It's no secret by this point that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a mixed bag of a game. It launched in a finished state compared to some other modern games. It was not unplayable, it didn't brick your system, there was fun to be had. However, the world was fairly empty. NPCs were lacking, having been streamlined into other areas of the game. Some entire categories, such as the art section of the museum, were not added until a later date. Many furniture sets were missing. Although the game has been updated to add back in some of this missing content, largely New Horizons remains a game with a nice core story, but not much to do after it.
The progression of New Horizons is genuinely satisfying. Building up your island from nothing to three stars takes a little over a week and is genuinely quite enjoyable. Aiming for five stars after that, then the town of your dreams, gives you a good chunk of linear content with clearly outlined goals.
However, a key difference here with New Horizons, and its biggest issue, can be seen in these goals. The villagers aren't really central. The game is about building your town and aiming for that perfect rating above all else. You can go further and design the town meticulously, can spend time completing your catalog, the museum, and Harv's island, but the star goal is held pretty high above the player's head. Technically there is nothing major unlocked from the five star town. The golden watering can recipe and lilies of the valley are the player's biggest rewards. However, because three stars is so central to the main story, the requirement for unlocking most of the game, and the reward for finishing the starting quest is terraforming tools, having a perfect town is positioned very clearly as a main goal. Players are going to see as they progress that five stars is the maximum they can get and will naturally want to play towards it.
This is not a bad thing entirely. New Horizons is a town building game first and foremost. That can be satisfying and a valid direction for the series to take. The issue is in the execution. I'm preaching to the choir when I say terraforming is incredibly tedious. It's made worse by just how flimsy the Switch controllers are. As I began experiencing joycon drift and broken buttons, something I have never experienced on any other controller including for systems I have far more time on, terraforming became borderline impossible. Because terraforming is such a major part of building a town, the fact each animation takes so long and is so tedious becomes deeply tiring to play. Animal Crossing as a series has always been about doing things slow. You can't catch every fish and bug in a day. You have to wait the whole year. Relationships take time to build. However, I think there's a difference between allowing the player to sit back, relax, and experience the world slowly, and crossing over into tedium.
That said, obviously you can try to ignore terraforming. I will say, there are some major upgrades to town design here. Placing furniture outside is quick, easy, and feels much more natural in terms of progression. You can slowly build up from Nook's catalog and your DIY recipes until you have a very beautiful town fitting of any number of aesthetics. The house and clothing design of New Horizons is similarly fun. There's so much you can do to customize your home and the new art style has a warm, realistic feel that still doesn't feel out of place in New Horizons' world. Town building when ignoring terraforming is genuinely quite satisfying.
However, once you reach the main goals of the game, what do you do afterwards? What keeps you there for that year while you fish, catch bugs, and dive into the ocean? One thing's certain. It isn't the villagers. I belive the villagers are by far the biggest flaw of the game. A lot of people had critiques for New Leaf's villagers, finding them stale and too nice, lacking in personality, compared to previous games. However, after going back to New Leaf recently, they are comparatively so much more interesting than in New Horizons. After a point, the dialog in New Horizons becomes exhausted. Your villagers never ask you to do any sort of tasks, by extent don't have much to offer you in the way of rewards, and never inconvenince you in any way. Once your town is completed, the villagers don't really motivate you to live in it. If you're the mayor of New Leaf, your villagers are nicer and simplified because they're aware of your authority. If you're the god of New Horizons, they're downright worshiping you.
I even think this could debatably be an alright direction to take the game. Again, if New Horizons wants to shift to being a town building game rather than a social sim with residents that are more about their looks (see the gacha-like villager hunting system) than personalities, I think that could be a valid direction. The problem is, as discussed, town building is very tedious and time consuming. Once you've made that five star island, you don't want to destroy all your tableaus you've created around the island. Furthermore, there's actually a bit of limitations when it comes to the furniture available. You can create a town with all sorts of aesthetics, but there are only so many ways to can place this furniture at the end of the day. You can have a dark, pastel, nerdy, or dreamy town. However, in all those permutations, there are still limits in exactly what is available and how it can logically be placed.
New Horizons fails as a social sim because it isn't trying to be a social sim. However, as a town building sim, it's only half baked. There's too many issues with how easy it is to get five stars, terraforming, and the furniture selection. Once you've created your town, it's not enough to sit back and get to know the residents you spent so long finding. However, it's also far too tedious and tiring to rebuild it in a new way. It's not all bad, but New Horizons may very well be the weakest of the series.