Animal Crossing: New Leaf is one of those titles which has been instrumental in selling the Nintendo 3DS to the wider gaming public. When it launched in the west back in 2013 it appeared to trigger a rush of interest in Nintendo's portable system, and everyone seemed to be talking about it - sharing their experiences, visiting each other's towns and generally getting lost in the game's addictive charm. It should therefore come as no surprise that Nintendo is double-dipping with the series for the first time in a single hardware generation, but Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is clearly a long way off being a proper sequel - as we pointed out in our First Impressions piece a while back, it's really a spin-off more than anything.
As the title suggests, the emphasis here is less about wandering around a vibrant and active game world and more about focusing on your role as an interior - and exterior - designer. The denizens of this cute and cuddly world call upon you to create for them the perfect pad, and you have a seemingly limitless selection of items to use in order to achieve this noble goal. Each animal has different tastes and offers some guidance before you begin, but you really have free rein to work as you wish - as we noted in our earlier impressions piece, the animals will gladly accept whatever home you dream up, irrespective of their personal preference.
This element is rather troubling, as you can literally create anything and your clients will love it to bits. In one particular case, we didn't even lay down a single piece of furniture, left the floor entirely bare and ignored the walls completely - yet the animal was still absolutely delighted with our 'work'. While making a visually pleasing abode is all part of the appeal there is a complete absence of challenge here, which is disappointing. The illusion of working with a demanding client is bestowed by their reaction to each piece of furniture you place down - they might display a love heart to show they like it or express shock at a radical design choice, but the end result is always the same - they will be perfectly contented with whatever you give them.
There are certain assignments that require you to fulfil certain criteria - such as designing facilities in the town - and these come with a checklist which must be completed before you can proceed. Even then, you can place items in any manner you wish without paying any attention to principles of Feng Shui. An early example is the school, which requires a set number of desks and chairs. So long as you place these items in the room, you'll complete the task - there's no incentive to be careful or considerate when crafting this all-important learning environment.
The scope of Happy Home Designer is staggering when you stop and consider it - the number of items available is overwhelming and there's no limit on how many you can use in a single makeover session. However, as you might expect from a Nintendo title, the game does an excellent job of drip-feeding elements over the first few hours so it doesn't become overly complex and confusing. Early appointments are strictly for interior design only, but these give way to larger assignments where you not only have to create an outside space, but also decide which plot of land is best for your client.
As you fulfil the whims of more customers the town in which you reside grows, with facilities opening up where the townsfolk can find gainful employment - again, this is something you have influence over, as you have the power to pick roles for each animal. While Happy Home Designer places you in the shoes of someone concerned with making the ideal living space, it also seems to give you the kind of God-like powers that even New Leaf put outside of your mayoral remit.
Happy Home Designer's use of amiibo and amiibo cards has been heavily publicised, and a less kind person might suggest that the game is little more than a vehicle to sell more pieces of NFC-enabled tat. After spending a large amount of time in Tom Nook's employ it's hard to refute such a viewpoint. The clients which drop by your store are entirely random but by using amiibo figures or cards you can contact particular animals directly using the office's amiibo phone, or introduce them into other people's homes for impromptu housewarming events. Such connectivity is bound to raise a smile the first time you experience it, but it's impossible to escape the feeling that this functionality is tacked on. Without amiibo support, Happy Home Designer is still perfectly playable and the random nature of your assignments keeps things interesting. Beaming in your favourite Animal Crossing cast member is undeniably fun, but if you don't have access to any of the figures or cards you're not missing a great deal - which, it could be said, is rather worrying when you consider how heavily the game has been aligned with the amiibo concept. Links between this game and the forthcoming Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival on Wii U are promised, and it remains to be seen if this can make the whole NFC set-up a little more engaging.
Despite its shortcomings, there's something addictive about Happy Home Designer - and it could well be the same almost indefinable charm that has made the core Animal Crossing series so popular. While you have a more rigid set of tasks in this outing, there's still freedom to simply muck about and have a bit of creative fun. As ever, charm positively oozes from this game; the dialogue is perfect, the characters are utterly charming and the game world is colourful and inviting. It might seem unlikely, but this aspect of Happy Home Designer goes a long way and successfully papers over the cracks seen elsewhere in the game.
Given that Animal Crossing: New Leaf enthralled players without really offering much in the way of objectives, perhaps it doesn't matter that Happy Home Designer is saddled with challenge-free makeover requests. This approach will at least ensure that younger players don't become downhearted when they can't quite meet the client's demands, and it turns the game into a massive interior design sandbox where you imagination can happily run riot. Of course, there's also the allure of sharing your zany creations with others via the Happy Home Network - something we sadly haven't been able to do yet. The game allows for a lot more customization than New Leaf - which itself gave birth to a meta-game involving home interiors - and it's possible to come up with some truly amazing homes that you'll get a real kick out of showing off to friends. Whether or not this will be enough to ensnare fans in the same way that New Leaf did remains to be seen, however.
Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer launches in North America on September 25th and in Europe on October 2nd.