Planet Zoo is a deeply warm-hearted game. While it’s set up to give you as much freedom as possible in every aspect of your zoo’s design, it still steers you firmly towards being good to the animals which live there. Unlike Frontier’s other animal husbandry game, Jurassic World Evolution, where everyone knows the management layer is just a way of killing time until the inevitable monster deathmatches, Planet Zoo does absolutely nothing to signpost “nightmare animal supermax” as a valid playstyle. Personally, I think that’s a good decision.
But as I already mentioned, it puts a genuinely phenomenal range of construction tools at your disposal: if you can think of a habitat concept, the chances are you can build it. And inevitably, when a game gives me that much freedom to do my own thing, it’s only a matter of time before I move things into deeply unsettling territory. This week, I had Planet Zoo’s new Southeast Asia DLC pack to play with, featuring eight new beasts and a huge bundle of new construction assets. I made a new zoo, in sandbox mode. And while it was pleasant enough for the animals which lived in it, I did everything I could to inflict profound psychic damage on the visiting public. Come take a tour with me.
Welcome to Bin World. The first thing you see when you enter the zoo, this hulking, windowless concrete silo looks like it might contain some sort of genetically engineered devil. But it does not. It contains three reeking, racoon-faced beasts called Binturongs. Binturongs are also called bearcats, because they somehow combine the most dismal aspects of bears and cats, and while I quite like them in real life, in my zoo I decided to treat them with utter contempt.
They are fed superb food, I must stress, and have all their needs met to exacting standards. But at the end of the day they still live in a massive, rectangular concrete pit, which even the most archetypical Victorian bastard would have said looked “a bit bleak”.
Buckle up mates, this one’s seriously high-concept. “Bear Witness”, the zoo’s star attraction, houses somewhere in the region of thirty Malaysian sun bears (seriously, I lost count, as I just couldn’t stop myself from buying the magnificent little gits), in a gigantic elevated amphitheatre. So far, so much like a Tudor pub, right?
Well, there’s a scintillating twist on the usual bear pit formula, here. Because in this zoo, the bears observe the guests. Upon passing under the rock archway to enter the exhibit, guests find themselves confronted with a single, cramped toilet, pressed in on from all sides by humongously tall glass walls. Beyond the glass, terraces rise up on all sides, and they are absolutely rammo with bears.
Do you think you could muster the gumption to take a dumption, with a massive crowd of bears running about just a few feet away? Well, it doesn’t matter either way. ‘Cos the toilet’s been busted since day one, and I can’t be bothered to fix it.
The Mysterious Katabasis
In Greek myth, a Katabasis is a descent into the underworld, which rarely goes well for those who undertake it. What’s it got to do with Southeast Asian wildlife? Nothing. But I fancied digging a huge pit. As such, at the centre of the zoo, visitors will find a yawning pit surrounded by shattered doric columns, offering no clue as to what lies beneath. The only way to discover the truth is to follow the rickety, torchlit path down into the abyss.
It goes on for a long old time, that path. So generous is Planet Zoo in its provision of underground real estate, that the walkway winds around a good third of the entire site footprint before it finally reaches the bottom.
And what awaits those visitors bold enough to venture all the way down into this forbidden deep? A three-headed hound? A bloke with a foul temper and a dead crab on the end of a rope? Nope. It's a box with three leaf insects in. Psych! Enjoy them, because you’ve got a thousand or so stairs to climb before you can see daylight again.
How hard can it be, I thought to myself, to use Planet Zoo’s terrain sculpting tools to make a half-decent sculpture of a proboscis monkey’s face, in which to house proboscis monkeys?. Pretty fucking hard, it transpired, after an hour and a half of ham-fisted earthmoving left me with… this.
The Monkey Zone would be horrifying enough, were it just the size of a reasonable village church. But alas, there is nothing reasonable about its size. The problem with the terrain sculpting tools, you see, is that it’s very easy to lose all sense of perspective when using them on a blank site. And so, without any frame of reference, I ended up making a gurning ogre head with an internal volume slightly greater than that of the Basilica of St. Peter, at the Pope’s house.Panicking over what to do with all that space, I built a rainforest on the inside, and enclosed it in a ring of 120-metre-high glass walls. It still looked a bit empty, however - even with the monkeys installed - and so I gave it that most classic of finishing touches: an Australia-themed shithouse. It’s just as non-functional as the one in Bear Witness, but the monkeys don’t give a literal or figurative shit.
The Leopard Cloud
I know Clouded Leopards are named for the way their fur looks, but for the purposes of thls exercise, let’s just pretend that they’re mystical beasts of the sky, which will only tolerate living quarters placed extremely high up in the air. Whether that’s the case or not, I’ve got them covered with this gravity-defying, lump of rock like one of the ones off of the film Avatar.
Admittedly, it's not the most convenient place to reach: if an animal gets sick, for example, a zookeeper must haul it down a half-mile of spiralling wooden staircase to get it to the vets. And for visitors, especially those who've already tasted the bitter surprise of the Mysterious Katabasis, it's an utter legbuster. But I think that's fair: it'll just sort out the visitors with a true passion for leopards from all the fake fans.
It took me a shockingly long time to build just these five exhibits, so my zoo has yet to feature the Southeast Asia Pack's other three debut animals (the Malayan tapir, Ussuri dhole, and North Sulawesi babirusa). But I like to think I'll make some sort of castle for the pig, with a moat full of otters. Of the new creatures, I think the sun bear is my undisputed favourite. but as ever, I can't help but feel the true king of Planet Zoo's jungle is its terrain editor. Just take one more look at Monkey Zone, and tell me I'm wrong.