Back when – what feels like forever ago – we found out that a new Animal Crossing game would be coming to Switch, we were told basically diddly squat about the whole thing, but excitement ensued nonetheless. As time went by and we learnt more and more about it, the hype reached ever higher rungs on the big ladder of development, only hindered slightly by a delay of an undisclosed number of months. Previews came and went, and frankly, we weren’t certain such an intolerable fever could happen over a game without ‘Mario’ or ‘Zelda’ in the title, but here we are; with expectations verging on the impossible and justifiable impatience about to become legal tender, can the proverbial skills of Animal Crossing: New Horizons pay the bills?

Much like every other Animal Crossing game, you arrive fresh-faced in a town that’s seen better days. Unlike every other Animal Crossing game, the town isn’t really there yet, and it’s basically all down to you to fund a tycoon racoon’s mad obsession with Bells, and maybe make your island into a town in the process. This time you’re also able to actually choose how your character looks, rather than being asked a series of seemingly arbitrary questions by a cat of no fixed abode in order to determine your genetic makeup. You’re also under no obligation to keep the face you’ve chosen, and every single choice you make when crafting your character – from your hair colour right down to rosy cheeks – is immediately rectifiable with any sort of mirror or vanity you can get your globular hands on. It seems basic by modern standards, but credit where credit’s due and all that.

But just how un-towny is this island you’ve been dropped on? Well, in short, you and everyone else will be spending at least the first night in a tent, with no buildings, structures, pathways, or anything else to keep you company – besides hundred and hundreds of weeds, that is. This is nature’s home for sure, and unless you stop playing pretty much immediately, you’re going to want to make sure it knows you’re in charge. Plucking weeds, gathering fruit, selling them at Resident Services to Tom Nook’s unpaid nephews who seem to have an endless supply of funds at their disposal... it all needs doing, and none of the other islanders are going to do it.

This mega-early stage of the game feels surprisingly different to Animal Crossing as a whole; you’re supremely limited on what changes you can make, and your only real goal is to lay the groundwork for what's to come. The only thing that’s established is the layout of the land itself, although that too will eventually be yours to mould. Despite it being so different from previous games, we found the whole thing incredibly engrossing and appealing. The feeling of being isolated on a deserted island with not a care for what’s going on in the outside world is intoxicating and even somewhat addictive. Even in highly distracting real-life environments, we couldn’t stop thinking about that patch of weeds we didn’t quite have time to clear.

Speaking of weeds, they’re now more than just a nuisance; not only can they be straight-up sold for cash, but it's also possible to use them in the game's fancy new DIY system. This allows you to take raw materials that otherwise would serve little to no purpose and fashion them into swanky new gubbins. Stone, iron, three kinds of wood – none of the island’s resources are useless. All this needs to be carried in your inventory, and as such, the infamously limited space is thankfully bigger than ever before – although the old 'storing-things-as-presents-on-old-letters' trick can no longer be used, but then when did you really need to carry all those letters around anyway? It doesn’t end at a measly two rows, either; eventually, you’ll be able to upgrade your inventory to include two additional lines – one at a time – of extra space, which is so painfully welcome it actually hurts.

To do this, you’ll need to exchange Nook Miles, a rewards system created by Tom Nook that almost feels generous. By completing various tasks throughout the island you’ll be slapped with an amount of Nook Miles that can be redeemed for all manner of interesting prizes. These are each only one-time offers, but it won’t be long before you unlock Nook Miles+, which gives you a random selection of tasks to complete that get replaced as soon as they’re done. It’s a really great way to get players to try a variety of different tasks that they might otherwise have overlooked, and with the rewards ranging from clothing to new hairstyles, you’ll want to get as many as you can.

Classics of the series such as Nook’s Cranny, the Able Sisters’ shop, and the Museum all return in full form, except this time they don't appear right away – but when they do eventually arrive, you get to demand where they're built, like the dictator that you are. You’re also able to eventually change your mind and relocate amenities – as well as your home and those of other villagers. This level of flexibility is entirely optional for purists, but the fact that it’s even just possible opens up the scope of what’s available to a degree never before seen in the series – and the options don’t end there either.

The DIY system expands far further than we originally expected as well; we’ve seen a huge number of items that are available to purchase (or find) the old fashioned way that can also be crafted if you happen to have the appropriate DIY recipe on hand. Said recipes can be nabbed in numerous ways, such as being gifted to you by other villagers, acquired as part of standard progression, or even found frequently as a sort-of 'message in a bottle' washed up on the beach. In short, we love it. It might be a bit weird to hit a tree with an axe three times a day to gather from a seemingly limitless font of wood, softwood, and hardwood, but despite its arguably nonsensical qualities, the end result is a system that works beautifully.

You’ll need to work this system hard as well if you want any more than the starting two villagers milling about your island. Mr Nook will task you with fulfilling his lofty promises to prospective inhabitants by supplying items they deem absolutely necessary to live, like a birdbath. Our tanuki friend provides the DIY recipes, but everything else is (of course) down to us. This can hit your resources hard, and so it may be worth your while if you’ve exhausted your island’s supplies to take a trip with Dodo Airlines to a mystery island, after exchanging 2000 Nook Miles for a ticket.

These mystery tours place you on a randomly-generated mini-island where resources, fish, bugs, and even new villagers can be found. They may be small, but we’d be lying if we said we didn’t get a thrill from the whole luck-of-the-draw system at play. Most of the time we went to these islands because we needed to get more resources, but a few times we went just for a change of scenery – and when we happened upon an island full of bamboo, we felt our Nook Miles had been very well spent indeed.

So, with all the new systems in place, we were having a wonderful time; our emotions expertly tapdancing between excitement, wonder, anticipation, and relaxation. But we can’t deny that after a week or so the great steam locomotive that is our enthusiasm was beginning to slow somewhat. No sooner had this feeling arrived than the all-powerful Nook hit us with the news that the Resident Services tent would be upgraded to something that looks suspiciously like a town hall in just 24 hours. We were pleased, but we had no idea just how much more would be opened up with this single building. Suddenly we could create ramps, a town tune was in place (which was instantly changed to ‘At Doom’s Gate’ by parties unknown), bridges could be sprinkled wherever we wanted, we could change the flag, the previously-absent hourly music appeared, the entire island had erupted in new possibilities, and our eagerness spread across our faces like a big, grinning, ear-to-ear grin.

It doesn’t even end there, either; our DIY horizons were expanded even further with the ability to customise objects with different colours, and in some cases even with custom designs. Bedding, cushions, even your NookPhone case can have whatever sordid graphics you wish plastered all over them. It’s something fans have understandably been asking for for a long old time, and to see it realised so effortlessly makes our hearts swell in a safe and metaphorical sense.

With all this customisation in objects, building locations, paving, and even the land itself, the only major limitation (besides your wallet) is your imagination, and whether you’re willing to put in the time to make it a reality. Nothing happens overnight (actually, buildings and renovations do occur overnight, so scratch that), so you’d better be ready to sink some serious hours into this game – and with so much here that’s so well realised, it’s hard not to. This is the point where we’d ask a question about whether the game looks good, but come on, we all know it looks good.

In all seriousness, the presentation in every sense here is all but flawless. It’s one of the prettiest games on the Switch, so when you couple that with atmospheric lighting, a crisp 1080p docked resolution running at 30fps, sound design that hangs like honey in our ears, and undoubtedly the finest museum in video game history, this is nothing short of an audio-visual dream. Handheld play unsurprisingly feels extremely natural given the series' history, but docked is where you'll get to see the shiniest of the pretty things in the quality most deserving.

And the loveliness doesn't end on a pixel level; the world feels far more alive than ever before. Villagers will wander around holding books and examining flowers, watering them, singing on the plaza, bashing away at a DIY Bench, running up to you to give you stuff you feel you can't turn down... it's all a rich tapestry. Integral characters like Tom Nook and Isabelle also have far more life in them, dusting, sorting, busying themselves appropriately rather than just waiting for your inevitable interaction with slightly dead eyes. The leaves on the trees all move independently, the footprints you leave on the beach behave differently if it's raining, the level of charm and attention to detail is simply unparalleled.

You’re not restricted to the delights of your own island, either. As with previous entries you can take your charming little self off to visit the wonders found on the islands of others, either locally or via the internet. The system remains largely unchanged from New Leaf, except with an extremely pleasing little classic airport information display-themed animation to announce the arrival of any new players, and it works well. We can’t say the idea of having a whole 8 people trampling around our simple but extremely personal town is something we’re clamouring to do, but the ability to do so shouldn’t be scoffed at in the slightest.

If wireless ‘ain’t your thang’ you can also rope in another user (or three) from the same console to join you in your endeavours. A single Joy-Con is all that’s required for each player, meaning those who picked up a shiny new Animal Crossing: New Horizons Nintendo Switch console can dive right into co-op without delay. Players who aren’t classified as the singular ‘leader’ can’t pick anything up due to lacking an inventory, but it’s extremely simple and straightforward to swap who the leader is with just a few inputs. It’s a feature that will no doubt go down very well with families as well, and for a quick romp around the island, it works impressively well.

If we have one complaint it would be that very occasionally the UI, whilst extremely smart and functional, isn’t as snappy as we’d expect it to be, resulting in some (thankfully rare) mistaken inputs as we feverishly rifle through menus to complete the next task. There’s no option to use the touchscreen when creating custom designs either, which is a bit strange. Those are honestly our only gripes.

Conclusion

Animal Crossing: New Horizons takes Animal Crossing and not only drags it back onto home consoles, but improves upon every single facet imaginable. There's more to do, more to see, more to change, more to mould, and more to love; fans and first-time players are going to find themselves losing hours at a time gathering materials, creating new furniture, and making their island undeniably theirs. Every moment is unashamedly blissful, with excellently-written characters that truly feel alive and an island paradise that gives back infinitely more than you put in. Back when Animal Crossing: New Leaf hit the shelves all those years ago and created a whole new generation of fans, many people were wondering how Nintendo could possibly top it, but here we have our answer. This is a masterpiece that has been well worth waiting for.