The park I’ve been cultivating in Springloaded Games’ Let’s Build a Zoo currently houses two lions. One is actually someone’s lost dog that we dressed as a lion. The other is a robot made out of dead animals that saves me money by not having to eat or drink. One could argue that my zoo actually houses zero lions, but sometimes I let the mafia drop human bodies into my pens in lieu of feed, so they wouldn’t be arguing that for very long.
Let’s Build a Zoo, available for PC via Steam or the Epic Game Store, is an adorable tycoon-style zoo building game in which players craft the animal observation park of their dreams. Build pens and fill them with rabbits, pigs, porcupines, snakes, and dozens of other eye-catching animals. Stuff your park-goers with pizza, soda, cotton candy, and slushies. Decorate your zoo with flowers, trees, and statues, or create a series of severe concrete enclosures on bare dirt. It’s pretty straightforward zoo-building fare until the weird stuff starts happening.
One moment you’re going about your zoo business, completing simple tasks like attracting a certain number of visitors, or building a snack bar. The next you’re suddenly faced with a “critical choice” that will sway your morality towards good or evil. You find a lost puppy. Do you spend some cash to put up flyers and try to find their owner, or do you dress it up like a lion and put it on display? When a black-market animal dealer shows up at your park, do you make a purchase, or inform the police?
Yes, Let’s Build a Zoo is the Mass Effect of zoo management simulations, allowing you to take the Paragon or Renegade path as you construct your sprawling animal empire. The path you choose determines which upgrades you can unlock through research and development as your zoo progresses. Only a more righteous zookeeper can build a release hub, reintroducing animals to the wild to increase biodiversity. Likewise, only a real evil bastard can build an abattoir, turning live animals into dead ones for use in evil factories.
As morality systems go, it’s less ‘good versus evil’ and more ‘evil versus normal.’ The good, moral choices are obvious and make perfect sense, while the evil choices are so outrageous that picking them transforms the game from simulation to farce in an instant. If you want a relatively straightforward zoo-builder with a healthy sense of humor, go good. If you want to screw around and make dead animal jokes, go evil.
The dramatic disparity between good and evil doesn’t take away from the versatile management simulation at Let’s Build a Zoo’s core. This is a tycoon game that works as well for casual players who want to watch the happy animals bounce around their enclosures, as it does for the more hardcore micromanagers who want to adjust every little aspect of their park in order to reach peak efficiency. If your park-goers are hungry, drop a popcorn vendor onto the map. If they’re thirsty, deploy a soda machine. If they aren’t buying enough soda, increase the amount of salt in the popcorn to make them drink more, but watch out for dehydration-induced vomit.
Sometimes I just want to drop some buildings and breed some pigs. Other times I want to carefully select which employee is tending to each individual animal enclosure. I love a game that lets me do both, rewarding me for my attention to detail without punishing me when I just want to cram as many capybaras into one pen as humanly possible.
And while I don’t always appreciate Let’s Build a Zoo’s often overly complex menu system, I appreciate the amount of information I have at my fingertips. I can click on an enclosure, click on the cohabitation option, and instantly see which animals feel threatened by their neighbors. I can see how much water is being used by each animal. The incredibly handy heat maps in the upper right corner of the screen give me instant access to information like light coverage, water saturation, park accessibility, and decoration score.
Let’s Build a Zoo is a serious zoo-building simulation with tons of depth and complexity. It’s also a silly game that gives us access to a CRISPR DNA splicing machine so we can stitch together different animals into thousands of different adorable genetic monstrosities. Combine a snake and a duck into a dukake, a duck with a snake head. Or how about a pigoose, featuring a tiny goose neck on a massive boarish body?
Once you gain access to the CRISPR facility, piecing together these odd animal mixtures becomes sort of a metagame within the main game. You’ve got to breed different varieties of animals to unlock their genome, which makes them viable for CRISPR splicing. Then the mad science begins.
Like the good versus evil morality system, DNA-splicing animal hybrids is a layer of ludicrous fun on top of what could have been a very serious zoo management sim. There’ve been many instances during my time with Let’s Build a Zoo when I’ve gotten so involved with zoo-running minutiae that things like the mob showing up to dump a corpse, or a new animal showing up in my CRISPR, have caught me completely off-guard.
It’s in these moments of absurdity that Let’s Build a Zoo really shines. It’s a charming little game with just the right amount of “what the fuck?” to keep me on my toes for hours on end.