Planet Zoo is a beautifully detailed and mechanically rich management sim that sometimes stumbles under the weight of its own systems. The diverse lineup of exquisitely rendered animals is utterly delightful, and the tools you’re given to build your dream zoo with are mostly intuitive, though there are exceptions. Though hampered by slow progression and a frequently cumbersome UI, it’s chock-full of all the detailed options you want from a good management sim and offers both a rewarding and educational experience.
Building a successful zoo is all about making sure everyone and everything in it is happy, working, and well-looked after. Animals need to be kept in the right climate and conditions to keep their welfare in check, which is no mean feat in itself. Career mode is the best place to start out, offering a helpfully structured and much-needed tutorial across its first few scenarios that show you the ropes of how to make your zoo tick along. If you manage to complete all the given objectives you’re free to move on to the next scenario or continue on running the zoo as you please with the training wheels now off. There are also modes that allow you to start from a blank slate, as well as a sandbox mode that eschews the game's economy entirely.
The Zoopedia--the in-game encyclopedia full of useful animal facts and stats--gives you all the basic information you need to know before setting up an enclosure, but the process really starts once you move your animals in and can properly gauge how they’re feeling about their surroundings. You’re encouraged to really consider the finest of details. Is the enclosure laid out with the right plants from the right continent? Is there enough shelter from bad weather? Is the herd made up of the right ratio of males to females? But while it’s easy enough to spot these problems, finding the right answers can be a pain as you’re forced to trawl through different sub-screens that are hidden within a myriad of menus and icons. While there are warning notifications for these issues, you have to hunt down the right menu yourself just to make the fix.
Conservation credits play a big role in advancing your zoo's rating with visitors. These credits are an in-game currency you earn for doing various tasks, from logging into your online game and completing community challenges to releasing animals into the wild. They’re used to adopt new animals from the animal trade centre, which helps you expand your zoo as well as encourage breeding. This nets you a spike in visitors--baby animals are cute as heck--and, more importantly, an animal with stronger genes, making it more valuable to trade for cash or release for credits. But while conservation credits are easy enough to earn when using the offline economy, online is a different story, with credits being doled out sparingly at best, especially in the early game. This causes some problems in the game’s online Franchise mode, where the animal trade centre is populated with creatures exclusively from other online players, and almost all of them can only be bought with credits. This slows the pace early on, forcing you into a cycle of breeding and releasing animals until you can finally start populating the zoo with the ones you actually want.
As for the humans in your zoo, visitors need to be both entertained and educated through having a wide variety of animals to see and learn about, and your workers need to have all the right facilities so they can keep things from descending into chaos. Your staff will mostly wander autonomously, though you can create helpful work zones to assign them to watch over. Animals can get upset if their enclosure is always dirty or if their food isn’t being refilled, and while you can set how often some worker types visit an enclosure, work zones let you keep the right people near enough of the right places.
When starting to flesh out the facilities of your zoo, you begin with a small selection of shops and staff quarters, unlocking more by assigning your staff to research them. The more you research, the better and broader variety of buildings you have. Building isn’t perfect--paths will often fail to connect up, and it took some time to wrap my head around the concept of building storefront facades and then placing the store inside them, rather than plonking the store down and having it just work. But it’s ultimately for the better as it creates flexibility for user-created designs.
You’re offered a full gamut of individual building parts that you can use to create your own blueprints, which can be shared via the Steam Workshop. Most of the basic pieces--walls of varying shapes, roof tiles, doors and window frames--will snap together on a relative grid, letting you put your designs together like building blocks. Although some of the manipulation controls aren’t immediately intuitive, with a little time, creating your own style of buildings gets simple enough that you can focus more on refining your creative ideas for that new toilet block or burger stand, rather than working out why your walls won’t connect up.
The animals themselves are the absolute stars of Planet Zoo. They’re all gorgeously rendered and look wonderfully detailed up close, their fur waving back and forth as they graze and prance about. Some of their animations can be a tad janky, but for the most part, watching your animals wander and interact is the biggest joy to be found in Planet Zoo. Whether you’re watching a lion cub nervously sidle up to water before turning to squeak at a nearby adult, a herd of springboks pouncing about together, or a lonely adult orangutan sitting on a rock in the tropical rain, I never failed to be moved by how they looked as they went about their business, feeling a real connection with and responsibility towards them.
Despite a slow burn in online mode and a bloated user interface that gets in the way of fully enjoying the finer management aspects of Planet Zoo, there’s still more than enough here to get something out of your time with it. It’s got its janky moments, but the animals are all rendered sublimely, the management sim mechanics are smart, and the sensible building controls will encourage and help you to build the best park you can for the animals in your care.