Is Animal Crossing: New Horizons worth coming back to in 2021?

Animal Crossing New Horizons Villagers
Animal Crossing New Horizons Villagers (Image credit: iMore)

Like most people in the gaming community, I played a lot of Animal Crossing: New Horizons when it launched in March 2020. The game's relaxed pace, gorgeous visuals, soothing soundtrack, and peaceful vibes provided a welcome contrast to the onslaught of harrowing news in the real world, and I took full advantage of that escapism. For months, I spent an hour or two each day tidying up my island, upgrading and decorating my house, getting rich off the Stalk Market, going on island tours, and hanging out with my island's villagers.

Eventually I started to play less and less as I felt the pull of other new releases, and by August 2020, I stopped playing completely, content with the state of my island and my overall experience thus far. Recently, though, I decided to return to my virtual slice of paradise to check in on the state of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and see if the game is worth coming back to. And after spending a few weeks back on my island, I'm ultimately left with mixed feelings.

Acnh Autumn (Image credit: iMore)

On one hand, everything I loved about the game originally is still there. The visuals and music of New Horizons are as beautiful as ever, and while it's not exciting, completing the game's various forms of menial busywork is a nice way to chill out after working all day or dealing with something particularly stressful. There's also a lot of fun to be had with the game's decoration mechanics — between terrain editing, path creation, and the ability to place pieces of furniture outdoors, decorating your island is more fun in Animal Crossing: New Horizons than it has ever been.

Nintendo has also updated Animal Crossing: New Horizons with lots of new stuff to collect and use over the last year, and I've had fun getting my hands on as much of it as I can during my recent return. More options for outfits and decorations are always good, and I appreciate that Nintendo has continued to add them well into 2021.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Nooks Cranny Outside (Image credit: iMore)

The lack of meaningful progression and content variety makes it hard to get back into New Horizons.

On the other hand, though, the fact that Animal Crossing: New Horizons lacks meaningful progression systems makes it hard to stay invested. The thing that ultimately makes Animal Crossing's "slow burn" approach to game design so satisfying to engage with is that you're working towards things over time. This is something that Animal Crossing: New Horizons could learn from New Leaf. In that game, there were several community structures, shops, and events that you could only unlock by spending time with villagers, decorating your town, doing favors for specific characters, and investing large amounts of Bells. The game also had five different upgrades you could unlock for Timmy and Tommy's item shop.

In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the only shop there is to unlock is the Able Sisters clothing store, and you can only upgrade Timmy and Tommy's shop one time. Why not allow players to work towards unlocking Brewster and his coffee shop, or a beach clubhouse owned by Kapp'n? These are the kinds of goals that kept me playing New Leaf for well over a year, and reaching those goals was incredibly satisfying. Beyond customization, these goals don't exist in New Horizons, and that's a shame.

New Horizons is also desperately in need of some content variety. While the updates Nintendo have done for the game are cool, it would be nice for the developers to update its events so that they have some depth and aren't extremely simple and generic (for example, Toy Day only requires you to give random gifts to villagers instead of figure out what each person wants by asking for hints like in New Leaf). Villagers also repeat dialogue lines on a very frequent basis despite their differing personalities, which makes many conversations boring. Villagers also don't send you on any interesting quests like burying time capsules or delivering presents anymore — instead, they just give you boring "bring me this item" fetch quests.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Heartbreak (Image credit: iMore)

I didn't notice most of these problems during my playtime in 2020, mostly because I was enjoying the game's positive vibes and didn't realize how lacking New Horizons' progression systems and content variety really was at the time. But now that the honeymoon phase is over and I've spent a few weeks evaluating the game with a much more critical eye, the issues are very apparent.

Ultimately, I've enjoyed returning to Animal Crossing: New Horizons for a few weeks, and if you enjoy relaxing games, it's still definitely one of the best Nintendo Switch games available. But the game needs a big update, and until Nintendo releases one that adds more goals to work towards and more varied content experiences, I'm extending my New Horizons hiatus.

Your thoughts

What do you think? Do you agree with me that Animal Crossing: New Horizons needs more depth and variety, or do you think the game is fine as it is? Let me know. The game is available on Nintendo Switch for $60 if you haven't played it yet and want to give it a shot.

Brendan Lowry