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Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS REVIEW)

04/06/2013 11:12 BST | Updated 04/08/2013 10:12 BST

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is like Sim City crossed with Facebook - but set in a world where everything moves very slowly, funding a new red park bench represents a major civic crisis, and everyone wears bestial costumes that are both cute and intensely sinister.

Released this week for Nintendo's dual-screen 3DS handheld, New Leaf casts you as the mayor of a little cartoon village populated by a wandering cast of animal characters, each with personality quirks (a lazy surf-dude bear, a sleepy owl museum curator) who need your despotic help to self-actualise their hopes and dreams.

Your job is to maintain and expand the town, both by earning money and completing public works projects, and share your work with your real-life friends. Meanwhile you build a home, buy objects and decorations, and essentially try to enjoy your leisure time.

The core of the game is your mayoral work, however. And while pushing this civic programme often involves pastoral tasks like fishing, digging for tradable fossils and watering plants, it also demands a pro-active social life in which chatting to your citizens, helping them out of jams and writing them letters is also a keystone of your political mandate.

It's all very pleasant. And that the game is addictive isn't in question. The task-reward structure is rigorous, interesting and cheerfully pointless, without the high-stakes panic of many similar world-building games. There's plenty to do, especially after the first few play sessions, and the brand of cutesy humour, while not to everyone's taste, is at least consistent and genuine.

The game is also excellently presented, with decent graphics, intuitive controls and a massive volume of shops, mini games, clothes, characters and so on that will keep players happy for literally months.

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But to say New Leaf is universally endearing also isn't quite right.

Because behind its laid-back style, this game is demanding - if not in brain-power, then at least in time and energy. And the disconnect between its message and its mechanics can sometimes seem a little passive aggressive.

Everything is great is New Leaf, until everything is terrible. Your little mayor is permanently bright-eyed and cheery - until he has to do something mildly annoying, at which point he's frowning with an upsettingly hopeless upside-down smile. Plants are beautiful, until they wilt taking the approval of your 'friends' in town with them. You're always being encouraged to talk, chat, and write letters, to be more 'social', but really you're just spinning plates.

Time management is another wrinkle with downsides. The game runs on your real-world clock, and often this is a neat feature. Open the game at night and it's night in the game. Some shops are closed, but the owls are wide awake. However, it also means that you can't hurry the game on. Plants take real time to grow, and planning permission can take more than a day to arrive. Plus, when your animal citizens set appointments for real-world times, you have to be there in person and on-time. There's no real penalty for taking it slow, but it's also not a world without cares or responsibility. It's a job simulator as much as a wandering-around-having-fun simulator, and you'll just have to decide if that sounds like fun for you or not.

It's easy to see why Animal Crossing has such a committed fanbase, and New Leaf won't do anything to change that. It's a pleasant, simple, varied little game that rewards commitment, safe online interaction and has a visual tone that speaks to the best of Nintendo. Yes, it has its adult fans, but its really a kids' game and one that parents won't mind them playing.

And it's hard to give the game a bad score - most of the hang-ups we had with it are personal, and a result of the game not really being aimed at us.

But if you're entranced by the promise of a charming, relaxing space to hang around with animals and fish for seabass, take care. Because like our more naive elected representatives, you might just find that politics - even in a world of cartoon animals - is more work than it appears. And maybe a little less fun.

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