Zoo Tycoon was one of my first PC games, so I hold it responsible for my lifelong obsession with management sims. While management games have never been in short supply, those letting you manage a zoo have been sparse and rarely worth the effort. Even Zoo Tycoon‘s own sequels were underwhelming.
This made Let’s Build a Zoo an interesting game for me to try, as it finally takes the zoo management gameplay in a new direction.
Right off the bat, the game impresses with its adorable artstyle. Let’s Build a Zoo is a top-down, semi-isometric pixelart game that aims for fun rather than realism. It’s a bouncy and colorful game, filled with cute sprite art. A game that just puts you in a good mood, which is backed up by the comedic tone of its writing and its upbeat soundtrack.
The goal of the game is, of course, to run a financially successful zoo. You design the look of your park, create enclosures, and fill them up with animals. Open up the zoo and admire the view as guests wander around, comment on the animals, and spend tons of money on overpriced hot dogs. Just don’t ask where the meat comes from…
The money you make can be invested back into new projects, like researching new technologies, expanding the zoo, or setting up new initiatives. There is a lot of room in all this for personal expression, thanks to a sizable assortment of decorations and landscapes. You also get to make interesting moral choices about how you want to run your zoo, both through what kind of research you fund and through random events.
What did surprise me is that Let’s Build a Zoo is a PC original game, because I was getting some mobile game vibes from it. Not just because of the artstyle and large buttons, but also due to the lack of certain conveniences. Most prominently, the game won’t let you drag to create roads or other kinds of tiles. Any land you buy starts off as plain dirt, so they really want you to just manually click on every, little square to color it in. Other minor annoyances include not being able to pause without first speeding all the way up and not having easy access to infographics about your personnel and finances.
Getting animals in your zoo is also a little too gimmicky, I feel. Instead of buying animals, you go to a world map where various other Zoos offer trades. You trade one of your animals and get 2 in return, which usually make a breeding pair. The issue is that there’s a lot of categories for animals, each of which has 10 different sub-species that all look slightly different.
This ties into an admittedly fun breeding game where you try to collect all the different types of each animal. There’s some RNG involved in this, but nothing that’s too hard to overcome. It’s satisfying when you luck out and finally get that elusive golden pig, just to name an example. Completing a family of animals also unlocks their DNA, which can be used in an optional feature where you Frankenstein together animal hybrids.
However, this system of trades often means you won’t be able to progress because you don’t have the right animals, or just not the right version. Even if I had the money and room to expand, I’d still be waiting for a random opportunity to get a random selection of animals. This makes it hard to play Let’s Build a Zoo with any amount of forward planning and it feels way too restrictive. After 8 hours of play, the coolest animal I had managed to luck my way into was a singular bear. A freeplay mode would be very welcome here.
The morality system is also funny to play around with, but similarly restrictive. Good decisions unlock more good features, while evil ones let you be more of an animal-abusing bastard. There’s some express decisions to make, but morality is also measured in passive actions like how much effort you put into being ecological, how much you pay your workers, and the quality of food you serve. It’s a clever system, but it can be annoying when you’re morally stuck.
If you sell animals to the black market because you have no other, affordable ways to get rid of excess animals early on, those evil points will then restrict you from accessing features that you NEED to build up even more morality points. I ended up having to fire random employees, just so I could get good morality from paying them severance. Otherwise I didn’t have enough to start a recycling center, which I needed in order to get enough morality for another project entirely.
These design decisions frustrated me, exactly because Let’s Build a Zoo! is such a lovable game otherwise. I want to design cool zoos and look at all my beautiful animals, but I don’t want to spend hours playing the animal trade slot machine just so I can get a monkey.