Nintendo’s laid-back life sim gets a nasty case of microtransactions in the long-awaited smartphone version.
The recent U-turn on Star Wars: Battlefront II may have been a great victory in the war to keep microtransactions out of full-price video game, but it’s always been difficult to know what to do about them in mobile games. Some of the worst abuses, such as the vile Dungeon Keeper (also an EA game), are indefensible, but apps like Clash Of Clans and Candy Crash Saga are so well established now it seems pointless to complain about them.
Clearly, in-app purchases were long ago accepted as the, figurative, price to ensure most mobile games are free. Only occasionally is this notion challenged, and when Nintendo tried to charge a nominal fee for full access to Super Mario Run ordinary smartphone users treated them like scam artists and conmen. So it was no surprise their subsequent game, Fire Emblem Heroes, had microtransactions. And that so too does this long-awaited Animal Crossing app.
At time of writing Pocket Camp is the number one download in the world, on both iOS and Android. It also has a user rating of 4.8 out of 5, the same as Fire Emblem Heroes but well ahead of the 3.7 given to Super Mario Run. It’s pretty obvious the message Nintendo, or any mobile game developer, is meant to take from this. But for us it remains a disturbing one.
Pocket Camp is not a fully-featured Animal Crossing game, as has previously been released on Nintendo’s home and portable consoles. It is instead a significantly abridged version, featuring most of the same ideas but in much more simplified form. As you might guess from the subtitle, you don’t start by moving into a new town but instead pitching up at a campsite. Although this one doesn’t bear much resemblance to any we’ve ever been to, as everyone sets up a miniature plan of their front room outside their tent – complete with sofas and bookcases.
There’s no muddy or unsanitary amenities, but there are lots of cows wandering around. As well as eagles, dogs, and all the usual anthropomorphised denizens of the game. As ever, there is no overall goal in Pocket Camp, other than to live a life (or in this case holiday) of idle pleasure – prettifying the campsite as you please and engaging in simple pleasures like fishing and bug collecting.
But if you’ve ever complained that the mainline games don’t have enough to do you’ll be shocked at how much things have been pared down for Pocket Camp. There is no museum, so everything you’re collecting is purely for resources or as a means to bribe/make friends with other animals. There’s no open world either, so you can’t wander around doing whatever you want. Instead you visit specific locations to do specific things, like fishing or harvesting fruit.
This is extremely limiting and removes all the freeform fun from the original games. To compensate, the game places a focus on collecting resources, which are used for crafting furniture and clothing. Crafting your own furniture was in the most recent 3DS game, but here it’s expanded so that you have to collect different raw materials, like wood and cotton, in order to make anything.
Enticing new animals to come and visit, both the campsite in general and your plot in particular, is the closest thing to a long-term goal. With different characters indicating their preferences in terms of themes and furniture, thereby allowing you to work out what might attract them. Other human players can also be invited to visit, or appear at random, but you have almost no interaction with them or their own campsite.
All of this looks great, with excellent production values, but not only is there less to do than ever but the game purposefully limits itself even further. Everything (literally everything, from bug-collecting to crafting furniture to getting fetch quests from animals) can only be done a limited number of times in a set number of hours, after which you have to either wait for them to refresh or – you guessed it – pay to speed things up via microtransactions.
If you don’t have enough raw materials, or you want to speed up crafting or any of the other elements, then you can spend Leaf Tickets. These can be earned in-game but they can also be paid for using real money. Earning them takes a long time and there are certain special pieces of furniture, that attract key Animal Crossing personalities like K.K. Slider, that require so many tickets it seems almost impossible anyone could save enough up normally.
There’s nothing that you have to own, since this isn’t a game you can ever win, but the game is very cynical in the way it prices the most desirable items and places almost everything on a timer. Given the nature of the smartphone market, and how well the game has already done, we imagine most players will just put up with being manipulated in this way. But we think we’d rather just wait till the inevitable Animal Crossing game on Switch. Assuming that doesn’t have microtransactions shoehorned into it as well…
Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp
In Short: The Animal Crossing formula is pared down almost to the point of inanity on smartphones, as the cynically-contrived microtransactions leave a bitter taste.
Pros: The game looks as charming as ever, with great production values and a workable control system. Technically everything is free, if you want to work for it…
Cons: …but the game does its best to tempt you into spending real money for almost every action. The lack of an open world map, and very limited tasks, greatly reduces the appeal.
Formats: iOS (reviewed) and Android
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Release Date: 21st November 2017
Age Rating: 4+