Let’s Build a Zoo challenges you to not only build a functional, profitable zoo, but to also build a responsible one. Whether you take that challenge though is entirely up to you — and it caters to you even if you don’t.
How does the tycoon/management genre, the one that’s perhaps the closest neighbour to simulation, keep innovating against the odds? It’s a tricky question, simulation games are often grounded in reality, and a lot of tycoon or management games tend to be the same. The solution, at least the one presented by Let’s Build a Zoo, is to bring in specialisation, a technology system and to offer different routes based on morality.
Before we get ahead of ourselves though; Let’s Build a Zoo is, at its core, a game about creating a profitable zoo filled with a variety of animals. It’s a game about running a business, which means that you’ll manage things like food and stalls around your zoo, the ticket price, hiring staff and even the food mixes that you feed your animals. You’ll grow your park by spending your profits on new land, you’ll even negotiate new transport deals and work with international zoos and animal rescue centres to trade, rehome and protect animals.
All that, everything that you might expect from a game about running a zoo, is there and is perfect. It’s all done in an adorable, stylish pixel style very reminiscent of the SNES era, and visuals that fans of Kairosoft games will feel more than at home with.
Where it gets interesting, though, is that Let’s Build a Zoo goes way beyond that, and it does so very quickly. There’s a technology system which gates how you unlock new items, buildings, upgrades and more, which in itself is not too far from the normal tycoon expectation, however, its where you get one of your first proper peeks at an interesting system that runs throughout the game and offers you rewards if you knuckle down on a moral path.
That’s right, some of the buildings and technologies are gated behind moral grading. If you’re an all-around nice person — paying severance to released workers, making the right, and just, choices when negotiating with others, and being considerate of the world — then you can go down a path of eco-friendly, self-sufficient farming and reintroducing creatures to the wild. Or, at the other end, you can just be a law-breaking mischief-maker who buys and sells on the black market, reuses animal carcases as resources and battery farms your animals. At one extreme, you can create indiscernible vegetable meat alternatives, on the other you can turn your crocodiles into handbags.
I mentioned eco-friendly, self-sufficient farming. That’s very relevant because each animal has its own requirements, and options, for being well-fed. You can feed them the default pellets, if you wish, however swapping out those pellets for things like straw, fresh vegetables, insects, or meat will give the animals a better quality of life, making them live longer. Most of these ingredients can be sourced through your own farms if you are so inclined, and, in addition to this, you can also take control of your own energy systems — building your own generators, turbines or water towers to create your own electricity and water. You can, also, run a profit from this, and I imagine that there’s somebody out there with a zoo that’s only hamsters, running at a massive profit from simply using their extra land to generate electricity for the grid. It doesn’t end there, there are also metrics for your CO2 emissions, and you can even upgrade your wells to be powered by animal emissions if you so wish. It’s all very modern, forward-thinking, and clever.
This is actually only scratching the surface of it all though. One of the earliest missions that you get involves a Genome Splicing company starting to work with your zoo. You see, in Let’s Build a Zoo there are a little bit more than 50 animals, and each one of those has around 9 different varieties. But, one of its main selling points is that you can splice the DNA of these creatures together, creating a duck-headed giraffe, or a capybara-cow hybrid, and each of these has its own varieties too. It’s a 300’000 combination nightmare for completionists, but amazing fun for those who love deep options. You can use nurseries to breed your animals, or orchestrate it through carefully organising enclosures around the zoo, or, after a while, you can simply clone a creature that’s already in your zoo.
Maybe it’s my age, but I remember a lot of the trepidation and concerns around cloning and genome manipulation from when I was younger, so I was quite surprised to find out that the DNA mixing of the animals isn’t deemed immoral by the game. Once that was cleared up, I had quite a lot of fun messing around with the hybrids — and the game even goes so far as to offer up that it might be a way to recreate ecosystems in the wild.
Tycoon and management games will often quickly fall into a bit of a grind, where you repeat things until you unlock a new option, and then you rinse and repeat. Let’s Build a Zoo does not feel like that, in fact, for the first 5-6 hours of play it’s hard to go five minutes without some new feature or mechanic being introduced. It feels dynamic and engaging.
All of that said… because it starts off so strong cracks start appearing after a while; some buildings can be customised and themed while others are limited to one design, and enclosure design starts to feel limited and repetitive after a while. Neither of these should be complaints, however, there’s so much care and depth placed in other areas that these feel like oversights. In fact, things like enclosures retaining items when moved and a bunch of other finer tweaks and customisation elements make Let’s Build a Zoo feel like it was born as a result of frustrating experiences in other games of the genre by the team.
In fact, the nearest experience Let’s Build a Zoo has in this space is the original Theme Park. It feels equally revolutionary, and the inclusion of things like tweaking the salt content in fries, or ice content in drinks, shows how intricately and carefully it has all been designed.
The biggest failing of the console version is the notifications system. In short, it’s not aggressive enough. To access alerts you need to open an in-game menu and select the alerts option, then flick between both to find out what’s wrong. From here you can flag things so they’re easier to find around your park. There’s no shortcut button for notifications, and the camera won’t snap to areas of critical concern, this means that if you don’t pay enough attention to it — and, while it changes colour depending on intensity, it doesn’t make a noise — then you may miss something major. I spent a lot of time pausing the game, opening the menus, flagging things, and then attending to them, which did slow down my playtime quite a bit. This is the main, if only, failing here, and it’s simply that it doesn’t feel intuitive enough… which is definitely just another UI issue that often happens with console versions of PC-first strategy/management games.
Let’s Build a Zoo is near perfect. When I play modern-console tycoon games in future, this is the standard that I’ll hold them up to. It’s been a long time since I’ve been unable to put down a game in order to review it.