Let’s get this out of the way right now – Nintendo have done well to condense the Animal Crossing format onto mobile devices. Pocket Camp is a well-realised (but slightly shallow) Animal Crossing adventure.
Getting the main elements of an AC game on phones is an achievement – fishing, bug catching, crafting, decorating and (of course) a ludicrous attitude to personal debt.
Being able to dip into the short-fire tasks while on the bus, draining everyone you meet for all their lovely friend juice, then throwing a little party for them, these all feel like a perfect fit for casual gamers.
The downside is that all these elements feel quite shallow and forced, with this lack of depth meaning that you aren’t really playing *your* way but rather taking the necessary path to upgrade all your shit.
With a few minor tweaks, this could genuinely be the real deal: a life-consuming adventure with scope for near-endless improvements to your camper van and site.
Gettin’ down to business
So let’s break the game down into the main interaction loop:
- Meet animal buddies
- Complete their fetch quests to make them happy enough to visit your campsite
- Craft all the ridiculously-specific items they insist on having during their visit
- Get them to visit, throw a little party and suck up all the friend juices
- Repeat 1-4
In addition, you also have special tents to build on your site, which give boosts to certain types of animal buddies – cool guy Tex is super happy with my motorcycle tent.
In working through these tasks, you level yourself up to expand the range of items you can craft, which can be used to customise:
- your campsite
- your character (eventually)
- inside your camper van (which I only discovered 2 days into the game after spending my life savings on interior renovations)
Pingu the Loanshark
At this point, I’m going to chuck in a feeble and pointless rant at the ever-present loans system:
In the days of credit crunch, recession and ballooning personal debt, how is it acceptable that some Italian penguins can carry out enormous structural changes to my vehicle to only then be told the cost of the work! This is not what several hundred years of contract law have been building towards (and also won’t somebody please think of the children, who will get into the habit of sticking everything on the credit card).
*pointless rant over*
So aside from slightly dodgy negotiation, the main outcome will be additional floor space in your camper, or perhaps another floor somehow sculpted within your own personal Tardis. You can slap a nice coat of paint on it, but otherwise there’s no real difference to improving your camper, other than visual changes and more space to display your worldly possessions.
Not a walk in the park
There are a couple of things which are holding the game back, but most are relatively minor, or could easily be changed in future updates to the game.
Firstly, the controls are a bit crap.
While you can’t expect much better than “tap to interact”, the controls can get frustrating when you’re trying to sneak up on a bug resting on a tree, only to tap on the tree from the wrong angle – meaning you run up and shake it and frighten the bug away. Another failing in touchscreen controls is evident with furniture placement: as soon as you have more than a couple of items on screen (and especially if you’re trying to arrange items on a rug) then I often accidentally moved or rotated other furniture in my scrabble to adjust that one particular item.
The second gripe is how some of the gameplay gets explained (or rather “doesn’t”).
Everything in the game is fairly simplistic, but that doesn’t stop it being confusing. One task directed me to “use a calling card”… but I had no idea why I would need to use one, or even how (as it turns out, when you open an animal’s contact card and click “Call” then it asks you to spend a calling card…. so there you go).
The other confusing aspect is Shovelstrike Quarry, which requires “the help of five friends to get in”, but either my friends are all antisocial bastards, or the “help” resets each day at a certain time. The closest I came to gathering help for this area was 2 friends, and I have even been a total friend-whore and added everyone I encounter (and then pestered them for help at every opportunity). Perhaps the quarry could be adjusted to “roll over” unused help, as getting 5 people to accept my request within the 24-hour time period seems impossible at the moment (possibly the only time I felt inclined to spend Leaf Tickets to progress – see below).
Finally, the setup where levelling up your player requires you develop friendships with a limited number of animals (who all want a mix of things fetched for them) means that you are never really “playing it your way”. You are actually doing a bit of everything to get all the yummy friend juice you can, so get ready for traipsing back and forth around the map gathering a bug, a fish and “a” fruit.
Each of the activities is pretty limited as well, without any sort of mini-game or change to the gameplay itself – you just tap the screen (usually twice). It’s not a huge issue, as the overall game breaks down into dozens of simple tasks which shouldn’t require too much thought or dexterity, as you try to get Lily up to Friendship Level 3 while being jostled on the morning commute. Personally, a little bit more variety, either through mini-games or additional interactions during these fetch quests, would go a long way to rounding off the whole experience. Perhaps “holiday events” or something bigger to work through (which I am sure will come in the future) would provide this more engaging thread to the game… but it feels lacking at present.
As a final tiny annoyance which should be an easy fix is that every dozen actions would usually include one “error/failed action/connection lost” issue. This is likely a “new release” symptom which can get sorted with a patch… but having to go back to the title screen every half hour did get a little annoying.
Leaf me alone
My final point is a positive note – after two pretty intense days of playing, I have not hit a paywall, or any significant “grind” to the game which holds back progress.
At my current level (Level 15) you are still earning new upgrades and meeting new animals with reasonable frequency. Each time I fire the game up, there is something else to play with, another set of fetch quests, another item to craft which will make my campsite look proper badass, so I can show it off to all my human and animal friends.
There *are* paid elements… but they really do feel optional. You won’t get any *major* advantages by blowing all your (parents’) cash on more Leaf Tickets, but you might get to skip a few timers. Some of the special craftable items also need Leaf Tickets, but apparently one of those items just encourages Tom Nook to visit your campsite (and I still have flashbacks to him threatening to break my legs in previous titles) so I’m happy not paying for that privilege.
Only the Shovelstrike Quarry area really tempted me to part with my hard-given Leaf Tickets, which was not an essential spend by any means, and once I can lasso my “friends” into helping out then I’ll probably not be tempted again.
For me, this is “freemium” done right: plenty to experience and play without needing to pay for upgrades, but there’s a few limited shiny things that rich twats can spunk some loose change on. The timers here don’t feel too restrictive, and I found them a useful reminder to stop playing for a little while and come back to it later.
Some players may find this to be problematic, but I felt that the amount that you *can* do during each session was enough to give a little progress, a little reward, and a little encouragement to return to the game later.
With just a little bit more there – either with some additional content/events, or a little more variety in how you are able to develop your campsite, then this would be a total lifestealer. At present, it’s a joyful little romp which will keep you smiling for a few hours per day.