Review: Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer for Nintendo 3DS

Beneath the happy facade lurks a dark secret…

From its announcement at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo earlier this year, I’ve held a keen interest in the first spin-off of the Animal Crossing series, Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer. For as long as I’ve been a fan of the series, I’ve by and large ignored the conventions held by the series’ staple Happy Home Academy in order to decorate my home my way — everything I want, just the way I want it, Feng Shui be damned.

As a result, I’ve knowingly missed out on a decent chunk of the Animal Crossing experience. But with Happy Home Designer, there was the promise that I could now finally see what I’d been missing all these years by allowing myself to be turned loose on the home of everyone else.

Will this Designer make Animal Crossing fans as happy as the promised homes? Or are further renovations needed? Read on to find out!

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As with most every installment in the series, you start things out fresh — no importing of any character data from Animal Crossing: New Leaf here. Rather than a discussion with Rover on your way into town, it’s the conversation between Nook’s Homes head honcho Tom Nook and one of his employees, the debuting Lottie, about their new employee that prompts you to design your character to your liking. That done, you make your appearance and training begins in earnest.

Progression in Happy Home Designer is fairly brisk, as you’re quickly taught the basics of designing a home’s interior and on to the exterior, picking plots, and even designing facilities for the burgeoning town. The more new projects you do and people you deal with, the more options you’re afforded. What’s more, you’ll be able to unlock further options by paying a small number of Play Coins for tips (one per day) from the Happy Home Handbook.

Of interesting note, at least in the context of the series, is that each project is designated as one day’s work. As such, there’s no real-time clock at work here, though if I’m not mistaken, it does keep track of what season it is in the real world.

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If I had to describe home design in previous Animal Crossing games in one word, I might go with “cumbersome.” While not difficult, the precise placement of various items and making sure they’re turned the correct way is a slightly clumsy process.

The whole process has been revamped for Happy Home Designer, however. Like an interior designer armed with telekinesis, you can pick up any design element and float it over to wherever you need it to go. Tap to turn, or drag it to the trash can if it’s in the way. It’s fun, and as easy as moving pieces around a game board. Plus, you can adjust the camera to view the room from virtually any angle, allowing you to make sure everything comes out just right.

When you’re finished setting everything up, you’ll eventually be able to post pictures of your work online for others to see and rate, as well as revisit some of your clients with your updated roster of goods. You’ll also be given the option to take screenshots at most any time, though the celebratory tour of the premises doesn’t allow you to move the camera at all, meaning obstructions placed against the wall tend to get in the way quite a bit.

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If there is any particular flaw to Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, I’d have to say it’s the lack of teeth. While it brings all of the series’ charm you’ve come to expect and then some (I rather enjoy how more items seems to actually “do” things now, for instance), there are remarkably few barriers towards doing anything in this game. It all just kind of flows like sand through an hourglass, all down into one big sandbox for you to play with.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but while doing whatever you please can indeed be fun, there is no push-back of any sort. You literally don’t even have to try when designing a facility in order to “earn” the adulation of the resident you’re trying to design for. There’s no budget to take into account, either, meaning your resources are only limited by your catalog and how much space you have.

What chaps me the most, though, is that there is no Happy Home Academy scoring here. The HHA (formerly the “Happy Room Academy”) has been a staple of the series since the start, and I’ve been dinged for not adhering to a given theme or not having my items set up in just such a way more times than I can possibly count (mostly as I’ve not been keeping track). What I most looked forward to with this game was finally putting my potentially latent skills to the test… and there is no test.

It’s sort of like a game pulling all the boss battles out of a series to form one big gauntlet, and all they end up doing is giving you a pat on the back as you head towards the finish line.

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In the end, I’ve honestly been enjoying what I’ve played of Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer quite a bit. Admittedly, it falls in line with my personality, which has be arranging and rearranging things constantly, and I took great joy in setting up what I thought a perfect room, hospital, store, or cafe should have. It caters to that organizational part of my mind quite well, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably find yourself rather pleased with the experience.

And yet, at the same time, the experience feels just slightly shallow. That is, if you can imagine pulling out the mayor part of Animal Crossing: New Leaf and fleshing it out a bit, then you have some idea of the kind of sensation I get from playing this: it feels like it should be a part of a bigger game, a full-blown Animal Crossing game, rather than just an isolated spin-off. Instead of being a mayor, being a Happy Home Designer in addition to all the regular Animal Crossing activities sounds rather delightful. At the very least, I hope they keep the system for placing and moving furniture in the next installment.

Finally, just a note about the amiibo: due to the scarcity of the cards (the Best Buy I visited on launch weekend never even received any, despite having a display with many copies of the game and bundle), I have not been able to test their functionality for this review. Take that as you will. With that in mind, it’s mildly irksome the way the game keeps bringing it up; such is the peril of going digital, unfortunately.

Oh, one last thing: that dark secret? Nook skips out on work all the time to play golf. Scandalous!

ACHappyHomeDesignerBoxAnimal Crossing: Happy Home Designer was released for the Nintendo 3DS on September 25th, 2015 alone at a price of $44.99, in a bundle with the amiibo NFC reader/writer for $59.99, and in a bundle with a limited edition Animal Crossing-themed New Nintendo 3DS console for $269.99.

A review copy was provided by Nintendo of Canada.

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David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.