Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review - Animal Crossing: New Leaf

The Roost Cafe; truly something to celebrate.

It's an odd thought, trying to review a game that is, by its own design, endless, but it's something that can be done, and more than that, it's simply something I want to do.  At various points before and after its release, I mentioned being in various states of excitement for it and its new additions to the series, some good, some bad, but the fact remains is that not only was I excited enough to get it, but I was excited enough to get a bundle specifically of it, rather than waiting on my must-have title, Rune Factory 4 and seeing if there was something better by then.  That I wanted the game by this method that much means that it was a game that I wanted because of what it promised to be, and more importantly, what it promised not to be - which was just the previous Animal Crossing games over again.  A review then is not only the best measure to say whether or not they actually managed that, but also if they created a game to be excited for.

One thing that remains relatively unchanged is the controls of the game which is not a bad thing.  Animal Crossing has never been an overly complicated game to play, though to ever call it stream-lined would be stretching the truth a bit, if not a lot.  Improvements have been made here and there:  The D-Pad allows you to cycle through your tools without bringing up the inventory screen as previous installments (except for City Folk, I believe, where it was an actual legitimate new feature) and both shoulder buttons can be used for sprinting/text speeding, negating the accidental "No, I don't want to do your easy errand that will score me major points with you" moment with the villagers.  Additionally, both shoulder buttons pressed -together- allows you to take a screenshot of the scene as it is, which is a feature that absolutely every game should have in some form.  Admittedly, this is more just me speaking from my extended time with the Vita, where the screenshot feature is in almost every native-Vita game (Resistance:  Burning Skies is the sole exception I know of), but that exposure has also shown me how great a feature it is, and it's sorely missed when it's not around.

There have also been some very mild Quality-of-Life upgrades that have been made in New Leaf which are appreciated, even if they're not quite numerous.  For one, you can stack common fruit in your inventory now in baskets for up to 9 fruits per basket.  It helps a bit even if 9 is still a bit limiting, all things considered (given that there are at least 12 types of fruit in the game and it's wise to have all of them in your city thanks to 11 of the types, as in all but your native type, sell for a decently high price every time you have them.  Simultaneous harvests means big, big bells) but it's at least a step in the right direction.  You can now also swim around, provided you have the right equipment (a Wet Suit, which can be loaned at a specific area and later bought at the same area, provided you go on a day where it's for sale) which is...not exactly useful for anything, given that your swimming area is rather limited, but it's neat nonetheless and allowed them to add a lot of deep-sea/seafloor finds to the game for you to find, catalog and donate or sell if you're so inclined.

Housing has also been tweaked for the better for the most part, which is definitely something to appreciate.  First off, every player you have (up to four players, I believe) gets their own house rather than just a bed in your attic which is huge and it also brings the validity of having a secondary character into the light as something you might want for reasons I'll expound on later.  Houses can also have a total of six rooms now - Main floor, three side rooms from the main floor, a basement and an upstairs - all of which can be decorated and eventually become 8x8 rooms which is roomy but comes just short of feeling truly...expansive.  Space is extraordinarily precious in Animal Crossing games, so while six 8x8 rooms sounds like a lot of space, it's really -not- considering the ridiculous amount of money you have to spend to get to that point, as well as how much dead space there has to be just so you can get around in said rooms.  One of the nicer things about the game, however, is that you can now customize the exterior of your house as well - the roof, siding/fa├žade, mailbox, fencing and bricks under the building itself - which allows you to truly make your home your own, or at least more your own than previous iterations.

The most wasteful walk-in closet you've ever seen.

Returning fans of Animal Crossing games will probably not be surprised to know that the old enemy, Storage Space, is still around in full-force, perhaps even moreso than previously.  Animal Crossing games like to boast of having thousands of things to collect and whatnot, and it's the definite truth, but actually collecting is something of a pain considering you have a very limiting amount of space to do said collecting with.  To bore you with a bit of math for a moment, each character has access to a single area of storage that's linked between every storage option you have (dressers, cabinets, etc.) and it has a total space allotment of 180 bubbles (three sections labelled A, B and C, ten bubbles a page for six pages of each section, thus six times ten times three equals one-hundred eighty).  Every piece of anything - clothing, furniture, art, insects, fish, tools, etc. - takes up a single bubble.  So you might think it doesn't actually sound bad, but this is where things start getting bad, because you start considering just everything you might want to keep on hand.

Another Quality of Life upgrade that has been received in the meanwhile between games is that everyone actually has legs now, rather than bodies that end in stubby little feet.  Thus, pants and socks are now a clothing option.  At any given point in time you can have up to six articles of clothing on:  Hats/Helmets, Face Accessory like Glasses or such, a shirt, pants, socks and shoes.  If you have just three 'outfits' that you like, that's eighteen bubbles right there, but if you're smart (i.e. you read a guide and know that you -need- outfits of specific types) then you are going to have a lot of spare pieces if not separate outfits altogether specifically for that one-day-only event, meaning you need to have them before it happens (and you have no way of knowing beforehand) or else you're out of luck unless your stores are selling them.  So you can very easily fill a single section with just clothing items and still want for space (as you see in the above, I want for space for clothing items).

Then consider furniture options and realize that furniture comes in sets.  Sets can have upwards of eleven or so items in them including flooring and wallpaper.  You can have a maximum of six rooms in your house.  If you have a back-up set for each room in your house (considering you...might actually get bored of your furniture which is a given that might happen and probably will), that's sixty-six bubbles, or more than a single section in your storage.  This is, of course, considering that you're only keeping items from the sets that you actively want (you're not) instead of keeping things that you think are also just cool that you might like to decorate with someday if the mood strikes you.  This is especially so for the Nintendo-themed items you can get through the fortune cookies at the Nooklings store, because I defy anyone who has even a little bit of love for Nintendo to receive a Master Sword decoration and not want to keep it, if not actively display it.  So basically, you're going to have a lot of furniture because a lot of it, if not most of it, is attractive in the right light and unless you know specifically what you want, and sell absolutely everything else, you're going to have a bit of it hanging around.

Of course, you don't have to keep everything on-hand and some argue actively that you shouldn't thanks to the Cataloging option in the game.  You see, if you ever lay hands on a piece of anything and it's saved safely (meaning you don't lose a connection to someone else, exit suddenly without saving or something else) then it's available in a catalog from then on out that you can order from, allowing you to receive items in it the following day.  The caveat of this is that not only are some things not available through the catalog for purchase (a lot, really), but you pay full-retail for them every time you order them.  Full-retail is, obviously, not something you get for selling an item unless you put it up in a Flea Market spot and get lucky (sometimes you can even make a profit off an item, of course) so the answer is pretty obvious - hold onto things you might want or that you know others might want so you don't have to spend extra bells and wait a day for the items.  This brings us full-circle with the original storage complaint, though, so it's a bit strange.

This time around, you can also mitigate the storage concerns with Museum exhibits, should you chose to bastardize the point of having them available at all.  Eventually you can fund a second floor to the museum that brings with it four exhibit rooms, 8x8 spaces that you can rent out and decorate however you wish.  Decorate can mean "throw everything on the floor to take up the maximum amount of space allotted (64 spaces) just because" if you so choose it to mean that, and while I -have- done that with two rooms, it's...just a waste.  My furniture room (appropriately dubbed "The Warehouse") comprises solely of items I've shaken out of trees and received from villagers that I intend to sell through the Flea Market for full-retail rather than a pittance, but given that there are two items in trees everyday, and villagers can be...generous sometimes, compounded with the fact that ReTail only has eight Flea Market spaces (and I'm lucky to clear two a day), it becomes obvious why I have a lot of overspill.  My defense for this is simple: For a full house, you need somewhere around Six Million Bells, which doesn't count anything else whatsoever and goddamnit, I am going to wring every single goddamn bell out of everything I have.

Everything above is simply bandages applied to a problem that has another cure altogether, however.  Put simply:  It's 2013 and this is the 3DS, so are the restrictions even necessary?  The 3DS isn't overflowing with power, but it's not exactly running two gens ago either so -some- upgrades in that area could have been made.  You're still stuck with an inventory of only sixteen bubbles (and three of those are going to be full of tools, specifically the shovel, fishing rod and net at least, but you're gonna want the other tools too) for some reason, as well as the mentioned 180 storage bubbles (I'm not sure off-hand how this stacks up against previous versions, but I'm assuming it's about the same) and it just seems arbitrary.  It also becomes near-infuriating when you realize that fruit doesn't stack automatically nor do bells stack or even go right into your money spot right away (neither of these make any sense) and you have to see the "Oh no! My Pockets are full!  Should I swap this with something?" message over and over and over again because you don't have enough pocket space goddamnit and I have to simply wonder at the why behind it.  The easy answer is likely the online stuff, but even then....I'm not quite sure.

Pictured:  Apparently what spaces are.  Not Pictured:  ANY HELPFUL VISUAL CLUES WHATSOEVER.

Space in the context of infuriating lack of forethought comes in another flavor as well, one that I have already covered in some detail, but will nonetheless talk of here as well now that I have a little more experience with it, though not necessarily more knowledge on it.  One of the bigger things in New Leaf is the fact that you're the Mayor of your town, and being Mayor allows you to populate your town with things like benches and fountains and a Sphinx or a Lighthouse or a Police Station or a Streetlight, all of which are just considered the same thing in terms of the -how- you place them down.  Which is taking a lovely stroll around with Isabelle, your faithful secretary, unto you find a spot that you think might look good for whatever you have in mind to put down.  Most of the time, Isabelle will simply tell you that it's too close to something else (Because it's almost always too close to something), but she'll also inform you of how many spaces you need for whatever the project at hand is.  Pictured above is a 2x3 plot of land (apparently two spaces to the left and right and three spaces back means that instead of...more than two spaces across.  Am I the only person who reads it that way?) which is all well and fine, but if you'll also note, there's also no..grid or anything visually helpful in the picture.  This is not different when you actively seeking a spot for placement.  This is something of a problem, I'm sure you can imagine.

Something else that makes it difficult is that I'm not quite sure where the thing is placed in relation to where you stood when you addressed Isabelle.  The obvious answer seems to be that you were dead in the center of it, but when you're talking square spaces (as I can only assume we are), dead-center of a 2x3 grid is...something that I'm not quite sure how it works.  While I haven't tested it, one solution would likely be plotting out a grid with flowers (assuming flowers only inhabit a single space), digging holes around them as a barrier (equally assuming holes are a single space), pulling up the flowers (to be placed elsewhere) and then pulling Isabelle into that cordoned-off area while managing to get right in where you want and hoping that she doesn't say it's too close to "something else", which in this case means the goddamn holes you dug to try and mitigate this problem.  Knowing how this game operates, this type of thing wouldn't surprise me in the least.  This does eventually lead to simply haphazardly throwing down whatever projects where ever they'll fit with the least amount of effort, rather than at specifically desired locations, which seems a bit counter to the point.

Regardless in the quibbles of the placement and execution of getting it funded and the like, being able to throw down these things in your town is impossibly cool, and does add a lot to the experience, quite frankly.  People with longer attention spans than my own, patience and the ability to plan things with no frame of reference have been able to make some lovely looking towns, and I've even heard tell of 'theme' towns, in which you can go and see a town that plays out with a certain storyline in mind, which just baffles me in a good way.  Even barring that, it basically ensures that no town, even with the same basic layout, will be the same in practice, which is something truly astounding.  The more free-form structure to building placement in general helps with this, of course (previous games had certain 'spots' where villager houses could be located, and nowhere else), but nothing says individuality potential like the ability to throw down a Police Station near a Geyser that's near a Zen Clock.

The buildings go beyond simply what you have in your town, however, thanks to the Main Street shopping district located just beyond the tracks at the top of your town.  The starting locales include a single-floor museum, Nook's Housing store, the post office, the Nooklings store and the Abel Sisters complex.  Eventually as the game progresses, you'll implement a Dream Theater (if only because it's a source of 5,000 bells a day), a second floor to the Museum (covered above), a Nightclub where K.K. Slider DJs and does acoustic sets every Saturday night, better classes of Nookling Stores, a Garden Center, Shampoodle's and a Shoe/Sock store at least.  It's really quite enjoyable to see how malleable and dynamic the Main Street actually is.  It's also an appropriate measure of progress that.....could be argued is present elsewhere (mostly public works projects and your house) but is nonetheless what I judge on.

My secondary character, Dinah, knows how to make a good cup o' joe.

Thankfully, there are a few new bits in New Leaf that offer new kinds of gameplay to shake up the norm when you finally have access to them.  My favorite by far, considering I have a disproportionate like for the Cafe' than I should, is actually getting to -work- at the Cafe', serving up to-go cups of coffee to patrons from your town and elsewhere in the world.  It's strange, being excited to work in a game that's....not about reality at all in that form, but it's refreshing and enjoyable all on its own.  It's a simple mini-game to be sure; three patrons enter one after another and order a cup to their specifications, though you won't always know what -all- the specifications are.  There are four types of coffee beans, four levels of milk and four levels of sugar, and your goal is to, obviously, hit the optimal range for that villager's tastes.  Some folks walk in and order "the usual" and considering there are some 300 villagers in the whole of Animal Crossing, it's...hard to remember everyone's favorite.  Luckily, there's a handy list on the internet that tells for them, but also the 'special' characters (like Tom Nook, K.K. Slider, etc.) who are often a bit pickier. (Normal townies generally want the same amount of milk and sugar, so if you know one, you know the other and that just leaves the question of blend.)

The other heavily advertised feature of the game was the Island Resort that you get access to after Tortimer (the former Mayor) visits and tells you that you'll have a boat waiting for you whenever you wanna head over.  The Island is a good source of income, considering it plays host to various rare beetles when the sun sets (all year-round, even), but the main attraction it -wants- you to visit for is the "Tours" which are just mini-games to play by yourself or with friends for Medals, the currency accepted on the Island.  If there's an activity in Animal Crossing, there's probably a tour for it.  Navigating a large maze to find particular bits of fruit, beating up a rolling robot with a hammer, fishing and catching bugs (either specific types or just 'a lot'), digging up matching furniture, fossils or gyroids and my personal favorite, the Scavenger Hunt.  In the Scavenger Hunt, you're given a list of four things to find and placed in a map with randomly generated buildings.  You have to rush in, find items from the list in the houses (the difficulty places more and more of the same type/set of item in the buildings, meaning higher difficulties requires you to be particularly discerning) and take them back to Tortimer before time elapses.

The thing is, both of those things I just made mention of are not things that you're going to do every day, multiple times a day, or if they are then they're not particularly involving or long so you're just kicking around in a new situation for five or ten minutes before it becomes old news officially.  None of it re-invents the wheel, so to speak, nor does it invigorate the game beyond its roots of previous Animal Crossing games.  You can dress it up however much you want, with whatever new things that you want, which New Leaf tried, but unless you really dig in and insert something new with force, all it is is window dressings.  Not only are the additions to New Leaf just that, window dressings, but there are still ridiculous Quality of Life changes that still have not been made, perhaps in lieu of a set of furniture made of gingerbread.  New Leaf should have been the biggest, best Animal Crossing game so far, but it only managed half of that.  I'm not surprised, but I am still disappointed.

The Good
  • Stacking Fruit is a very nice Quality of Life upgrade
  • As is the D-Pad Tool switching
  • The Roost Cafe' is so nice and the mini-game offered by it is fun, if simple
  • Secondary Characters have their own houses now, rather than just a bed in your shared attic space
  • Actually being able to add things to your town in a tangible fashion makes for good things
  • The Flea Market allows you to make some good bank and offers some enjoyment from it
  • Taking Screenshots is always nice, all games should have it
  • Being Mayor is a neat feeling, even if it doesn't mean much mechanically
  • It's still Animal Crossing at its core
The Bad
  • Fruit and Bells not automatically stacking is a ridiculous oversight
  • Storage space is needlessly limited, and the Catalog isn't the best answer to that
  • Still a general lack of things to do, depending on what times of day you desire to play the game
  • Placing Public Works Projects is an exercise in frustration at best
  • Bells are entirely too scarce considering you need Six Million+ to renovate your house fully, -plus- fund the PWPs you want
  • The only way to get new things to build (and single-handedly pay for) is by waiting for Villagers to randomly suggest them....meaning it takes a while before you get a new option, and it's likely not one you want
  • Honestly, just -too many things- in New Leaf are random, from the days when someone special might visit (and then don't a lot of times, such as Crazy Redd skipping a week) to what they offer when they do visit (such as Crazy Redd selling three fake paintings and the one you just bought last week goddamnit)
  • Being Mayor doesn't mean much mechanically, and instead is just a neat feeling
  • It's still Animal Crossing at its core
Mogs Says
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is Animal Crossing: City Folk with new stuff which is Animal Crossing: Wild World with new stuff, which is a fairly big departure, for better or worse, from Animal Crossing.  The series has not been re-invented or re-invigorated, despite what you might have thought or what might have been stated to suggest as such.  It's still a fun game, of course, and one that you'll find yourself playing because you want to, and not necessarily because you feel you -have to- out of some sort of responsibility for the town (which admittedly goes to hell without you around).  Still, each iteration is another chance to add a whole new level to the series as it is, and New Leaf simply didn't do that.  I'm not even sure that they honestly tried, but at least there are a few new toys to play around with in the same old sandbox we've come to know and enjoy.

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