Back when Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer was released on 3DS it was considered by some to be a slightly strange beast. It was enjoyable and charming enough, but its main issue was that it was a tough sell as a standalone retail game. Once you took the plunge it was a lovely time, but the designer/decorating concept didn't sit easily with Nintendo's release strategy.

We're now in a different time of more powerful hardware and a far more successful and substantial eShop, and as a result Nintendo has decided to take the plunge with its first paid DLC in a mainline Animal Crossing game — aside from the monetisation in the free-to-play mobile title Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, of course. Available as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack or as a standalone purchase, Animal Crossing: New Horizons - Happy Home Paradise offers a lot of content but, most importantly, integrates naturally with the main experience to give it even more depth.

Once you have the DLC, it appears in-game in much the same way as free content additions — seamlessly. You're told to go to the airport where you're introduced to Lottie and essentially given a job, and then it's just a case of choosing to go to 'work' at the airport whenever it fits into your Animal Crossing schedule. It's as simple as that, and as you start you're treated to an utterly lovely introduction sequence that gave this player a distinctly cozy vibe.

Like much of Animal Crossing you're encouraged to play in small chunks, dipping in daily or at least in short sessions throughout the day. You're nudged to take a rest, not overwork and so on, and we think it is best enjoyed at a steady pace, perhaps doing one design a day. Some will get immersed and want to design houses for hours on end — and that is of course fine — but there's a lot to be said for blending this DLC into your daily pattern with the broader game.

Just like the 3DS 'original' that provided the foundations for this expansion, the focus is on working for clients to give them dream homes. You have a brief, pick a desired plot — with varied islands offering different landscapes and seasons — and then head over to get to work. You can work on the outside area of each plot, though our rather basic instincts for design saw us ducking indoors relatively early to get on with the task at hand.

A key point is that this falls into the 'wholesome' category, in the sense that it's the taking part that counts. Each challenge gives you a few key furniture items that you should consider mandatory, and then you get a wider selection of 'suggested' items that fit with the theme. You're certainly not trying to use everything, nor are you stopped from exploring the wider categories and going a bit wild with your design. Ultimately, even with our iffy sense of style, we had thoroughly delighted clients that adored their vacation home.

So this isn't a game where you win or lose, as such, you just have a nice time; that's Animal Crossing for you. Much like the core game, though, it's the atmosphere and sunny optimism of the experience that provides motivation to make the best darn spaces possible. Even as we fiddled with room layouts and compared rugs, the score chasing gamer in us was saying "why bother", only to be told to pipe down and chill out. The lack of criticism and challenge is welcome, you simply do the best you can and everyone's very nice. That's no bad thing.

As you progress, too, there's genuine depth on offer. New abilities are provided gradually, so it's a while before you'll be putting up partitions and doing the fanciest things. It's a steady approach that works well, and it'll take a decent amount of time to work through all of the 'story' content of Happy Home Paradise. If you desire it can take you multiple weeks to work through your clients, depending on how much you put in each day.

And pleasingly, there is an overarching purpose to your many designs. You eventually design 'facilities' as part of the steady progression, and as your client base grows you may find yourself liking them and forming attachments like you do on your home island; you get more out of the light-touch progression beats if you get to know the villager's characters. In addition you can also use souvenir chocolates to attract your island's residents to the new location, or eventually use amiibo cards to summon favourite characters, so there's lovely crossover if you want it.

Happy Home Paradise, through its clever additions to the Designer formula, also sets up cute new scenes and contexts for characters you may not have seen in the core game. If the pure charm and joy of Animal Crossing is one reason you still love the series, you'll adore some of the settings and scenarios here. As mentioned before, you get out what you put in, and if you do your best with designs you're rewarded with moments that are pure delights.

You also, very gradually, get the chance to acquire a broad range of stylish new items and goodies, too. Your job has its own currency — Poki — that you spend in the office shop as and when the daily items catch your eye. You start earning plenty of this money as you progress, too, so it's unlikely you'll run out of cash. In addition, after you buy something once and head home, it joins your standard catalogue and you can buy duplicates with Bells. Courtesy of the DLC being a one off 'premium' purchase, aspects like this are designed to be enjoyable without the perils of microtransaction approaches.

Your new design and optimisation abilities follow you off your work island, too — it perhaps doesn't explain this well enough. For example, early-ish you learn how to polish items to a sheen. When you go home you press 'L' and, sure enough, you have that same ability (and cute outfit) back on your home island. As a result, when you learn neat new techniques you can immediately set to work on making your own island that bit fancier; it's all part of that natural integration that ensures the expansion doesn't feel out of place or 'gated'.

So, assuming the price stays relatively static and it remains on the Switch Online Expansion Pass, is it worth picking it up with either of these purchase options? Absolutely. Whatever your purchase method, there's excellent value here — the light-touch story is relatively long, and you'll have a relaxed and charming time. It's not a game 'campaign' to be rushed, but fits the template of the broader Animal Crossing experience to suit regular, relaxed sessions. There's no rush, and it integrates so naturally with the main game that you may soon forget its DLC status entirely.

Conclusion

Happy Home Paradise makes Animal Crossing: New Horizons feel like a 'definitive' edition, especially when considered alongside the substantial free additions of version 2.0. It's beautifully polished — and that's not a reference to the ability you earn here — and provides even more variety and depth to your daily AC island life. You may discover new villagers to call friends, and perhaps even learn a little about how to better decorate rooms and homes. Most importantly, it simply makes us smile — that alone is the best recommendation we can give.