Nintendo’s attempt at taking a stab at the mobile games market has been a bit hit and miss so far.
Whilst Super Mario Run was both a great fit for the platform and just an excellent game in general, Fire Emblem: Heroes and Miitomo were dull attempts at bringing some of Nintendo’s’ more niche ideas to the mobile masses.
But when the big N announced in early 2016 that it had plans to bring everyone’s favourite life simulator Animal Crossing to an app store near you, people were excited. Animal Crossing is already perfectly suited to handheld devices, with the series’ DS entries (New Leaf and Wild World) often hailed as being far superior to their console counter-parts. To many, a port to mobile didn’t even seem like a risk. Surely it was a natural fit?
Unfortunately for fans, it isn’t.
Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp tasks the player with running a small campsite, a pleasant change of location from the towns in which the series usually takes place. From there, your titular avatar can travel to seven locations in order to catch bugs, partake in a spot of fishing, collect fruit, upgrade your camper van, purchase clothes or talk to one of the game’s vast number of adorable animals.
In a shift of focus from previous entries, the aim here isn’t to create an idealistic place to live. Instead, you’re tasked to raise your friendship level with your favourite animals in order to coerce them into spending time within your camp site.
This, initially, feels like a wonderful concept. My biggest gripe with previous Animal Crossing titles is how specific animals move into your village seemingly at random, and the player has no choice as to who they have to share their village with. Here, you can pick and choose who you want to spend time with, and can effectively ignore some of the lesser animals like the gym bro monkey and that cat who wears the racing helmet that makes me feel strangely uncomfortable.
However it doesn’t take long before the free-to-play aspect of the game begins to rear its rotten, grotesque head. You gain favour with your non-human companions by… giving them things. Said things (like fruit, fish and bugs) can be gathered from one of the game’s small areas and only re-appear after a certain amount of time. Animals will only have one or two requests for you to fulfil in a day, and only hang around for a few hours waiting for you to do so.
If you want a specific animal to appear, or if you want to raise your friendship level further after you’ve exhausted their requests, you need to use cards. Cards are bought using (you guessed it) currency that is purchased using real life money.
Once you reach a specific friendship level with an animal, you can invite them to your campsite, but only once you’ve crafted specific items of furniture that the picky bastards demand you own before they’ll even come and visit. Crafting furniture requires materials (gained through completing requests) and time. Real life time. Up to twelve hours, in some instances. Of course this time limit can be negated by (you guessed it again) using currency that can be purchased with real life money.
Now all of this is understandably par for the course with a free-to-play mobile game, and in fairness this albeit simplistic gameplay loop is oddly compelling. Fishing, bug catching and fruit collecting may be the only things to actually do in the game, but they function exactly the same way as they do in the series’ mainline entries. Similarly, talking to animals, decorating your campsite / camper van and buying clothes from the Abel Sisters in the market square will all feel comfortably familiar to returning fans of the series.
The problem is that there’s just something missing from Pocket Camp.
Previous AC games had a lot of heart and soul to them. They were less about the actual activities and more about the world that they allowed the player to inhabit. They were slow burning, peaceful experiences that were more about escapism than task completion. In fact, task completion has never been a core element of an Animal Crossing game, instead they are often adored by fans for simply allowing them to define their own goals, never forcing their hand in any specific direction past perhaps the opening sequence.
Yet, in order to create a profitable product, Nintendo has skewed the formula in such a way that encourages progress rather than simply offers it as an optional part of the overall experience. Furniture doesn’t appear randomly in Tom Nook’s shop everyday; instead it’s all just there in a big list, ready for you to craft as long as you have the materials (or currency) to do so. Even when you do craft objects, placing them feels contextually and tonally bizarre (A wardrobe? Outside? But… why?).
Animals don’t have their own routines anymore, they just stand there with a timer over their head, waiting for you to give them fruit. Forging friendships no longer feels like a process that takes time either, now that a literal gauge fills up by completing tasks, and even when you do manage to invite someone to stay at your campsite they spend their time aimlessly wandering, idly interacting with the myriad of objects that have no discernible reason to be placed on a patio in the middle of a forest in the first place.
After a few days of play, all of this culminates into a feeling that something just isn’t right. On the surface, this looks like a near perfect conversion of Animal Crossing for smartphones. The design is spot on, the music is as endearing as you’d expect, all of your favourite characters are here and look! You can catch a fish just like you could in New Leaf! This is wonderful!
But then the whole thing starts to feel… hollow. Like you’re only playing half a game, but not in the way that most free-to-play games feel. It’s clear that, unlike something like Clash Of Clans, spending money here wouldn’t change anything. There’s just something fundamentally wrong with the whole thing that leaves it feeling half-baked and lifeless.
Which is a shame, because Nintendo had the potential of delivering something truly special here. What remains is an average take on a well loved franchise.
Like Fire Emblem: Heroes and Miitomo before it, Pocket Camp is another miss for Nintendo’s mobile game division.
A genuine shame.