Dream Zoo brings plenty of fresh new twists to freemium zoo management games

Ever since Tap Zoo launched back in September 2010, every freemium developer and their brother has tried to put out a successful mobile zoo game. Zoo Story, Tiny Zoo, Safari Zoo, DinerTown Zoo, Zoo Club – the list goes on and on. But despite their great numbers, none of these play-a-likes managed to bring anything triumphantly new to the formula. Enter Dream Zoo.

Dream Zoo is, much to our surprise, Zynga’s first foray into the world of zoo management games. As a genre, zoo tycooning has been just as popular on Facebook (Zoo World 2, Zoo Paradise) as it has on mobile, so it seems like something the big Z would have jumped on long before now. Better late than never though, because Dream Zoo might just be the best freemium zoo management game we’ve played to date.

At its very core, Dream Zoo has a fair bit in common with its like-minded genre ancestors. Players will get a pair of animals together, have them do the night time grown-up dance, and out pops a new baby to add to their habitat. It’s here, though, that the similarities to other zoo games come to a grinding halt.

Using this familiar set up as a starting point, Zynga takes Dream Zoo in a number of directions – some brand new, others familiar, but still fresh in the world of zoo play. For example, you know how in CityVille you can place decorations near buildings to increase their fiscal output? The same mechanics are in play here, but apply to the cash you’ll earn from each habitat.

While we enjoy seeing little tweaks that Zynga has learned from previous games being applied to new releases, what really gets us excited are the bigger changes to the genre. The most noticeable change is that, rather than breeding for the sake of breeding, breeding in Dream Zoo is all about trading up to a better generation of animal.

Parents always hope that their kids will grow up to be bigger, stronger, and smarter than they are. And in Dream Zoo, that fantasy becomes a reality – at least for the animals. Each new animal you place starts with a “common” rating. Pair that up with a common mate of the same species, and you’ll end up with a “rare” baby. Shortly after baby comes, it’s time to kick mom and dad to the curb and make way for a mate of their own. Two rares together produce a “very rare,” and two of those produce a champion. Each level of animal not only has a cooler look to it (common’s look normal, while champions ends up with things like floral prints and wild colors) but a much higher cash value when it comes time to collect.

Dream Zoo

Of course, finding a mate isn’t always as easy as just visiting the shop. Well – it can be if you’re willing to spend premium currency, but what’s the fun in that? Instead, players can spend coins to go on a safari in search of a mate. Safaris are made up of four stops, and on each stop, you’ll discover three new things. Maybe it’ll be gold, or experience, or a collectible item – or even the animal you’re looking for! Sometimes, though, it’ll be a flat tire that’ll put a crimp in your adventuring ways. Safaris, then, are a game of “press your luck.” Will you keep the three items from the first stop and go home happy? Or push on to the next and risk getting a flat and losing out on your newfound riches?

Safaris cost a bit of in-game currency to get started, but you can earn freebies by “checking in” via a simple location-based feature. Unlike other games that task you to check into real world businesses and such, Dream Zoo simply divides the world up into a giant grid and gives you a free safari for each part of the grid you check into each day. It’s a simple use of your phone’s GPS capabilities, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like it’s being crammed down your throat (as is so often the game with location-based elements in games). If you’re out for a walk, be sure to fire up Dream Zoo to get a free safari trip or two. If not, no biggie.

Dream Zoo

The animals in Dream Zoo don’t just sit there like a lump, either. They’ll need to be fed and washed, both of which occur with simple mini-games. Washing is likely what you’ve come to expect from any pet game on the market – just scrub your finger all over the animal in question – but feeding ends up being more of a challenge. A bar will fill up, and you’ll need to tap that bar whenever it reaches the food you’re about to serve. With multiple food items and different bar speeds, this can be a real dickens to master. Luckily the feeding will occur regardless of your success – but a perfect showing will get you a nice coins bonus.

The game is pretty rock solid in terms of presentation, too. There’s a great jungle vibe to the soundtrack, and the animals are all presented in a charmingly original art style that feels like it came right off the page of a children’s storybook. Each has their own fluid animations, making the world feel alive with activity.

If there’s one complaint to be had, it’s that Zynga hasn’t quite optimized all of the graphics for the Retina Display – something that’s simply inexcusable this far into the display’s life cycle. Everything looks good for the vast majority of the game, mind you, but whenever you choose to zoom in on the action, the animals and set pieces begin to look a little fuzzy and jaggy. For a game with so much polish in other areas, it’s hard to believe they’d let something so obvious slide.

Dream Zoo

We would’ve also liked to see cross-breeding, if only to see what crazy Island of Dr. Moreau quality monstrosities we could come up with – but a caption in the menus lets us know that this option is still “coming soon.”

Zoo games have been around for awhile now, yet they haven’t really seen the sort of evolution other freemium genres have. Dream Zoo does a tremendous amount to rectify this, while at the same time it acts as a shining example of Zynga’s newfound commitment to mobile gaming. If you used to love zoo games but grew tired of their repetitive nature long ago, Dream Zoo offers plenty of reason to get you feeding the giraffes again.