Planet Zoo Review: Building a Better Mouse House
Management games are a tricky business to get right. They need to be one of three things: tough enough to provide consistent challenge, charming enough, so you don't care if they are easy, or some combination of both. Planet Zoo starts at one end of the spectrum and winds up at the other, but it remains a joy to play throughout.
It's a well-crafted management sim that gives you a tremendous amount of freedom in designing precisely the type of zoo you want, albeit requiring plenty of trial and error to get there.
Planet Zoo Review: Catch the Thrill
What's so impressive about Planet Zoo is that you probably know from the description whether it's a game you'll like or not.
Here's part of the game's Steam page description:
Construct detailed habitats, manage your zoo, and meet authentic living animals who think, feel and explore the world you create around them.
Developer Frontier Developments has a relatively impressive track record with management sims, dating back to RollerCoaster Tycoon (and the more recent Jurassic World: Evolution and Planet Coaster), so you know you're getting a quality design in Planet Zoo.
The animals here are the stars of the show and, once your zoo starts humming along, you'll find yourself entering the game's cinematic mode and just sitting back to watch your critters live their best lives.
Eat the Night, Drink the Time
For better or worse, Planet Zoo's interface is instantly familiar to anyone who has played Planet Coaster. The controls are mostly the same, the avatars are similar, and the way you access the different build functions is similar to previous Frontier games.
Instead of plotting out rides for your customers, however, you'll design and build up an animal sanctuary. You manage other aspects of your park as well, such as its shops, its walkway layout, and its staff, but the animals are the big attraction. Previously, Frontier has touted how much research went into the design process for all the different critters, so that they behave as close to the real thing as possible, and it has paid off in game.
Two animals will fight for alpha status if a mate is in the exhibit with them. Some animals will benefit from having multiple species in the same exhibit; I had a group of warthogs living in harmony with some antelope and a few giraffes, for example, and they were all the better for it. Tigers will leap out of their exhibits and terrorize the guests if you don't build the walls high enough.
All of this is stuff you learn about as you get further into the game. And Planet Zoo features a reasonably robust series of tutorials that teach you pretty much everything about the game's systems, though, in true management sim fashion, you can jump right into Franchise mode and learn from your mistakes on the fly.
I've Made a Few Mistakes
Speaking of mistakes, you're going to make them. Since you can meticulously customize your zoo in Planet Zoo, you'll likely paint yourself into a corner more than once. Some of the problems I faced due to ignorance or a nasty case of "being a dummy" include losing power to half of my zoo and populating an exhibit with animals terrified of people.
None of these mistakes turned me off to Planet Zoo, especially considering your research sticks around for your next construction. Instead, they pushed me to do better next time. Every mistake not only comes laden with knowledge of what not to do, but the knowledge that it's causing problems for all the springboks, zebras, crocodiles, and lemurs that call your zoo home.
The best part of the game is born out of this cycle. Planet Zoo is at its best when you get everything running smoothly. It's even better when you have the time to mess around with the game's mechanics in fun and interesting ways.
Jump inside one of the guests walking through your zoo and see the exhibits and enclosures from their point of view. Turn on the cinematic camera and watch the bonobos play in their exhibit (The animals in Planet Zoo go through a surprising number of different animations and look really good doing it). Explore the zoos and parks created by your friends.
With other management games, players often find themselves wanting to build the most efficient city/park/ant colony/whatever. With Planet Zoo, I didn't mind letting little inefficiencies through if the exhibits and enclosures looked the way I wanted them to. Such freedom made exploring the world I built all the more interesting.
Two in the Bush
Mud and all, Planet Zoo is a blast. That said, there are a few minor warts to deal with, starting with the sheer amount of "stuff" in the game.
There are dozens of animal species you can adopt right out of the gate, not to mention the large number of research items to mull over. As you adopt species, you assign workers to research. Some of these research items are for animals (functional); some are for the zoo itself (decorative).
Of course, this takes real time. The issue is that it's not all clear out of the gate. You will adopt an animal, put it in an exhibit, and struggle to understand why it's unhappy. Then the protesters come. Then your zoo goes bankrupt. Then you start a new zoo.
Discover a new design aesthetic you really love? It might be easier to start a new zoo instead of making sense of where to begin. It can be a touch overwhelming at times, forcing you to invest a good deal of time into its systems.
Planet Zoo also crashes on occasion. Sometimes things don't behave the way they should, either, such as the system for adopting animals, which can be a little bit fickle, especially when you're getting started. Sometimes you'll click things, and they just... won't get clicked on. It's weird.
However, all of these problems mostly melt away when you see two of your hyenas drink from the same pool, then start wrestling with one another, laughing all the while. Planet Zoo is just a game that makes you feel good.
Planet Zoo Review — The Bottom Line
- Well-designed, beautiful animal animations
- Tons of options for zoo customization
- A surprising amount of education
- Not overly difficult once you get the basics down
- Some stability and AI issues crop up
- Demands a lot of time
Planet Zoo is the best way to build a park with animals. It looks great. It's utterly charming. And it just makes you happy, which is ultimately, the point.
Planet Zoo isn't perfect, and it's definitely not a game to play in short spurts considering how one must learn the game's systems. However, there is a deep level of immersion here. If you want to take the time to do it, you can set up the zoo of your dreams, complete with lions, tiger, and bears. In many ways, this is one of the best management sims Frontier Developments has ever made.
[Note: A copy of Planet Zoo was provided by Frontier Developments for the purposes of this review.]