If you’re shopping for a match-three game with a bit of meat on the bone, look no further than Simplz: Zoo. This lengthy puzzler serves up nearly a dozen hours of polished puzzling plus several more spent building and customizing a monster-sized zoo. You’re unlikely to find many other games in the genre that offer more bang for the buck.
The story begins with a handwritten letter informing players that they have inherited a zoo from their grandfather, and that he hopes we will fulfill his dream of making his menagerie the top-ranked facility of its kind in the world (though, it’s worth noting, he doesn’t seem to have done much to achieve this goal himself, given that we start the game with just a single attraction).
Then it’s straight to work.
Players can move around the zoo freely with their mouse, using the scroll wheel to zoom in and out. Of course, it’s mostly just an expanse of grass to begin with, but it doesn’t take long to begin filling it with dozens of attractions each loaded with multiple animals, plus various facilities such as food vendors, souvenir shops, and a zoo academy. You can also place a wide variety of vegetation types, add helpful direction signs, and position trash receptacles in which visitors can toss their garbage. There’s no penalty for removing and replacing objects, which means you can feel free to customize and redesign all you like.
However, in order to keep building and maintain the structures you already own you need to earn money, food, personnel, and building supplies. This is done by playing the match-three game, which can be accessed whenever and as frequently as players like.
The closest analog to the sort of puzzle action seen here is perhaps the Jewel Quest series. Players are provided grids of varying shapes filled with match-able items, such as coins, hard hats, and woodpiles. Grouping these items in sets of three will add them to your supply. Matching them in larger sets exponentially increases the value of each tile.
Each puzzle comes with its own set of objectives. You may need to collect a certain amount of a particular resource, clear pieces of path that can later be used in the zoo, move item tiles (trees, shrubs, flower beds, etcetera) to the bottom to add them to your stockpile, or-my favourite-clear pieces along a winding path to allow animals to slowly make their way toward an exit.
There are also obstacles and power-ups. For example, some of the tiles are locked in place by chains, which have to be broken via multiple matches, and we gradually earn the ability to do things like remove particularly tricky tiles at the click of a button or wipe out entire rows of tiles. We also have the rare ability to slide tiles diagonally to make matches, which really opens up the board and virtually guarantees that you’ll never get stuck.
That’s not to say that the game is too easy. Players looking for a challenge have the option of switching on a none-too-generous timer, which, if it expires before you finish a puzzle, will render all of your work worthless. It serves as a good motivator to get your butt in gear.
But the truly neat thing about Simplz: Zoo is in how the matching game and the zoo simulator evolve symbiotically. Install an ape exhibit and you’ll go from matching steaks to bananas, which provide three times the amount of food. Earn conservation points in the matching game and you’ll be able to buy additional animals for your exhibits, which leads to more visitors and a higher zoo ranking.
This synergy keeps the game exciting by providing a steady stream of fresh objectives and challenges and ensuring that neither element becomes pointless or-worse-tedious. Indeed, you’ll be researching new animals, upgrading buildings, and mastering puzzle power-ups and strategies right up until the very end.
If there’s anything to criticize it might be the audio and visual design. Neither art nor sound will offend, but the fluffy music grows repetitive over the course of several hours, and it would have been nice to see some animals in action rather than just the motionless cartoons shown in most exhibits.
Still, minor complaints. Simplz: Zoo is an undeniably habit-forming mashup of match-three puzzling and zoo simulation, and it lasts long enough to ensure you get your fill. Don’t miss it.