Animal Crossing, while being one of Nintendo's most beloved franchises of the past decade, has taken on a new level of fame thanks to its first 3DS outing, New Leaf. A massive seller all over the world, this quirky and charming life simulation has been instrumental in selling its host hardware to an entirely fresh sector of the gaming public, and it's not hard to understand why Nintendo is pushing out a semi-sequel on the same console. However, while Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer boasts many of the traditional hallmarks of the series - including the same unusual and outspoken cast of characters and many of the same objects and furniture - it has a rather different focus this time around. As the title indicates you're a designer working for Nook's Homes who is tasked with growing your new town by building homes, offices, schools and much more besides.
You begin this quest by helping to decorate the interior of a handful of houses at the request of their new occupants, but your remit rapidly expands to include local amenities and other buildings, where you have a say not only in their interior design but how they look on the outside, too. The common thread which connects all of these projects is that they can be furnished using a growing catalogue of items, which cover elements such as flooring, wallpaper, doors, beds, chairs, television sets and washing machines, to name just a few.
This facet of Happy Home Designer is arguably the most impressive, as it boasts a seemingly endless selection of items which are drip-fed as you take on more and more assignments. Totally unlocking this vast collection will take quite some time, and there's a real buzz to getting a particular task and realising that it has added a considerable number of new items to your interior design arsenal which can then be used on subsequent jobs.
Unlike previous Animal Crossing games, there's no real-time clock in Happy Home Designer and you can only tackle a single assignment each day - to move to the next working day you have to sit at your desk in Nook's Homes and write your report, manually concluding it. In addition to this, you can use your 3DS Play Coins to unlock content via a handbook which sits on your desk. Again, you're limited to consulting the book once a day, and each chapter opens up something new - such as fresh decorating options, the ability to edit your avatar's appearance (right down to skin colour) and more.
As the town begins to grow you'll get the option to expand and remodel existing facilities so they're better suited to deal with the needs of the increasing population. For example, the school you build early on can be expanded to feature two classrooms instead of the usual one. Within each building you can assign roles to the occupants, which brings Happy Home Designer dangerously close to "God Sim" territory. Watching the town slowly but surely develop and evolve is one of the most rewarding parts of the game, and when you're walking around each location, watching the denizens go about their daily business, that's when Happy Home Designer feels most like New Leaf. It's so utterly charming and appealing that the simple act of exploring the burgeoning world feels like a joy.
It goes without saying that there's a tangible appeal to creating every element of each building and home you're assigned to in the game. It's possible to spend a considerable amount of time fine-tuning each property, inspecting it from multiple angles using the D-Pad and ensuring that it looks absolutely perfect in every single way. The incentive to truly nail the look of each abode is given by the fact that they can be shared across the Happy Home Network, an online portal where you can view and explore homes produced by other players and leave ratings; dream up the perfect pad and it could gain the approval of your peers. Predictably, critical analysis is skewed towards the positive - the worst you can really say about a project is that it is "unique" - but the extremely well-presented Happy Home Network (complete with neat animations of Tom Nook playing golf) is a strangely addictive place to spend your time.
It's handy that this aspect of the game exists because, outside of sharing your creativity with others, there's little reason to exert yourself when it comes to design - despite their fussy protestations during initial meetings in Nook's Homes, the population of Happy Home Designer aren't particularly picky when it comes to the standard of your work. Although each one gives you a challenge to face - such as creating a home of a certain colour, feel or tone - the game doesn't judge your performance in any way.
While each character may have an item they want placed in the room - this appears as a box as soon as you start the project and doesn't need to be selected by the player - there's no need to do any further work; they will gladly accept the entirely unfurnished room you have presented to them. It's a similar story with the facility requests; in a school you're told to install a certain number of desks and chairs, but you don't have lay them in any logical fashion and you certainly don't have to worry about placing anything that isn't explicitly mentioned on the tiny checklist of requirements.
Once you realise this, the challenge factor of Happy Home Designer evaporates completely. You're not being rated by the game on your creations, so why bother? Your own personal amusement - and the desire to be creative and make something that looks cool - will be reasons enough for many people, but the knowledge that no matter how well you meet the client's needs you're going to pass anyway destroys any semblance of challenge. You could argue that such an approach makes Happy Home Designer ideal fodder for younger, less experienced players, but surely even they will feel slightly short-changed.
The inclusion of amiibo connectivity - via the new and oh-so-collectable NFC card range - helps to maintain interest, and bringing in your favourite character for a spot of home improvement is more enjoyable than it has any right to be, largely because you've already spent weeks if not months of your life getting to know them via New Leaf. Some of the conversations you have when contacting them on the amiibo phone - the communication device through which you summon them - are downright hilarious. For example, ringing Limberg results in an opening tirade where he accuses Nook's Homes of being some kind of telesales scam before quickly admitting that his home does actually need a fresh look and accepting your business.
It's fun if basic stuff, and collecting and using the cards tickles the obsessive side of this writer's personality. However, the amiibo connection is perfunctory at best; yes, you can call upon any character you have the card for, and it's possible to introduce them into the homes of other characters for the perfect photo opportunity, but it's not like you're missing a great deal by not investing in the cards. They're a neat bonus and one that is sure to feed the hunger of the collectors among you, but it's perfectly possible to play without them.
Just like its prequel, Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is bursting with content to uncover. The sheer volume of items to unlock is staggering, allowing you to cook up all manner of homely homesteads and fabulous facilities. The same world that captivated millions of players in New Leaf returns, with familiar faces that do a lot to augment the appeal of the core interior design mechanics. However, the lack of any real challenge is a fatal flaw, and while it's possible to create a stunning variety of different rooms and buildings, the gameplay does become repetitive quite quickly. Fans of New Leaf - and the series in general - may well be prepared to forgive such sins, but for everyone else this is a likeable but largely forgettable title that will entice young, undemanding players but will be too dull and samey for everyone else - despite the unmistakable charm which permeates the entire package.