95% of the time playing it running around cleaning up, grabbing things, sorting things, re-arranging things, filling out your collection of fossils or shirts or fish or whatever.  None of this is all that problematic except that every single day amounts to the same set of actions: dig up fossils, break rocks, shake trees, run from bees, gather shells, go fishing, sell objects when your inventory fills up.  Talk to villagers, set up a few meetings at villagers' houses, drop off and arrange new items at your house.  Repeat, repeat, repeat. 

There's a certain type of person for whom New Leaf will hold a lot of appeal.  Or certain types, I should say, as there is admittedly a range of things to do here.  The game caters to the hardcore Nintendo fan, first and foremost: the gamer who has played past New Leaf games, or who just really, really loves Nintendo and all of their branding.  Some of the first decorative items I found were Pikmin and a string of banana peels from Mario Kart; these items have no function other than to sit in your house and remind you that you are playing a Nintendo game.  You will also find a Metroid, Mario themed wallpaper, any number of Mario objects, Starfox memorabilia, and so forth.  Now, there's nothing strictly wrong with this, but it seems like Nintendo thinks (or wants to think) that this is far more of a selling point than it actually is.  And in the context of the game, it represents some serious brand over-saturation.

And then there are those with a collector's mindset.  New Leaf has a lot to offer to these types, as long as they're interested in collecting bugs, fish, fruit, flowers and pieces of furniture.  For myself, after catching my 200th fish and discovering that I'd mostly collected zebra turkeyfish and sea bass, it suddenly dawned on me that if I was going to be playing New Leaf as a collector, it would be imperative that I grind.  And I hate grinding.  I mean, I'll do it in an RPG because there is a direct pay-off in terms of XP and stat-building, but New Leaf presents very little to no reward for grinding other than the self-satisfaction of finally finding an elusive breed of insect or whatever.  That lack of game mechanic is becoming more and more apparent as time goes by, and no amount of medals and minigames can make up for that. 

Finally, New Leaf is worth playing if you can't get enough of adorable little animals.  I will admit, the writing in the game is top-notch, if lacking in any sort of plotline or real development.  Your town is populated by a growing cast of anthropomorphized animals, and they each have a distinct personality and set of interests.  Some of the little interstitial descriptions and comments made got a chuckle out of me, and I am nowhere near the target audience for this sort of thing.  But cutesy turns of phrase can only get you so far.  I've only been playing for nine days and I'm already sick of talking to my town's residents, and their constant demands to have me run errands for them.  If you're a big fan of Hello Kitty, or even the sanitized, family-friendly Mario universe, you'll probably get better mileage out of this. 

It could be that I'm missing something here.  Maybe I haven't opened up enough of the game, and maybe at some point mechanics come into play that offer more "game" than "chore".  But so far, at least, I'm not seeing any indication of this.  All I'm seeing is a long, largely-featureless straight road that needs weeding and cleaning up, and I have enough chores to do in real life that the idea of spending my recreational time doing it in a game is losing its lustre fast.

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