I’m convinced much of Animal Crossing’s magic happens in my head. When I’m away from my town, I mean, and wondering what’s happening back in the game. If Portia is still angry at me for nudging her into that trap. If my gorilla neighbour has replied to my letter about his awful wallpaper. Whether anyone new has popped into town today, or something strange has washed up on the beach.
I’m talking, of course, about the other games in the Animal Crossing series – not Nintendo’s new mobile spin-off Pocket Camp. Because, in Pocket Camp, almost every opportunity to luxuriate in Animal Crossing’s famously slow, methodical pace has been eroded.
I don’t need to wonder what’s going on in Pocket Camp when I’m away from the game because, if a neighbour is not there when I return, for example, I can just use an item to conjure them. If a fruit harvest hasn’t yet bloomed, I can speed up the process. Animal Crossing has always run on a hidden clock of days, weeks, seasons. But it has never had a problem ushering me away and inviting me to come back and play another day. Now, there are visible timers to refresh resources, ways to instantly complete construction projects and all sorts of other ways for your simple, pastoral life to be jerked into fast forward.
There’s simplification for the sake of ease – for the sake of allowing you to load up the app for two minutes between sending a tweet and browsing reddit so you can accomplish something quickly. And then there’s simplification to make the game easier to monetise. In Pocket Camp, everything from the rotation of animals visiting your town to the paint job slapped on your camper van can be shortcutted by paying up. And while Animal Crossing has always been a series dominated by the idea of capitalism, of paying back Tom Nook so he can sit in his bathtub full of money, it has never been this intrusive. You can ignore the microtransactions, but Pocket Camp is a pretty miserable experience otherwise.
For everything you can speed through by spending on Leaf Tokens, the game’s premium currency, there are other things which can only be unlocked by using them. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t, eventually, be granted the ability to craft more than one item simultaneously, but you can’t. You’ll need Leaf Tokens for that. There’s no reason why you should have to pay to hang out with Tom Nook and KK Slider, some of the series’ most popular characters. You’ll need Leaf Tokens for them. And while the game showers you with premium currency to start with, the in-game opportunities to obtain it freely soon start to dry up. (Pay up for both Tom Nook and KK Slider – at the cost of about £20 – and they will just sit around, and offer a few lines of canned dialogue.)
Pocket Camp’s main objective has you convincing the series’ anthropomorphic cast to pitch up at your campsite by raising your friendship levels with each. You can chat with them and give them specific bits and pieces you’ve found lying around (which is easy). The next step is to craft the correct combination of furniture to decorate your campsite to their tastes (which is far more time-consuming).
Increasing your friendship with an animal boosts your overall level, which then unlocks more furniture to buy and please even more animals with – laying it out to please your latest guest, before selling it all off once they’ve signed on the dotted line. Animal Crossing has always seen you working, foraging, buying and selling to keep your town’s inhabitants happy – but this time it feels less about living your life in the campsite, and more about hoovering up enough resources to become a butler and personal shopper.
While it makes you work, Pocket Camp tries to feel rewarding – to the point where completing jobs sees you tapping through a parade of loot screens. You’re rewarded for completing a task for a villager, then often for levelling up your friendship with a character, and then sometimes finally for levelling up yourself. But it’s a hundred Bells here, a piece of wood there. There’s little to get excited about – and it feels like the game is holding back on its actual rewards until you part with money. It feels telling that many of Pocket Camp’s achievement-style goals encourage you to try speeding up a particular element of gameplay for yourself.
Pocket Camp is not irredeemable. Put your earphones on, turn up the volume and spend five minutes fishing. Above the background hum of resting bugs, the series’ simple themes lull you back to your days spent in past Animal Crossing towns. Maybe you’ll spot a friend passing by, wearing something outrageous. Maybe you’ll hand a villager enough gifts to trigger a short, bizarre scene of you hanging out. Maybe, if you’ve levelled up, there will be a new villager to call upon and befriend.
But it doesn’t last. You’ll look at your map screen and wonder why there’s a quarry full of eye-catching resources you have to pay Leaf Tickets to enter (or ask five friends to grant you passage in a limited window of time, via what feels like a needlessly fiddly and buried interface). You’ll think, ‘why doesn’t that give some kind of easy to see in-game notification?’ And then you’ll spot the advert pop up in the top right of your screen for the umpteenth time – the one which says ‘do you know you can buy Tom Nook and KK Slider?’
Animal Crossing should be the perfect series for mobile play, for short trips to its endearing world, but Pocket Camp is not it. Nintendo has stripped back the franchise to make a game that feels stereotypically mobile – with all the free-to-play design elements that go with it. I’d love to see the game evolve into something better via future updates (clothes crafting is coming soon). But, without a rebalancing of the Leaf Ticket system, I’ll simply wait – and imagine what my villagers might get up to when they eventually pitch up on Switch.