An extensive zoo building tycoon game, Let’s Build A Zoo has a darkly fun and unique take on the genre. The Finger Guns Review.
As I sat down to write this review of Let’s Build A Zoo, I was struck by the thought of how few tycoon games really allow you to be morally bankrupt. Sure, there’s underlying and often unaddressed moral quandaries in a lot of these games. More often than not though, the player is painted as this omnipresent force for good. Whether it’s building health care facilities in Two Point Hospital, guiding a game developer in Game Dev Story or being the lynchpin in a cities survival in any number of games, the genre is centred around both making money and doing good with it. There’s exceptions to that rule – but not many. That’s what makes Let’s Build A Zoo, the latest title from Springloaded and publishers No More Robots, stand out from the crowd. Not only is it an extensive zoo tycoon game that is very easy to lose a night’s sleep too, but it also allows you to be an utter shitbird should you want to be.
Let’s Build A Zoo is presented in a top down view with an art style reminiscent of Theme Park. Akin to the Bullfrog classics of the 90’s, the player managers their land via their disembodied view from the sky. At the start of the game, you start with a small piece of land and an entry gate. That’s it. It’s up to the player to build up their zoo from the ground up. Within its grid bound system, you get to build enclosures, fill them with animals either rescued, traded with other Zoos or created (more on that later), draw flooring patterns, place bins to prevent littering, construct shops, choose food stalls or vending machines and build facilities/water sources to ensure your animals stay healthy and happy. Like most tycoon games, the primary cycle of the game is growth; attract guests to the zoo and part them from their money, reinvest that money to attract more guests, and so on and so forth.
Guiding you through the game are a vast series of quest givers. This cast of characters each have different demands on you. One will ask you to bring in X number of guests per day. Others will ask you to shift a certain number of food/drink sales. You’ll get asked to build particular facilities and then make use of those facilities, like a way to dispose of animal bodies once they’ve passed on. These quests constantly give you something to aim towards and reward you handsomely for doing so.
There’s an impressive depth to what you can manage and change in Let’s Build A Zoo, from overarching details right down to the minutia. The player manages staff, advertising vacancies then hiring and firing workers for each manned facility and shop. Setting ticket prices, ensuring there’s enough feed for the animals (and rush buying some when you run out), paying bills and wages, setting food quality for both the animals and your visitors, designating zoning for zoo keepers so that they each can focus on certain enclosures, deciding on what to unlock using your research team, managing transport to and from the zoo via busses – Let’s Build A Zoo is as mechanically complex as any zoo tycoon game I’ve ever played. Thankfully, that’s all managed by a very easy to understand system. Each of the game’s systems are listed in a tab that is always on screen and lets you pin point your problem areas. If they’re green, everything’s running smoothly. If they’re amber or red, you’ve got something you need to address. Click on them and icons will appear to direct you right to the issue at hand.
More often than not, that’ll be something to do with your animals. The cute, pixelated menagerie you assemble can be quite a handful at times. They need water, food, enrichment and enough space to roam. Over time, they’ll breed if you mix female and male animals together. Eventually, those babies will mature, crap everywhere, grow old and die. You’ll need your zoo keepers to keep on top of all of this. If their droppings aren’t cleaned up, if animals become malnourished or die because of cramped conditions or lack of water/food/space then it’ll effect the reputation of your park. If this happens when the park is open, the local newspaper will do a write up which gets splashed across the screen. Reading about a family that was traumatised as animals died in front of them because of cramped conditions can be quite the motivator.
So far, so usual, right? The morality meter and the effect that this has on the game is where Let’s Build A Zoo makes its unique mark on this genre.
Building a fully functioning, morally pure, eco-friendly zoo is a perfectly valid way to play Let’s Build A Zoo. By making ‘good’ choices – rejecting nefarious opportunities, paying employees above the market rate, building facilities that help the animals and the environment, selling good quality food to visitors and using high quality, yet more expensive feed for your animals – the morality meter will start to skew towards the positive. As it does so, you’ll also enable to ability to unlock new facilities that can only be purchased by someone who is running a morally “good” zoo. As this builds, you’ll be able to construct wind turbines to generate your own electricity, farms which will eventually be able to be used to feed your animals, the ability to replace normal bins with recycling bins and a way to release animals back into the wild. The more ‘good’ you are, the better the ‘good’ facilities are that become available to you.
But let’s be real for a second – you can make a morally “good” zoo in a few other games. It’s in the opposite direction, in the evil direction, in which Let’s Build A Zoo really shines.
Call it morbid curiosity but this is the way I constructed my first zoo. I’ll admit I revel in the cheeky, naughty, mischievous games a lot more than I do playing a morally good path (Mass Effect Renegades – UNITE). Of course I was going to choose this option first time around and I can’t think of a tycoon game that has catered to this style of play quite as well as this since… Dungeon Keeper, maybe? By giving animals the worst possible food types, selling the lowest standard of snacks to visitors, paying your staff less than the market average and making bad choices, you can make the morality meter skew towards evil. I feel almost dirty writing this but let me tell you – this is so much fun.
My evil zoo looked fantastic on the outside. It was brightly decorated with plenty of healthy and happy animals. Under the surface though… oh dear. Each and every time a black market animal dealer came-a-knocking, my zoo got a new attraction. That new lion that’s bringing in the guests in droves? It’s a lost dog that was found in the park that we stuck a mane to. The new boar? Well, it’s a painted pig. Talking of pigs, secluded off in a corner of my zoo is an enclosure full of swine. Next to it? A facility which turns them into bacon when they die. I’m syphoning electricity off from the city to save on my power bills. At one point, my rabbit enclosure had gotten completely out of control. The saying “breed like rabbits” certainly applies here. As fast as I could make their enclosure bigger and give them more water sources, the quicker they were demanding more. So when a scientist approached me and said “hey, if you choose an enclosure, I’ll kill everything inside it and transform them into robotic versions of that animal”… well… let’s just say it killed twenty two bunnies with one stone. When the mafia arrived and offered me some cash in exchange for somewhere to dispose of something wrapped in a rug, I of course agreed. The hyenas ate well that night. Being a money grubbing zoo owner who will do anything to turn a profit is quite fun, as it turns out.
And I’ve not even got to the best bit of Let’s Build A Zoo – the CRISPR lab. Regardless of what moral branch you head down, you can build and use a genome blending lab in this game to splice any of the 50+ species in this game together. To begin with, the CRISPR lab will give you choices of 2 random animal species to do the monster mash on. As you collect different varieties of each animal, you’re also mapping out the genome of that species. Once you’ve fully explored it, you can choose these animals to blend into your own special Cronenberg attractions. A foxunt? No problem. Half capybara, half rabbit? A Capybit. Sure. Mix a snake and a duck? A Snakuck. There’s 300,000 different possible animal combinations in Let’s Build A Zoo. After 20+ hours with this game, I’ve barely scratched that number. What’s more, if you find a particular animal you want to duplicate, you can clone animals in the CRISPR lab.
I feel like there’s a fine line between zoo based dark humour and encouraging animal abuse and Let’s Build A Zoo navigates that very well. Most of the moments that PETA would traditionally have a problem with here have an element of fantasy/sci-fi to it so it’s more tongue in cheek humour than it is glorifying animal abuse. While I’m sure I’m already going to hell, I don’t think I strengthened my case for damnation by laughing at the macabre events that this game throws at you.
The only issues I’ve had with Let’s Build A Zoo are technical and negligible at their worst. Regularly I’d get notifications from the command centre from my zoo, usually an indication that a quest has been completed – only there had been no progress with the quests. Mildly annoying but far from game breaking. Building some enclosures, especially complex ones, will rarely mess itself up. Despite there being no reason why you can’t complete the fencing around a pen, it simply prevents you from doing so. Changing the shape very slightly fixes the issue.
I also need to add Let’s Build A Zoo to the ever growing pile of games with a tiny font size and no discernible way to make it larger. This won’t be an issue for 95% of the people reading this review but if you struggle with fine print, you might struggle with some of the text in this game.
To summarise, Let’s Build A Zoo is a very satisfying, darkly funny and moreish tycoon game. A few tiny glitches are the only issues with a game I imagine I’ll be revisiting many, many times over the next few months. There’s just so much to do and it does it all with a unique, macabre charm. It’s unlikely I’ll ever see all 300,000 animal hybrids you can Cronenberg together but I’ll sure have a good time making my (
bacon factory) zoo along the way.
Let’s Build A Zoo is available now on PC via Steam.
Publisher: No More Robots
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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