The first time protesters showed up at my zoo, I felt a mixture of panic, guilt, and relief.
I hadn’t installed a water filter, and my freshwater crocodiles were suffering because of the incorrect water properties of their enclosure. This wasn’t just a success meter falling in the game, but a set of animals I had enclosed, put under my own care, and then neglected to care for properly in the public eye. I felt guilt as much as regret. I was worried that the harm would be irreversible, both to the animals I was here to protect and to the reputation of my zoo. And I was already in a financially precarious situation with my zoo, which is where the panic came from.
The relief came from the fact that I had known, for some time, that there was an issue somewhere, some flaw in the system had been making the crocodiles ill; I just hadn’t been able to find it. I was thankful that someone was now out there holding me accountable, pointing out how I was hurting these creatures, and making me feel bad enough about my actions that I’d make sure to pay better attention to my habitats going forward.
Planet Zoo, the newest game from Planet Coaster and Jurassic World Evolution maker Frontier Developments, is a building and management sim in the vein of older titles like Zoo Tycoon. Players are responsible for building and maintaining a functioning zoo, and ensuring not only that its animals are well looked after, but also that the business turns a profit. Doing so while making sure that the necessary standard of care doesn’t slip is a large part of the challenge. While the core of the game will be familiar to those versed in other management sims, the sheer detail and realism of the animals under your care adds an unexpected level of additional stress not felt in similar titles. It’s one thing if your theme park fails; it’s quite another when your business goes under while all of your exotic animals are suffering. The emotional stakes are much higher when the comfort and lives of animals are introduced, versus only having to worry about the lives of other people.
In career mode, Planet Zoo takes players through a set of story-based scenarios, complete with voice-acted characters feeding you tutorial instructions and backstory to get you comfortable with your work at several zoos around the world. This mode took me around 15 hours to complete, and for the most part, it did a pretty good job of explaining how to play the game.
The scenarios clearly explain individual actions — like building perimeter walls for enclosures, changing types of biomes, and ensuring park staff can access the animals — at a pace that isn’t overwhelming. But there were a few times where the career mode spiked in difficulty, expecting me to apply theoretical knowledge to complex tasks without warning. In particular, an early mission that asks players to create their own profitable zoo from scratch feels like it’s throwing people in at the deep end, floundering without enough hands-on practice to reliably know how to achieve that goal.
One less drastic but still frustrating example of unclear tutorial design came in the first level, where I was tasked with raising the perimeter walls of my enclosure to 3.9 meters. I increased the size of each wall individually, but the game actually wanted me to use a tool to raise them all at once, which was not explained and caused 20 minutes of frustration.
The career mode does get players ready to tackle the more open-ended challenge modes later on. It manages this while telling a surprisingly moving, if simple, story about the challenges faced by those who love animals but lack the resources to properly ensure their care in a cruel world.
Beyond that, online and offline challenge modes give players objectives and structure to aim toward, such as having multiple species share one enclosure, releasing a certain number of endangered species back into the wild, or having a certain level of animal satisfaction average across the park. The full sandbox mode allows players to turn off all money and happiness meters.
While I did mess around a little with the sandbox mode, I ultimately found it uninteresting. Some management sims such as Planet Coaster benefit from uncapped spending so you can build elaborate attractions, but Planet Zoo draws most of its appeal from its constraints. As a game, it’s most enjoyable when you’re stressed about how to keep all your animals safe and your accounts from running dry. If nothing can go wrong with the animals, much of the tension and fun is removed from the game.
Planet Zoo shines brightest as a game about micromanaging an almost overwhelmingly large number of factors that tie into animal welfare, because the stakes involved in failure feel so tangible. I want my animals to be healthy and happy, probably more than I want the same things for my visitors.
But the game doesn’t make it easy, especially with its cluttered and often overly spread-out UI. If you’re trying to find specific information in a hurry, you might have to hop between multiple open tabs to find and compare what you need, or blindly click through menus until you hit something with the correct tag. If you want to find a toy that will provide mental stimulation for your ostriches, you’ll need to click through every toy available in the shop, skimming through tags searching for the specific breed of ostrich to be included.
You can click on the animal itself in the zoo, but that doesn’t provide that information. It does, however, tell you which biomes the animal likes and its current satisfaction, so you can go over to a different menu to start selecting plants and then hop back to the animal menu to check that the plant did, in fact, raise satisfaction. It’s a lot of needless navigation that feels like it could have been streamlined.
Additionally, Planet Zoo requires you to spend time researching a species before you unlock information about the best food, water, and enrichment options for it, but doesn’t allow you to do this research prior to having the animals in your care. This often led to newly adopted species draining much of my time, as I had to care for them in real time without preparation.
Players will need to ensure that their animals have adequately large enclosures, heated or cooled to the correct temperatures; a clean pen; adequate food and water; machines to trick some of them into feeling like they’re hunting; and toys cycled in and out to keep them from getting bored. It’s not simple, and animal happiness is a constantly shifting situation.
But that’s not all! You’ll need to make sure that the walls are thick and high enough to keep the animals enclosed, while balancing the need for visitors to see in against the need for privacy that some animals feel. You’ll have to keep an eye out for breeding, too, and either release offspring into the wild, or adjust your zoo to accommodate new babies by creating more specialized enclosures and installing two-way mirrors so visitors can get a better look at the newborns.
It can feel overwhelming at times, like spinning a bunch of plates that have feelings and rights, but it’s worth the stress when you get to see your animals thriving. Thanks to some highly detailed animations and models, as well as the feeling of getting to know individual animals in your zoo, it’s really easy to get emotionally invested in taking care of all these creatures. They each feel like they have distinct personalities, and that makes their sadness all the more heartbreaking when your strategies fail.
I remember the first time I set up an enclosure for endangered Bengal tigers, in the hopes of raising a few to release back into the wild. I was doing well. I found a very fertile male, who I had creatively named Tigger, and with his partner he produced a healthy litter of cubs. I’d rescued Tigger from a customs seizure, and he had always been quite territorial. I didn’t do enough research, and assumed that it would be OK to house Tigger’s offspring in the same enclosure as him. But as they aged, a fight broke out.
I had to temporarily close down the visitors’ view of the exhibit, and treat Tigger for an infection while also trying to quickly find space and finances to create a second enclosure to separate some of the tigers into. Tigger was a great breeding tiger, and had hopes of helping to repopulate an endangered species on his shoulders; my failure to properly research Bengal tigers could have risked the chances of him producing the very offspring we needed.
That said, we still haven’t discussed the largest animal enclosure of all: the park that will surround your exhibits.
A big part of Planet Zoo is about running the zoo as a business. The human visitors who come to see your animals have their own needs, which also need micromanaging. They don’t want to see keeper’s stations, so you should hide those. They might get mad if an animal is sleeping away from view, so you need to educate them about how these are living creatures, not actors performing on demand. That education of guests also factors into their emotional engagement with the park, and their willingness to donate money to help fund conservation. Teach them about how your pandas are endangered and need support, and maybe the guests will throw some extra cash in your donation bins.
There are in-game menus dedicated to tracking how effectively you’re eliciting donations from visitors, but a lot of the system is trial and error. In my experience, visitors respond best if you put an animal’s food station near the viewing glass, and just to one side from there have educational resources and donation bins paired together. Fail to bring in donations, and you’re going to have a dramatically tougher time keeping your zoo afloat, as ticket sales often cover operating costs but not improvements, expansions, or emergency expenses.
Under capitalism, having emotionally engaged visitors is as much your job as keeping your tortoises mentally stimulated. And it’s all linked together — if you can’t take care of your animals, your guests will notice, leading to the sort of protests I described at the beginning of this review.
Beyond that, if there is something wrong with one of your enclosures, Planet Zoo isn’t always good about telling you what the problem is, only that there is a problem. More than once I hit issues such as having slightly too little privacy in an enclosure, or an improper humidity level, and I didn’t know what exactly was wrong until protesters came to tell me specifically what monstrous act of animal cruelty I had been engaging in.
Lastly, while the game has around 70 species of animals, almost one-third of them are “exhibit” species. These creatures have much fewer animations, and you can’t custom-design their enclosures. They’re much more like autopilot tamagotchis — ensure you have the money and staff to handle them, and they’ll just sort of sit there. It takes one of the game’s advertised bullet points and shows that it’s a little bit inflated.
Despite these issues, I couldn’t help but love Planet Zoo for what it is: a game about trying to make the world a little better, by making sure some animals are well looked after. From its story beats about protecting animal welfare in the case of evil capitalists trying to drive profits, to the first time I was able to release a set of endangered pygmy hippos back into the wild, I felt like all my stress was working toward something. Sure, I was always falling behind, panicking about not doing enough for my animals. But in the end, they were thriving, and I was helping to teach visitors why fighting to protect them was so vital.
Also, my zoo has a little train, where a handful of kids and adults can ride around the park seeing all the animals without having to peer through crowds. I was balancing saving endangered animals and making kids happy, which really feels like the aim of a well-run zoo.
Planet Zoo is now available on Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by Frontier Developments. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.