Through the years I have really tried to understand the appeal of Animal Crossing. Whenever a new title comes out, I give it a go, mingling with another batch of weird animal friends, coming to terms with another predatory loan scheme, and accruing the most mismatched, hideous living room set I have ever seen. Eventually, my work of teaching animal neighbours naughty words and writing cryptic messages on the public bulletin board wears thin, and I put the game down only to return to an abandoned ghost town months later. Naturally, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp has been on my radar for a while as my next experiment in making friends.
It’s not that I dislike peaceful simulations that focus on communities and simple living, I just prefer mine with a bit more focus, maybe some farming or shopkeeping. Animal Crossing usually amounts to daily listless wandering and approaching whatever activity tickles the player’s fancy, while conversing with friends and neighbours. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is no different, simplifying things for ease of use of a touch screen and relegating hobbies to specific, smaller areas. Fishing is done in the ocean or by the river, bug catching in the forest and on the island, and so on and so forth. Travel time between these locations is long enough to be annoying especially considering how quickly one can deplete an area of resources. Those bugs and fruits and fish will come in handy; however, as all of your prospective friends seem to want these sorts of things, and will like you better after you’ve handed over you squid or beetles or whatever else they want today.
In fact, if there is an overarching goal in Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp: it’s to grind reputation like an early MMO. Interacting with an animal fills a bar for them, representing the deepening of your friendship—or the more they feel like they can con you into bringing them stuff)—and, in turn, contributes to an overall player level. Level them enough and they’ll want to come visit you at your campsite. Level yourself up and you get access to new friends, crafting items, and shops. Once an animal likes you enough you can invite them over to your campsite, but, like the snobbiest squirrel on the planet, they won’t come unless you have the very specific sets of decorations that they like. You can craft the stuff easily enough, you give a blue-furred alpaca the necessary goods and some money and he’ll get it made after some real-world time has passed, or your bribe him with the currency that can be bought with real-world money to speed this all along.
The game is cute and certainly aims to mimic the feeling of the mainline Animal Crossing games, but it has a few issues. The over simplification of activities feels less rewarding to me; where in older titles you may see some cool looking bug that you had never seen before chilling on a tress, so you sneak up to it and stealthily as you can and swing your net before you get too close and it runs away, in Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp you tap on it, then you tap on it again and the bug is yours. It’s the same for fishing, activities that felt core to the Animal Crossing experience feel completely invalidated by oversimplification.
Additionally, the microtransaction currency seems to be there so that you can play the game even less. Rather than spending time catching fish you can drop some actual dollars on a next and catch a whole mess of fish. Slip the fuzzy craftsman some cash and you don’t need to wait for that fancy table—that you don’t even want anyway—you can have it now and impress all your friends. Throw around enough scratch and you can even get a visit from series regulars KK Slider or Tom Nook. The microtransactions corrupt a game that should be sweet and endearing, pushing forward the idea that your friends only like you when you’re spending money.
Aside from its dark ideas about money and friendship, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is a sweet game, best played in small chunks throughout the day. No matter what they messed up in the process, this is a game that you can whip out at any time and instantly feel good watching a conversation between yourself and your favourite cool animal friend, because you gave them a cool fish that they wanted.