Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No. 2
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: September 25, 2015
Those expecting a traditional Animal Crossing game in Happy Home Designer are in for a surprise. The first in a spin-off series of titles, this new entry into the world of anthropomorphic animals sees you play as an interior designer for Tom Nook of Nook’s Homes. Long are the days of catching bugs and fish, exploring a vast village full of denizens or any form of multiplayer whatsoever. For the most part, the game is just you inside of the house of a client, decorating it to their liking. It’s a very different experience, one that takes one step forward and two steps back.
Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer begins with you joining Tom Nook’s designer outfit as a new citizen in town. Like most everything in this game, the player character’s avatar is customizable, including gender, skin tone and facial features. Later, with the exception of your employee jacket, you can even dress up your character with an assortment of hats, glasses, shoes and socks. Who says that the clients’ homes are the only things that get to appear stylish?
Once settled in, you start out slow and steady. Series staple Lottie takes you to a client’s house and walks you through the basics of Happy Home Designer’s customization for a location. Firstly, each house has the request from the client to bring a particular theme. They can range from “a lovely house with lovely things,” to “black and white everything,” to “a place with a garden that kids can play in.” You are essentially guided to tailor your design, including appliances and furniture, to their wishes.
Placing furniture down in a home is the best way to gauge a client’s interest in Happy Home Designer. Claps, hearts or exasperation give hints as to how you are doing. You start off with the ability to layer a house’s inside and out with a small handful of carpets, wallpaper, flooring, beds, tables, chairs, lights, clocks, books, musical instruments and other knick-knacks. As you take on more clients (only one location can be built per day), based on each client’s interests, more items from each list are added to the roster of options. There is a solid base to work with at the very start, but it’s with more gameplay time that customization opens up.
It’s not just the citizens of the town that need your help. Isabelle makes a triumphant return, acting as the point of contact for City Hall’s requests to restore the town’s many destitute buildings. Whether it be a shop, a hospital, a hotel or anything else, each room in a building requires a specific set of items to outfit it. For example, a cafe requires at least one cash register and seating arrangements. Everything else is up to you. Wrestling wallpaper in a hospital? Go nuts! Happy Home Designer is very hands off in this regard; as long as you meet the minimal requirements, you’re good to do whatever you want.
Immaculate attention to detail is the key to a happy home, and in Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer customization options are endless. Outside of some electronic devices and objects inappropriate for a young audience, almost anything you can see in your house can be present in a house you design. Later on, with the help of a handbook (costing 2-5 Game Coins per lesson, per day), your design options expand to recoloring house objects, designing your own patterns and even a in-room draggable camera that lets you take custom snapshots for sharing on Miiverse and other social media platforms. Heck, you can even add background noise to each room of your choice!
On a fundamental level, your input in designing homes in Happy Home Designer is utterly pointless.
Happy Home Designer excels in a niche aspect of the grander Animal Crossing gameplay we’ve seen previously. When not designing a client’s new home, you can visit any house you previously designed, call up other clients and have a little gathering of your own. The aim is to express yourself and enjoy the fruits of your labor, and the light probing of a client’s vision gives structure and meaning. It serves as an objective, where victory is earned by improving upon your creativity.
However, if the first few hours of Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer taught me anything, it’s that I wish there was more actual gameplay at hand.
On a fundamental level, your input in designing homes in Happy Home Designer is utterly pointless. Outside of opening the client’s boxes of requested items, nothing you add to a home actually reflects negatively or positively on the outcome. You will always do a good job in the client’s eyes, even if everything else that’s not in a box goes against the wishes of the homeowner. I filled a house full of a near-dozen beds and couches, respectively, leaving a 2×2 square near the door as the only unoccupied space. There’s no cost, nor limit, to the items you insert. It became a sort of a meta-game, seeing what ridiculous setups the gameplay system would allow a house to be constructed.
Think of it this way; you can take a client’s request, pick any location on the map, run straight inside, click open all their pre-packed boxes of requested items and tell the client you are finished decorating their house in 2 minutes and they’ll be no happier than if you spend a full hour masterfully crafting a two-storey house, plus garden, filled to the brim with furniture, appliances, and other items. You can’t even fail a job, as the game forces you to open those requested boxes in order to leave. When nothing is at stake with your design choices, the entire gameplay is rendered meaningless. Player agency is all but an illusion, and it’s a major design flaw as a result.
…These amiibo cards become physical DLC that artificially restricts regular users from some of their favorite characters.
When poking around the rest of Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, it’s not difficult to see why Nintendo went with a pared-down approach. Through an in-game system, you can call up specific members of the Animal Crossing universe through purchasable amiibo cards tapped on New Nintendo 3DS screens (Nintendo 3DS owners have to buy an NFC reader or get the $49.99 USD MSRP game + reader pack at launch). Doing so launches new houses to build, bringing even more characters into the HHD world. You can also summon them to certain houses to chill, relax and take silly photos.
The problem is not that the randomized 6-pack amiibo cards retail for $5.99, but that there are some characters (including DJ K.K. and Isabelle) that will only give you design requests through these amiibo cards. With dozens of special characters and hundreds of cards in store, these amiibo cards become physical DLC that artificially restricts regular users from some of their favorite characters. It’s the kind of behavior that’s par for the course for the Konami’s of the world. For Nintendo to do so in a game aimed at a young audience is straight out of left field, and is fairly gross.
Disappointingly, considering how the two main activities in this game are to build houses and visit said houses, Happy Home Designer suffers from repetition. Some of the bigger buildings, which include stores with multiple floors and a handful of rooms, take forever to outfit properly if you truly try to make an effort. You could just rush to completion and save 30-60 minutes of your time, but it defeats the purpose of the game itself. This was a problem that plagued me even during early gameplay, before I discovered how arbitrary my choices were. The minimalist soundtrack that repeats itself every minute doesn’t do it any favors, either.
I feel like Happy Home Designer is missing out on just one gameplay element that would save it from mediocrity; input from homeowners. The point of the game is to experience a plethora of design aesthetics. By that logic, I think that either a scoring system, or receiving some sort of feedback that isn’t 110% positivity, would encourage exploring new design options while penalizing repetition. It would make redecorating houses, an existing option currently without purpose, that much more viable once you unlock more customization tools. Your input would get to mean something! Anything to give direction to an aimless title would be an improvement.
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Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer seems to target one specific subset; fans of strict compartmentalization. Comparatively, this game gives untethered freedom to create isolated seas of homes to dozens upon dozens of characters, and allows players to represent their artistic merit. The mundane, repetitive, trivial nature of the game, however, makes the task itself drag on over time. Plus, hiding gameplay interaction with series-branded characters behind randomized card decks to incentivize spending dozens of dollars on top of a full-price game marks a dark departure for Nintendo.
If you are looking for a game that offers tons of options, letting you play and create alone, unconnected to the online world, you could find some enjoyment from this. Overall, Happy Home Designer leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, the game will only make fans crave a true Animal Crossing life simulation title even more. I know I am!
A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.
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