At the top of my town, to the east of the main street where all the shops and museums are located, there's a bench that looks out to the ocean. I'd often find myself drawn to this spot, sitting down, relaxing by the sea, watching the waves and the stars twinkling at night. There's no particular reason to do it--it's just a small spot to quietly enjoy a peaceful view. And yet I'd still find myself coming back here. It's that small chance to rest, to just take it all in and realize how beautiful and nice the town is.
In this bench lies the essence of Animal Crossing.
In this bench lies the essence of the game's laissez-faire view on what it lets the player do, trusting them to find their own fun. There are no timed objectives or lives on the line. Animal Crossing: New Leaf gives you your own town and sets you free.
Enjoy it. The game is a little respite not just from the stress and worry of the real world, but also from other games. In a sense, there's something very anti-game about Animal Crossing. No objectives, consequences are small and easily avoided. There is nothing you have to be doing, and because of this you'll find that there's so much you actually want to do.
It may be be a little telling that I've seen so many "hardcore" gamers come over and find themselves enraptured by this game. It's just so delightfully unlike other games on the market. As people seem to begin questioning why so many games cast the "good guy" as a mass murderer and lamenting the fact that non-violent games aren't getting as much attention, even from their developers, Animal Crossing has been able to stand apart as a long-running franchise based on the concept of nonviolence.
It's really one of the biggest draws of the series. The most violent thing you can do is bonk someone with a bug net, but even their look of shocked confusion is too adorable to seem like you really hurt them. Even superbly evil things like this joystiq review have their limits. And the consequences? The neighbor you didn't like moves away, leaving you to discover a new, and likely better, neighbor in his place. A new neighbor with new little quirks and ticks that make it really easy to like almost everyone you meet. One of my neighbors calls me "li'l ears." It always makes me smile.
The game's brilliance lies in the fact that the most stressful thing you do is relax. It has been 4 games and over a decade (!!!) since the original Animal Crossing hit the GameCube, so the developers have very smartly added some new things to do, chief amongst them being the fact you're the mayor. As mayor, you have a chance to reshape the town in interesting ways. By raising money for public works projects, you can add bridges, hammocks, lights, and personalize your town in a way you never could before. This is cool, because you can actually upload your town online as a save-state and have other people download it and look at it. Combined with the fact that you can share your house with anyone via StreetPass, and they've done a lot to capitalize on that Diablo like aspect of getting sick loot and showing it off to anyone who cares (and a lot of people who don't!).
The Island and the concept of the city have also returned, but they've been rather largely overhauled. With the island, it's no longer just a hut on a rock. There're now minigames to play, new fruits to collect (DURIANS), and even a different currency. It's easy to go there and spend an hour and come back loaded down with exotic fruits and animals and sell them off to make a fortune. The city from City Folk has been shrunk down into a main street now, and when you arrive in town, most of the shops are closed and it clearly needs some renovation. When you finally pump more money into the local economy, it starts to thrive, opening up more shops and more types of venues, upgrading ones you have as well. It's cool and really feels like you're having an impact on the place.
There are also a million little things they changed. You can now buy shoes and pants. There are more exotic fruits. Neighbors have more personality types. You can cycle through your tools using the d-pad. It's now easier to catch bees (which is good because it was impossible before). You can stack fruits. The visuals have been completely overhauled and it's not difficult to say that this is the best looking game in the series by a long shot.
Truthfully, if we had unlimited bandwidth, I'd just be sharing a million different photos showing all the little things about the games and the tiny changes. The way Sable opens up to you the more you talk to her, the mannerisms that Nook's kids (nephews? younger clones?) have when they speak, the little ceremonies you have when you're able to pay off a public works project. Everything Gulliver says. It's these little moments that make the game so great, and you have to play it to experience them for yourself.
Yet I foundproblems with the game. First is that your neighbors seem to get upset much faster that you're talking to them a lot than before. It's especially bothersome when you're playing on a weekend with nothing else to do because it's easy to get them upset in about an hour and spend the rest of the day not really being able to talk with a neighbor you like. The other thing that bothered me was how long it takes to get some things done. It takes at least 3 days to earn your town development permit. You then have to unlock certain online functionalities (as well as StreetPass) overtime. I know Nintendo's always been weird with online, but if one of the main draws is going and seeing other places, why do they make it so difficult to do?
I've spent 2 weeks with this game and I know that I'm yet to see all the game has to offer, and that's what excites me the most. There's always something new to see and do, and all the additions make it easier to hop in for a few hours each day and lose myself in the world. When things get to stressful for me in the real world, it's nice to know that Animal Crossing: New Leaf is there in my 3DS, offering me a nice escape. And as I sit in that little bench, legs kicking, a smile on my face, it's hard to know when I've enjoyed a game so much for such simple reasons.