My Capyboose looks in pain. It darts around the grass pen I've created for it, adorned with little trees, various playthings, and a large water bowl - all of which it largely ignores. It looks like the kind of thing that should only exist in a horror movie, some bizarre creation that absolutely shouldn't exist. And yet, my Capyboose, a goose crossed with a capybara, very much does in Let's Build a Zoo.
The Crispr is your gateway to genetic trifling here, a massive building that looks like it's leaped straight out of a sci-fi movie, and will let you not only clone animals you've got in your park, but eventually start making such abominations like the Snakoose or Rabbopotamus. With over 500 species available and over 300,000 potential combos, if you want to play God there are plenty of opportunities. All you need is the full genetic code for any of the species that you want to start mixing up. And that might easily be my favorite part of Let's Build a Zoo.
Completing a genome requires collecting every single breed and variation of a specific animal species. This can be done by either breeding your zoo inhabitants or checking the rescue center daily for any new arrivals to scoop up and adopt. That whole process is utterly compelling, especially for someone who's an avid lover of any kind of collectible. I cannot tell you the glee I felt at finally unlocking the last snake variation after several hours of unsuccessful breeding. An odd thing to be proud of, yes, but if you know, you know.
But it's not all about breeding and cross-contamination in Let's Build a Zoo - it also asks you to do exactly what it says on the tin… build a zoo. With its 2D art style that's reminiscent of a zoo-themed Stardew Valley, everything is deliciously cute, and most of it theme-able. A boring management office can be decked out to look like a wooden rabbit, for example, but the more you research, the more you're able to unlock new items to really personalize the different areas of your zoo.
I've spent more time than I'd like to admit trying to turn my utterly random collection of enclosures (built more out of panic at an incoming new animal than design choice) into something resembling a theme park. It's possible, with a little patience and a tonne of in-game cash, to make something really awesome and utterly adorable to look at. I've now got a snowy section full of bears and ice cream that flows quite nicely into a jungle section with monkeys and balloon stands.
There's nothing more satisfying than making a really cool-looking enclosure, offering exactly what your animals need and what your guests want to see. Plus, the enrichment items are frankly ridiculous (in a good way), especially when you see a candle of tapirs having the best time bouncing around on a trampoline.
What's also interesting is that you'll have to think about what kind of zoo owner you want to be. There's a morality element layered on top of the range of cutesy benches and thus some fairly sizeable decisions to make. It starts small, a man in a trenchcoat suggesting that maybe you'd get some more money from guests if you let him paint zebra stripes on your horse. But then it's much more complex conversations around whether to go with renewable energy and planting enough trees to offset the carbon emissions from all the tour buses delivering guests to your entrance. There are even choices to be made around whether to release your animals into the wild or turn them into rugs and belts or grind them into bacon and eggs. I've gone good, of course, because the idea of filling my pretty zoo with factories and murder is too horrible to think about, but there's a choice if you're, errr, more money-driven.
But away from factory farming, what the game does well is to give you plenty to unlock but no pressure to do it all straight away. There is definitely room for a few more explanations and tutorials, as tends to be the way with sims of this depth, but overall it's an utterly compelling gameplay loop. There are some annoying quirks, like not being able to easily resize an enclosure if, for example, your rabbits have been breeding, well, like rabbits.
And the music is a looping nightmare that I had to turn off completely and replace with a plethora of podcasts - although it is the perfect game to play while listening to your latest episodes.
Slight grievances aside though, Let's Build a Zoo is a very competent sim with some interesting gameplay features to set it apart. If you're into the pixel-art style too, there's nothing better in this space right now.
Let's Build a Zoo is available now on PC