Even though I tend to write these reviews raw and with a minimum of planning I usually have a general idea of what direction I want to take and what I have to say about it, and when it comes to games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf this can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s never my goal to say any more than I think needs to be said about a game when I review it, and in this case there’s very little to say.
I admit that I browsed a few other reviews in preparation for sitting down to put my thoughts to paper, but most of these felt bogged down with lists of new features that read like they came right off the back of the game box. I could tell you about the new townspeople, the secondhand store that contends with the Nook shop, the public works projects that allow you to add elements to the town, or any number of other pieces of added content, but I feel like that’d be skirting the meat of what Animal Crossing is about as a franchise and what specifically New Leaf does to refine and perfect the absolutely insidious formula that keeps players coming back to play what amounts to a glorified to-do list for hours on end: the experience.
If you’ve never played a title in the series, what I’m talking about here is the difference between simply executing commands and allowing yourself to be absorbed into a bizarre, colorful world where money is a measure of luxury rather than necessity. A recent conversation with my roommate finally helped me to nail down this distinction: He tends to view games on a mechanical level first, in terms of how to most efficiently accomplish an end goal, and sees Animal Crossing as a series of Skinner Boxes feeding into one another but ultimately accomplishing nothing. From a purely mechanical standpoint I really can’t argue with that assessment, but going into this game viewing it as a spreadsheet to be executed completely circumvents its central theme of community and simple choice. Whether you’re interacting with the local fauna or another player come to visit your town, Animal Crossing is about building relationships in a community and unleashing your imagination to add context and meaning to the unending string of rudimentary actions and fetch quests you’ll embark on.
To put it extremely basically, all those choices that add up to the general Animal Crossing experience are expanded on by New Leaf rather elegantly with the simple decision to make the player the mayor of the town. The awkward species domination issues that emerge when you place a lone human in a position of authority over an anthro-animal society aside, it’s the logical extension of the series’ penchant for making the player the most active member of the community to place that same player in charge of its growth and development. Tortimer be damned, the player was always the one in charge, and now the façade has been lifted to allow the mechanics to reflect that. That new club doesn’t just show up in the shopping district one day, you gather the signatures on the petition to make it happen.
Having skipped over the Wii iteration I hesitate to call this the definitive version of the game, but by all my research and personal experience with New Leaf I’m hard pressed to find a feature that doesn’t show up again on the 3DS. The added customization options across the board underscore the sense of growth and progress that was previously limited to item collection, letting you take your opportunity to finally run the show to its full advantage and create a town that feels like your own… given enough time and money, of course. Any way I look at it, Animal Crossing: New Leaf succeeds at everything it sets out to do. If you’ve been on the fence on finally giving this series a try or were looking for an excuse to buy a 3DS, this is the best I’ve seen so far in terms of overall appeal and pure replay value.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, this park bench isn’t going to pay for itself.