This is a review in progress for the first 20 levels of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. We’ll update this review upon hitting the level cap of 40.
Animal Crossing is the game about taking life slow. You meander to the shore to catch fish, you pick oranges and mosey down to the general store to sell the extra crop and once the day’s chores are complete, you spend time listening to an old turtle sing sea shanties as you glide to a remote island. Its deliberate pace is crucial to the series’ charm; it feels like a vacation from the world and all of its troubles.
But Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, the latest iteration in the franchise, has the wrong kind of slow pace. It drags because of artificial delays: a consistent grind for resources to build furniture that itself requires long wait times to assemble. The mobile game lacks enough fun diversions to distract from its single-minded gameplay loop, and in a franchise all about finding joy in the little things that feels particularly cruel.
Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, Nintendo’s fourth foray into mobile, adapts the charm of the Animal Crossing universe into a condensed app. The free-to-play title (or as Nintendo insists, “free-to-start”) is tantalizing to fans who haven’t had a main series Animal Crossing since 2013’s New Leaf. Everything feels right when you drop into the game for the first time; series ambassador, Isabelle, welcomes you to the same cheeru world and invites you to set up your own campsite. The friendly cast, cheerful music and satisfying chirps when you catch a bug are all pitch perfect. This looks and sounds like Animal Crossing, it just doesn’t feel like Animal Crossing.
Pocket Camp’s main objective is to build up said campsite, customizing with furniture and knick-knacks to not only suit your taste but attract other Animal Crossing critters to visit. But first, you’ll need to collect crafting materials from a growing cast of animals by bringing them whatever fish, bug, fruit or shell is on their wishlist. The game quickly reduces to a cycle: visit one of the four small locations to farm items, bring them to the animal that wants it, hope you have a wide enough variety of goods in your inventory to get through three interactions with that animal, then hop to another zone to fulfill another favor. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have to wait about two hours for new animals to show up in each region, so the cycle can continue. When you’ve gathered materials, you can begin crafting from an expanding catalog of furniture, with each furniture item taking a variable amount of real-world hours and minutes to create. Beyond personal tastes, furniture is currency that gets each villager to visit your campsite; each one won’t come until you’ve constructed five unique pieces, after which you’ll be treated to a cutscene of them sitting on all those pieces.
While Animal Crossing games are centered around one big objective, they’re often teeming with distractions to let you wile away the hours. This is where Pocket Camp really suffers, because there just isn’t much to do when you’re not on the endless furniture grind. You can catch bugs, sure, but there are only seven types, and four are extremely rare. There are only 13 varieties of fish in the river and ocean combined, and a few types of fruits and shells to pick up. You can’t really sell any extra, except to your friends in market boxes, but there isn’t really any incentive to participate in that ecosystem because there isn’t that much diversity, and buying a very rare thing only is useful if you have an animal to give it to.
That lack of variety extends to the animals you meet too. There are 40 villagers total in Pocket Camp’s current form, but after spending days talking to them, they only fall into about four distinct types. The cute, natural, cool or sporty villagers – an affinity that extends to their furniture preferences – all start to sound like each other, which is compounded when you constantly have to talk to them to get materials. The sporty animals continuously called me “brosephine” and asked how my training was going, and the cute villagers would all thank me for being a fan. In other Animal Crossing titles, the animals are more than just adorable critters in sweaters. They’ll get in fights with you, send you weird letters and fill your life with strange stories; they may not be your actual friends, but they’re capture the complexity of friendship. Pocket Camp puts the whole transactional nature of our relationship in stark relief by constantly pelting me with the same meaningless dialog.
Where Animal Crossing felt like you were improving your home and your town, Pocket Camp feels like you’re a glorified gofer, pleasing others in the short term, but rarely doing anything for yourself.
At first, this isn’t so frustrating. Credit the familiar and charming sounds and art. But Pocket Camp ramps up the cost of items – both in terms of their material cost and the time it takes to make them – at certain points, making grinding more necessary if I don’t want to spend Leaf Tickets, the game’s real-world currency stand-in. Build times for items go from a few minutes to hours and hours, and items that originally may have cost 3 to 6 wood or cotton might cost 120. This material cost is especially painful when you only earn 1 to 3 pieces from each quest; when you finally splurge on something huge – I went for a big, blue rug, of all things – you end up never really able to build back up to to build basic items. And because you can’t actually buy a bushel of cotton with Leaf Tickets, I’ve ended up nickel and dime-ing through them just to get some small projects done.
This is not a broad-brush condemnation of microtransactions in mobile games. Done well, microtransactions can be that nudge to get you through something you might grind out in a reasonable period of time otherwise. But Pocket Camp’s microstrantions feel like they are closing in on me. If I don’t buy at one spot, I suspect I’ll be pressured into forking some money over somewhere else.
And what is it all for? Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp never gives me a clear reason to keep building my campsite or paying off loans to get a marginally bigger camper (the game’s other, slightly smaller, customizable space). The only concrete goal is inviting more villagers over after they ungratefully ask you have specific items in your campsite. Even for a series that revels in simple pleasures, this is a bit much.
Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp was reviewed using final “retail” iOS download from the Apple App Store after the game’s launch. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.