Friday, November 24, 2017

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp Review

Anyone who has followed my blogging since I began will know that reviews are not my thing. I find them difficult to write, but a new app has caught my attention and when I first heard about it, I knew I had to play it. Nintendo has finally released their new mobile app, this time based on their popular Animal Crossing series, for iOS and Android. This is a franchise of games that I thoroughly enjoyed over the years.

Animal Crossing is a franchise for Nintendo systems (4 games for four systems) where your character moves into a village and buys a house, does favors for the animal neighbors, like gets them things back from other neighbors, plant flowers, go fishing, catch bugs, buy furniture for your house, and even trade on the "stalk market" to make more Bells (the money in Animal Crossing). Yes, the way I've described it makes it sound very mundane, but there is a charm and fun to this series that people have enjoyed for quite a while. It's more of a daily hangout type of game rather than an action-driven one. There are different special characters who visit periodically (to sell unique in game items, and offer gifts and services), and the holidays (in the original Gamecube version) are marked by visits from other characters (Jingle the reindeer and Franklin the turkey, among others). It's a fun playing experience, and when I heard they were planning an iOS and Android version of this game I couldn't wait to see what they had planned.

And then it came out...

Nintendo released Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp for iOS and Android. It looks and feels, on the surface, like another game in the franchise. It contains many of the familiar characters and objects and sounds. There are some marked differences between the console versions and this new version. This time, the game takes place in a campground where the player takes on the role of campground manager. The player makes friends with the different characters, builds up friendships with them, and invites them to the campsite. The campsite has a big area for characters to sit, sleep, or play with stuff. The player also has a camper that he/she can customize and furnish (more on this later). I had high hopes for this game.

First of all, I was not at all surprised to see that Nintendo would make it "free to play", which basically means that you can download it and install it and play the game just fine. In order to move the game along quicker, though, the player can opt to purchase in-game currency, Leaf Tickets, for real currency. Yes, there are two different currencies in the game. Bells are the money used to buy items in the game itself. They are earned by selling items or by doing favors for the animals in the game. The other currency is Leaf Tickets. These are earned by achieving goals in the game or by leveling up. These are used to speed up the gameplay. Where an item of furniture purchased might take eight hours (real time) to complete, the player could opt to spend a number of Leaf Tickets to forgo the time and get the item immediately. They are also used to get special items that are only around for a limited time, like two different chairs to attract two different very popular characters. These cost 250 Leaf Tickets each, which is hard to get and they're also expensive (600 Leaf Tickets will cost you $20.99). Again though, I understand Nintendo wanting to make money, so I won't fault them for this.

This game, going back to the original Gamecube version, there was a social aspect to the game. While it wasn't online, a player could have as many villages as he/she had memory cards for the system. When a new village was created it had only one kind of fruit tree and a small shop run by the friendly Tom Nook. There was an ingenious system where the player could travel to the town on another memory card. That town would most likely have a different fruit, the player could leave a note or gift for the player on the other memory card, and there was different stuff in the store to purchase. Also, the player could interact with the animals in the other town and then they would send letters and gifts and maybe even move to the player's village. It was a brilliant system that got better and better with each iteration. In the Wii version, the players could interact and even talk to each other if they had the microphone.

This new mobile version of the game contains exactly none of that. The player can visit another player's campsite and give kudos and that's it. No interaction with the player or with the animal characters. There's no shop to visit when visiting another campsite and there's nothing else to do either. Players can't even leave each other messages or give each other gifts. Players do have a market box, but they can only sell fruit, fish, bugs, and shells. Furniture and clothing are not allowed to be sold. By the way, there is no difference at all if players become friends within the game.
As the player makes his/her way through the game, they meet new animal characters and bring them stuff that they want (fruit, fish, bugs, and shells) and the player is rewarded with materials to build furniture or amenities. There is a friendship meter which is a good addition to the game, and once they hit a certain friendship level, they can be invited to the player's campsite. Before they will come, the player has to buy certain furniture because the animal characters are picky, have certain demands, or have a thing about feng shui (this is a common thing in Animal Crossing games). There are also "amenities" like tents and sets that are built, but they appear to only be used to increase the maximum friendship level of the animal characters. It's a common app trope it seems that in order to buy one thing, the player must pay to upgrade another thing to a specific level. It gets tired.

This is the part of the game that really takes me out of it. In the original games, furniture was purchased for the player's taste. There was a contest each week and the player would win Bells or other gifts for the design of his/her house design. Now it's nothing more than a "collect everything" type of game. Collect all the furniture, friends, fruit, fish, bugs, and shells (or so it seems). In the originals, the animal characters would reward the player with items of furniture that he/she could trade or sell. In this game, rewards are building materials for more furniture.

There is a market place with one of the Nook kids and the seamstress who sells clothes (and there is a shoe salesman who replaces her for a day). The Nook shopping area is very much like the original games in that there only specific items available for a period of time (I'm not sure if it's each day, or if they change every six hours or so). The Able Sisters' shop is a cut back version of the original. There are only three items available for the same period of time as Nook's. In the original, the Able Sisters offered shirts, hats, umbrellas, and flags that could be hung outside the player's house.
The player also has a camper that he/she apparently uses to get from place to place. It's very much like the house in the original games except that it's pointless. The house was where the player saved the game, and was rewarded for good design, and also where items were stored (there were eventually three stories to the house including a basement). The camper is sort of that, but there's no real reason for it. The animal characters gather at the campsite and don't even pay attention to the camper. I will suppose that it's simply a way to replicate the center point of the original games.

The campground is split up into different areas for different purposes. In the original games, the entire village was the playground. There was a lake, a river, trees, rocks, and a sea coast. There the player could fish, catch bugs, gather and plant fruit and flowers, cut down trees, and meet all of the characters. In the app, there is a beach area for fishing for sea fish and pick up seashells, there is a river area for river fish (there is no lake), there is an orchard to gather fruit, and an island to catch bugs. There is no planting of fruit or flowers here, and no chopping down trees (the axe is at the campsite and not usable). Fruit trees grow back in three hours after shaking them clean of fruit, or the player can spend Leaf Tickets on fertilizer to make them grow back immediately. In the original game, the trees took a couple days to replenish fruit, but there were way more of them. Then there's the quarry where the shovel comes into play. The player either needs five friends or twenty Leaf Tickets to enter the quarry to break rocks for treasure that are then exchanged for Bells. Also, I think the player earns some building material to buy more furniture.

The Good:
The game scratches that itch of Animal Crossing and makes me want to reconnect my Wii and play one of the console versions of the game. As Scott Johnson mentioned on Twitter, it feels more like a mini game. The touch control of mobile devices feels perfectly natural to the game, and it is cross platform. I have an iPad and an Android phone and I can play on both devices, but Leaf Tickets do not transfer between devices unless they are not removed the player's mailbox.

The Bad:
Nintendo found everything in the original Animal Crossing games that made them fun and charming and stripped them away in order to make a typical world builder (Simpsons Tapped Out, Futurama whatever-it's-called). The actual improvement of the friendship meter is totally negated by the need to buy furnishings to please the animal characters and bribe them to the campsite.. Frankly, if I have to buy new furniture for every friend I make, I don't think I want those friends. When it comes to real-life friends in the game, the inability to have interactions beyond a seemingly hollow gesture of kudos removes the social aspect of the game. If Nintendo is using this app as a vehicle to bring people to the console version of the game, then I think people who have never played an Animal Crossing game before will be scared off by this app.

The Unknown:
The game has only been out for a few days as I write this review. So far, as mentioned above, there has already been one new character introduced (the shoe salesman), so I'm guessing there will be more (possibly Sahara and Redd). There might be room for expansion and updating, but I feel that the core game as described will remain intact. I can't see them adding the post office or allowing players to interact when they're online at the same time.

My advice is, if you like Animal Crossing already, you'll get a bit of enjoyment out of this game. If you've never played any game in this franchise, do not use this app as the basis of your judgement, there is so much more in the console versions. I also advise to play it as is and don't spend your real life currency to buy in-game currency. Let's all hope that there is a new game coming soon for the Nintendo Switch in the near future.