Feel like running a zoo, populated with all manner of disturbing hybrids? Ever wonder if a rabbit would still be as cute if it had a snake’s head?
If so, then Let’s Build a Zoo delivers. The bad news is, it’s going to make you wait which, given that animal splicing is a significant selling point, is a bit of a misstep. You can’t make that rhino/goose hybrid until you’ve uncovered every single animal variant, typically ten or so for each animal.
The good news is that’s one of only two gripes I have about an otherwise excellent and extremely silly zoo game. If it’s serious animal wrangling you want, something like Planet Zoo will be more your style; Let’s Build a Zoo is a game where, within about five minutes of firing it up, you’re asked if you’ll return someone’s lost dog or slap a mane on it and pretend it’s a lion. I chose the latter option, though I drew the the line at selling poor Fido to one of the black market animal dealers who sometimes drop by.
In fact, one of Let’s Build a Zoo’s biggest delights is seeing what kind of ethically-suspect shenanigans you can get up to. Being evil will block off certain upgrades, but it’s gratifying to know the option’s there. I out-grinned the Joker when I learnt I could turn deceased zoo animals into profitable foodstuffs. Zebraquin burger, anyone?
Even if you steer clear of the dark side, Let’s Build a Zoo is a joy. The cutesy, zoomed-out aesthetic works well, whether you’re setting up enclosures, finding out what your diminutive visitors think or just watching a capybara bounce on a trampoline. Having to trade animals instead of buying them (animal shelter and black market deals aside) might seem odd but it lends Let’s Build a Zoo a real sense of progression. You’ll feel warm and fuzzy as you go from being a glorified petting zoo with six geese, four rabbits and a gift shop, to a proper zoo.
Managing your zoo is fairly intuitive, to the point where I could well see Let’s Build a Zoo landing on consoles. One typically user-friendly feature is the ability to shift pens in one go; there’s no need to demolish one and rebuild it piece by piece – you can just shift it anywhere you want, no questions asked. Well, the visitors keep asking questions about that “peacock” that looks like a poorly-painted goose, but that’s another matter.
There’s so, so much you can do in Let’s Build a Zoo, you can even run a small farming side-operation, as suspect as that sounds. The choice is just short of being overwhelming; the key is to realise that you don’t have to unlock every single shop and feature, just build the kind of zoo you want. That does, however, bring me to my other gripe with the game: the manner in which you unlock extra buildings.
As you might expect, you have to conduct research before you can expand your zoo’s facilities, and you spend research points to unlock items on a grid. The snag is that some of these items aren’t necessarily related to each other, so to unlock the arctic enclosure you might have to first unlock the popcorn stall and the nursery. You can take different routes, but there’s still no real logic there. A more logical progression path here would make much more sense, and also make your research points feel like they were being put to better use.
Still, Let’s Build a Zoo’s comedic approach to zoo management belies just how deep it is. It isn’t perfect and I’d love a patch that halved the number of animals you need for splicing, but seeing your visitors gawp in wonder at your creations is worth the price of admission alone. The moral choices it throws at you, which aren’t all just for the sake of being evil, elevate it even further. If you’ve the slightest interest interest in sim games, you’ll have hour after hour of ethically-dubious fun with Let’s Build a Zoo.
Let’s Build a Zoo Review: GameSpew’s Score