Do you like dinosaurs? Do you like theme parks? Are you intrigued — yet rightfully concerned — about combining those two things? Parkasaurus, on Steam Early Access, isn’t a game for everyone, but it scratches some very specific itches and does it very well. If you’re into the Theme Park Tycoon games, or you have a dinosaur kid in the house who yearns for more dino-related media, this is a fantastic pickup that doesn’t struggle with the Steam Early Access label.
The elevator pitch for Parkasaurus is that you are in control of a dinosaur theme park, and you have to manage the staff, exhibits and, of course, the dinosaurs necessary to pull off such an ambitious venture. Then, when you first pick up the game and work your way through the tutorial, you’ll abandon your initial thoughts of Jurassic Park-style disaster. The friendly, brightly colored dinosaurs that help you through the tutorial are soothing. You’ll think that these dinosaurs are friends, and that nothing can possibly go wrong.
Everything about Parkasaurus, appropriately enough, asks you to keep digging. Nearly every system in the game is rewarding if treated with a little patience and experimentation. At first, the sheer amount of menus and tabs and items can be intimidating, but developer WashBear Studio does a wonderful job of holding your hand through things in the tutorial. And so, you begin your reign over the park. You build a simple exhibit, layer terrain to make an herbivore-friendly rainforest, open the gates and gaze upon your creation. It feels good, and then you look into the big googly eyes of your new dinosaur friends. Ah, you think, this is good. Everything is fine, and I am master of this domain.
Then you get a tutorial message, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and you learn how to tranquilize your dinosaurs via force.
This is the general cycle of Parkasaurus, where you start off with an expectation or make an assumption, but find that if you keep digging or maneuvering, things get much richer. The tutorial has you build very plain areas, nice and rectangular. Once you grasp the terrain building and customization tools the developers hand you, you can get a lot more ambitious. There are a few stumbling points in the menus, like having to hold your mouse button to fill beakers for science upgrades as opposed to just pointing and clicking, but it’s nothing that will hold back an eager player from building up their dinosaur empire. Once you have the basics down, like pulling dinosaur eggs into the world from your inventory and staying stocked on plant food, you’re ready to start exploring and breaking out of the basic format of exhibit building.
The actual construction of your park is somewhere between a Theme Park Tycoon game, where you need to fund your venture through a variable ticket price and great attractions that keep guests interested, and a SimCity title, where you have total control over the terrain. Just like in Theme Park Tycoon, your guests won’t hesitate to let you know if they’re not happy. One guest left a message calling my humble park, Udinotopia, a “garbage nightmare.” (Everyone enjoyed the food, though.)
The thing that elevates Parkasaurus above your garden-variety theme park simulator is that you have to keep both your dinosaurs and your guests happy. You and your science team, with the aid of a handy portal, can go back in time to find fossils to turn into new dinosaurs, but that’s not an instant process. The dinosaurs in your park need good exhibits and have social needs. Some dinosaurs are unhappy without friends of the same or a similar species; others get exhausted by a lack of privacy. The park portion of the game puts you in a constant tug of war between the needs of your dinosaurs, who will violently act out if they’re being neglected, and your consumers, who are expecting to see some dinosaurs and who fund your entire venture.
While there were times when I felt like I had too many balls in the air, Parkasaurus had tools to help me keep things under control. The game has a calendar, with a mandatory break to review your progress at the end of a day. You can also close down the park at any time if you want to really focus on upgrade trees and digging for bones. Ultimately, as long as you don’t expand too far too fast, the game won’t punish you for taking some time to find your feet. The one sign that Parkasaurus is in early access is that you may have to take a few swings at finding a solution to problems. Hiring janitors and installing garbage cans still hasn’t cleaned up my mess problem, and despite carefully shaping terrain and putting in grass, my dinosaurs still struggle to find private spaces.
Despite my few frustrations, Parkasaurus is an absolute delight. It’s the kind of game that you promise yourself you’ll play for just one more in-game day before realizing it’s 4 a.m. If the game’s trailer or initial presentation doesn’t excite you, it won’t do anything wild to win you over. But if you’re intrigued by the premise, you’ll find a quirky and fun experience that works hard to provide depth without overwhelming you. Even better, it’s the kind of game I know I would have gone absolutely nuts over during my time as a dinosaur kid. As Christmas approaches, I expect this game to be a perfect gift for parents who want to provide their children with wholesome dinosaur goodness.