Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer review: playing house

Game Info
Platform 3DS
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Nintendo EAD Group No. 2
Release Date Sep 25, 2015

Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is based on the bold presumption that work done well is its own reward.

It is, both on paper and in execution, a vast expansion of a singular facet of the Animal Crossing franchise: interior decoration. You have options for furniture arrangements, flooring and even some architectural flexibility at your fingertips, which you can use to create themed rooms that past series entries made impossible. More importantly: You can make them look really good, whipping up tropical beach shacks, candlelit studies and neon-hued convenience stores that, as a decorator, you can feel proud of.

But that core mechanic is floating in a vacuum that other Animal Crossing games filled with a million little moments of delightful minutiae. I intricately crafted the interiors and exteriors of some truly lovely homes in Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, but ended up feeling like I was shaping a world in which I was never invited to live.

I felt like I was shaping a world in which I was never invited to live

Rather than cast you as a new resident — or, by a series of coincidences, the mayor — in a fully customizable town, Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer hires you onto Tom Nook's booming real estate firm. Your job duties on Team Nook are far-reaching: You'll work with clients to choose lots for their homes, and design both their outdoor and indoor living spaces, typically following a theme of the homeowner's choosing.

If you took pleasure in Animal Crossing: New Leaf's furniture rearrangement, you'll be pleased to learn that it's been improved in dozens of major ways, here. Every placeable item, from end tables to fruit baskets to posters, can be manipulated using the touchscreen, which represents the living space with an easily parsable floor plan. Rather than move your character around the home to drag a couch from one wall to the other, you can do it in real life, with your stylus, in a flash.

The usual furniture categories are there — New Leaf players will see familiar sets and pieces of decor appear in the catalog over time. But there are more items to tinker with in Happy Home Designer, and more places to put them. The addition of ceiling decor — from lights to ceiling fans to flags — and rugs lets you create rooms with far more character than Animal Crossing has ever allowed.

There's a zen-like satisfaction that comes with nailing a client's requested theme, which can range from straightforward (all blue furniture, for instance) to unorthodox (a house full of eggs, including egg-shaped things and also literal cooked eggs). My favorite creations were public facilities, buildings that popped up in the town square and required a more utilitarian design philosophy. Designing an office building's conference room, complete with whiteboard, speaker phone and photocopier, was enjoyable in a way I do not understand.

Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer layout screenshot 480
Designing an office building's conference room was enjoyable in a way I do not understand

But that satisfaction comes completely from within, because you're given virtually no feedback from Happy Home Designer's Rolodex of clients. Regardless of how much work you put into the feng shui of your workspace, the game's characters are going to be equally content with their new dwellings. Once, I tested a character's lack of judgment by remodeling a home I had spent a half hour designing earlier, deleting nearly everything in the house, and the client was still pleased as punch with the end result.

You can upload your creations to a global online catalog, where they can be rated by anyone who visits them using simple metrics — "Cool," "Cute" and so on. It's a really clunky system, but it's easy enough to find some inspiration from the levels uploaded by overseas players who've had the game for a while.

Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer wide compilation 1200

You also don't get paid for designing homes, but that's OK, as clients just add items to your design catalog every time you get hired onto a job. Usually they supply you with the necessary elements to fit into their theme, though, again, you're not hemmed into using only their supplied furniture. As a progression hook, it's not especially compelling — although there's certainly a drastic quality difference between the first home I ever designed and the most recent.

That can be attributed to the game's other perplexing progression system: You have to unlock basic design mechanics throughout the course of the game. Every in-game day (Happy Home Designer, unlike other entries, doesn't operate in real time), you're allowed to read one chapter of the Happy Home Handbook, unlocking mechanics like ceiling decor, custom designs, furniture refurbishing, window customization and more. Those techniques are what really let your rooms come to life, and to have to wait to access them — using 3DS Play Coins — is frustrating.

Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer character art 480

Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is also built around a real-life progression hook: You can collect amiibo cards to drop new clients into the world. It's admittedly pretty neat, waving a card over the New 3DS and getting a design request from the pictured animal. However, there are already loads of clients that come with the game, so the prospect of spending cash on booster packs of new clients isn't really appealing at all.

The more attractive function of amiibo cards is they allow you to drop characters into your buildings, where they'll interact with you, each other and the world around them. In true Animal Crossing fashion, characters have a lot of character. The dialogue is charming as ever, and changes based on where you're speaking — animals attending a show in your Concert Hall will offer different observations if you catch them dining in your Cafe.

What keeps that charm from truly sticking is what keeps the game from succeeding on the whole: There's just nothing else in the game but the designing. You amass villagers, but there's no relationships being built. You can mingle with your universally satisfied clients, but you'll never be a part of their community. You just design their homes, save your game and drive home to a house you never actually get to see.

Wrap Up:

Happy Home Designer fails to build on its foundation

Making homes in Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is enjoyable, but it's just not enough to hold up the weight of an entire game. There's just no meaningful feedback on your creations, and though your furniture catalog may expand, the whole design process becomes super repetitive with heartbreaking speed. I did some great work on the Tom Nook team, but sadly, it's a dead-end job.

Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer was reviewed using a retail Nintendo 3DS copy provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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