It’s fun, but is New Leaf’s material old hat?
For the most part, Animal Crossing is an iterative franchise; it makes gains through evolution, not revolution. As has been made thoroughly clear by the previous couple of installments in the series, the foundational structure isn’t likely to change much. But as New Leaf’s title professes, it pushes a little further against the boundaries of familiar Animal Crossing territory. The question is: are these changes for the better, and if so, are they sweeping enough to justify another go with the series if you’ve already been through all of it in years past?
Oh man, where's the driveway? I knew I forgot something
A City for the City Folk
You can’t bring any of your previous earnings (or possessions) to New Leaf, so you really will be starting over. But things are a bit different this time anyway. For starters, like City Folk, the main shopping district is separated from the rest of the town. However, unlike City Folk, this area is actually pretty cool now. Back when I reviewed the Wii game, I mentioned that the separation of many of the shops from the town was a cool concept, but that it would have been much cooler had they spent the time to make it seem more substantial. Fortunately, in New Leaf, that’s precisely what has happened. This area only starts off with a few minor places to visit, but the longer you play (and the more Bells you spend) here, the more attractions that will open. It has a much more organic feel to it as a result.
While we’re on the subject, to quickly list some of the options available to you, here’s what you can find in this area once it’s fully developed (minor spoilers?):
Nook Homes – Tom Nook has left his shop to be managed by his offspring and has moved up the ladder to exclusively selling real-estate. With a renewed focus on these endeavors, he’s managed to find even more ways to spend your money: namely, with options for the biggest house ever in an AC game (with a main room, plus a room to the left, right, and behind, upstairs, and basement—and all of the rooms can be expanded, too). There’s also plenty of newly customizable aspects of your home as well, such as fences and special doors. It’s a pretty cool idea overall that really adds some personality to your home.
Nookling Junction – The old Nook’s Corner, as mentioned above, has fallen into the hands of his youngsters. Far from letting it wither into disrepair, they’ve instead taken up the torch and once again display a range of interesting items. As you spend money here, it will grow over time.
The Post Office – Business as usual here.
The Museum – This looks the same at first, but it’s actually quite different now. Not only can you (as usual) donate items to be displayed, but later in the game you can actually unlock a second floor where customizable exhibits are displayed. And it’s big, too!
Leif’s Garden Shop – Here you will find saplings and seeds available for purchase.
The Able Sisters – This is once again your destination for all things fashion, along with…
Labelle’s – …the attached accessories shop, now run exclusively by Labelle.
Shoe Shop – Run by Kicks, this shop sells solely shoes and socks (see what I did there?).
Club 101 – By day, it’s Dr. Shrunk’s new emotions-peddling joint (bring a gift, get an emotion). By night, it’s KK Slider’s stage, where you’ll hear his usual range of music, along with techno NES-style remixes via “DJ KK”.
Photo Booth – This is just a little booth where you can take the photo (not a real photo, good heavens, no) for display on your ID.
The Happy Homes Showcase – Here, homes from people you’ve Streetpassed will be on display. You can even purchase items directly from the display homes.
That’s quite a few shops, even if many of them aren’t available from the start. Needless to say, you will be spending a lot more time here than in City Folk—and it’s fun to contribute to the local economy and watch it all grow.
But that’s just a mere fraction of what the game is about, of course. Most of the action still takes place in the town area, where all of the animal (and you) live. Here, as usual, folks will move in and out, requesting things of you, socializing in harmless Animal Crossing-like ways, and randomly giving you items or writing you letters. And once again, you can occupy plenty of time performing such addictive activities as fishing, digging up fossils, catching bugs, picking fruit, and shaking trees. As you might have guessed, there are now more items (and bugs, fish, insects, and otherwise) to collect than ever before, so there is no shortage of rewards should you choose to do so.
Needless to say, there's now more items than ever before.
But this time, it’s not all entirely about you. There is also an entirely optional secondary game of mayor to be played, where you can initiate Public Works projects or implement new Ordinances to alter or grow your town. Apart from providing another place to spend your Bells (as the Public Works projects are expensive, and Ordinances cost 20,000 Bells apiece to adopt), this is a pretty cool way of offering additional customization of your town.
For instance, the Public Works projects include such mundane items as bridges (pretty useful) and fountains, but they range all the way up to complex additions like the Dream Suite (more on this in a bit) and Resetti’s HQ (due to budget cuts, he’s been forced to suspend his operations until his lab is rebuilt). Once you commit to one, you will need to contribute the necessary funds to have it completed—mostly entirely on your own, as your animal neighbors are apparently pretty stingy. Ordinances are similarly useful but fewer in number. For a nominal cost of just 20,000 Bells, it’s possible to impose a “Keep Our City Clean” ordinance (where the residents will help pulls weeds and such) or declare that your city is comprised of “Night Owls” (so that shops will stay open late).
The best thing about the mayoral additions is that they’re totally optional—so if you want to completely ignore them altogether, that’s your prerogative. For those who choose to indulge, however, they provide yet another layered approach to customizing your town, and in some ways they’ll make playing the game more convenient (if, say, you work mornings and want to play at night for example).
So, you want to be a sucky mayor? No sweat.
Want to get away from it all? Then you’ll be pleased to hear that, once again, as in the original AC for GameCube, you can visit a tropical island at any time where it’s summer year-round. However, this time, it’s not lame and inconsequential—instead, it’s home to its own little assortment of mini-games, where you can win medals. These medals are used as currency on the island (they’ve never heard of Bells there, and there’s no exchange rate in play—they don’t want your Bells).
The mini-games range from a hedge maze to insect hunting to diving for treasure, and they’re ranked according to how long they take to complete. When you’re finished playing a particular game, your performance is evaluated and you’re rewarded accordingly. If you’ve got multiple friends visiting your town, all of you can take a trip to the island together to compete in the games—which is a fun way for incorporating preset multiplayer scenarios (seeing as in the past you were always left to devise such games on your own). It’s also possible to simply spend time swimming and diving at will, and by doing so, you can unearth new collectible creatures and other ocean items that can’t be found anywhere else. But it’s also not really that interesting, so you most likely won’t be spending a lot of time doing it.
The Internet and Beyond
Earlier on in this review, I mentioned something called the Dream Suite. It’s this phenomenon (acquirable by way of a Public Works project) that grants you the entirely new option of visiting the towns of strangers. The way it works is important, though: while you can visit, you can’t screw anything up (after all, it’s a dream). Unfortunately, you also can’t bring anything back with you, so it all feels pretty pointless, in spite of the fact that it’s something people have been wanting for so long. There is one exception: Wendell can be found walking around here, and you can purchase patterns used by the player in the dream. But that’s it.
Apart from that, you can visit the towns of friends via the interwebs, as well as over local wireless play. All of this is easily accessible in the Train Station, though once again (for internet play) you will need to acquire and employ the dreaded Friend Codes to make it happen.
You never know what'll turn up on the hook
Apart from the major stuff I’ve listed, New Leaf is home to a whole host of other refinements as well, most of which are too numerous to list here. Stuff like the ability to select multiple fossils to be identified (and to view the ones you’ve already donated as visually marked) or switch between tools using the D-pad is extremely convenient, and it merely serves to make the game that more digestible and accessible for all players with varying degrees of patience. There’s also the 3D, which is effective enough to warrant frequent use without becoming annoying (and it’s actually useful when catching bugs and the like).
So what about those of us who have already experienced every previous installment of the series? Is it worth going back to Chumpton again? Honestly, that all depends on who else you know that’ll take the journey with you. As always, Animal Crossing’s appeal is rooted in its social underpinnings—and if you have the friends to share it with, it’s hard to imagine it failing you.