Planet Zoo review: Zoo Tycoon, but for people who want to build bear-themed bathrooms

Come, people of earth. Feast your eyes upon my latest creation, a zoo to surpass all zoos. Admire the ways in which I’ve forced logic upon this illogical landscape, the brick paths I’ve laid and the trees I’ve planted to shade them. Wander the central courtyard, and gaze upon my azaleas and roses. Buy a balloon or five.

What’s that? You want to know where the animals are?

Funny story, that. It seems I got so absorbed into laying down this marvelous path you see before you…I perhaps ran out of money before buying any animals. Well, actually we’ve got a single frog. You can see it over there. Exit on the left afterwards, I’m sure you’ve had a wonderful time. Please do come again. We really, really need your money if this zoo’s going to be a success. Please.

If we could talk to the animals…

Planet Zoo has devoured my life, just as I knew it would. Having put 10 or so hours into the game during its beta period, I’ve now put an additional 30 into the release build. And they’ve been those scary “Playing a Builder” hours, where you blink and realize six hours disappeared while you were futzing about placing baobab trees and turning a jumble of rocks into a proper bear cave.

It’s a lot of hours, most of them spent in Franchise Mode. I did dabble in the Career early on, but quickly tired of going through the motions of what felt like an extended tutorial. The prefab zoos Frontier includes for each mission are inspiring, sure, but unlocking all 14 will take a lot of patience. You could play with a restricted toolbox in someone else’s zoo…or you could just go make your own.

And make your own, I did. Twice—or three times now, if you count the beta. Positioned between Career and Creative, Franchise Mode is a slightly structured sandbox. You start with a limited construction kit and limited funds, then gradually expand both your zoo and your options. You can research new themes to decorate your zoo, new staff facilities to accommodate your growing employee pool, new barriers to better protect your guests from your animals (and vice versa), and so on.

Starting a new zoo is still intimidating, presented with acres upon acres of empty land to fill. It’s manageable though, with most of the nonfunctional items hidden until after you’ve laid down a foundation and done some research.

Of course, that also means you’re going to screw up the first time. Thus, my two zoos. After spending 12 to 15 hours on my first, I realized I’d backed myself into a corner in terms of some late-game options. Laying out a gondola was proving needlessly difficult and I was having a hard time keeping my staff’s assigned work areas organized.

So I started over, and I’ll say this: I’m disappointed, insofar as the “Franchise” name is a bit misleading. Planet Zoo positions it like you’re a zoo tycoon, a global enterprise that manages parks on every continent. Only your “Trade Center” is shared though, a 30-slot storage bank that houses animals you haven’t put into a park yet. That, and “Conservation Points,” a secondary currency that’s used to attain rare or endangered animals like pandas, elephants, and giraffes.

The cool animals, in other words.

Money is handled on a per-park basis though, as is—and this is what I found most disappointing—research. Even if you’ve unlocked all the themes, all the habitat enrichments, everything in one park, when you move to the next you start from scratch. Older and wiser, with more of an idea what’s coming, but you still need to spend hours and hours to reacquire the same tools you had access to before.

It’s oddly restrictive, and deters me from starting new parks. That seems counter to Franchise Mode’s aims, as I get the feeling I’m supposed to have a multitude of unique installations around the world. All of the Career Mode example zoos are compact and tightly themed, be it a panda rescue or a safari park or a Victorian Era throwback. But because of the way research works in Franchise Mode, building one of those tightly-themed parks would require ripping down everything you constructed early on to get the zoo started, then building on the rubble.

That sort of Haussmann-like renovation is par for the course in builders, but Franchise Mode seems designed precisely to avoid such situations. The current implementation is bizarre, and undercuts what should be one of Planet Zoo’s best ideas.

Still, I’m having a great time sidestepping the issue by building a massive zoo with everything in it. Planet Zoo, like Planet Coaster before, is an incredible construction kit. It’s for people who want to place every trash can and every tree and every rock, who want to spend hours beautifying a reptile house or maybe just a toilet.

Or in Planet Zoo, for people who want to lay out an ambitious grizzly bear pen complete with a mountain, a faux-cave, and a waterfall. That’s the hook for me here, the interplay between designing a great exhibit for guests and a great habitat for the animals. I’ve spent hours on a single enclosure, trying to establish better sightlines, sculpting rivers and hills so that the animals are herded towards the glass and the waiting guests, placing rocks and foliage to mask the zookeepers who help stagehand this elaborate drama.

It’s a treat to sit back and watch this clockwork zoo operate as well. Planet Zoo puts a lot of emphasis—as it should—on the animals and making them seem realistic. It doesn’t always work out, and sometimes you find a wolf swimming in place forever or some such. But other times it’s surprisingly endearing. I’ve yet to grow tired of coming across bears 50 feet up a tree trunk, looking out over the horizon. I’m likewise fond of giraffes and their affinity for people, the way they crane their necks up towards crowds on an elevated walkway.

Are there annoyances? Absolutely. Planet Zoo could use a few interface passes, as it takes far too many clicks to (for instance) figure out what continent and biome an animal is from, then filter the “Nature” tab so it only shows plants from said continent and biome, then place the plants, then double-check that you’ve placed enough foliage to satisfy the animal, and so forth.

The pathing system is still every bit as awkward as it was in Planet Coaster, especially when you want to do anything extravagant like tunnel under a river. I also find it frustrating there’s no universal grid you can toggle on and off. Running a habitat parallel to a path is a matter of eyeballing it and eventually saying “Well, close enough,” which is less than ideal. Oh, and Franchise Mode is perpetually online, which is fine except when Frontier’s servers boot me from my zoo for no reason.

Planet Zoo is not perfect.

It doesn’t really matter though. Fact is, I keep coming back. Franchise Mode kicks me to the main menu? Sigh. Load back in. My habitat walls keep melting into dust after only a year or two? Grit my teeth. Rebuild them. Rain slows my frame rate to a crawl? Wait it out. My keepers forget how to feed the animals and one starves to death? Shed a tear. Hold a funeral in my head. Buy a replacement.

And no matter what, keep building.

Bottom line

For all its problems—and there are many—Planet Zoo is one of the most satisfying builders I’ve ever played. Maybe not on the management side, which is still a thin and easily manipulated veneer. Guest opinions are weirdly arbitrary, as is cash flow. If you’re looking for a “difficult” builder, Planet Zoo ain’t it.

I’m here to build my dream zoo though, and for that there’s no better option. After 30 hours I’ve yet to acquire some of the rarer animals—lions, orangutans, gorillas, rhinos. I’m also far from exhausting the themes, having barely touched the “New World” and “Indian” sets. There’s a lot here.

And that’s before the community’s had significant time with the toolset, and before Frontier’s put out any post-release content. This weekend I briefly popped open Planet Coaster as well, curious what three years of expansions and Steam Workshop support had wrought. Turns out, a lot. Planet Coaster was already excellent at release, but an entire game’s worth of content has been built atop it in the ensuing years.

Assuming Planet Zoo has a similarly rich future ahead of it? I can’t wait.

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