Version tested: DS
It's been just over a month since I reviewed the American version of Zoo Keeper, and it's been bothering me pretty much ever since.
At the time I described this Flash game as Zoo Keeper's "primary mode of play", which for all intents and purposes it is. You're given a grid of animal icons, and you can switch adjacent squares wherever doing so creates a line of three or more of the same. Those ones then disappear and more fall to fill their place, which leads to chains. There's a timer ticking down trying to catch you out before you can find a move to make, there are a few power-ups, and so on and so forth. We all know how puzzle games with a sense of gravity generally unfold.
And if that was all you got then my assertion that £30 is way too much would be totally accurate. The main single-player mode makes it too easy to just zone out of whatever's going on around you, and probably isn't transparently goal-oriented enough to hold the puzzling veteran's attention for more than a week or so. You'll play it and play it and play it (and so will your girlfriend, for those of you still looking for a universally appealing Tetris-style effort), but you don't get too much out of it in the long run; it just rips through hours like the game's cutesy little lion-head icons would rip through the butter that appearances suggest wouldn't otherwise melt in their mouths.
Doing so (playing and playing and playing it, that is; I've left my butter-eating days behind) left and still leaves my head in a kind of barren wasteland, while my hands carry on mechanically and instinctively. I might as well go to sleep instead, really. I play Zoo Keeper so much I genuinely have started seeing the bloody animal icons when I close my eyes. Glue a pen to my hand and the experience would be similar.
Zoo Keeper earned itself a six-out-of-ten because I knew that anybody who bought it would sit and play the main mode endlessly and use it to fill gaps in the day. That it served such a purpose, featured a few little distractions (including a similarly enjoyable and similarly flawed wireless multiplayer mode), and proved so slick both aesthetically and functionally was never in any doubt; I just couldn't imagine it representing value for money for anybody who could play the Flash game, which basically meant anyone with a powerful enough PC to read what I was writing. (And however many Flash banners we try and ram down your eye sockets, the technical bar of entry has never been that high.) And I could see how really I wasn't playing it, I was just wallpapering my hours with it. The DS version was always nicer in looks and feel than the Flash game, and letting you make moves in really quick succession was another plus, but it didn't seem like enough.
But what I hadn't really grasped at the time was that although Zoo Keeper on the DS is a flawed little puzzle game - a bit directionless, a bit too random - and probably not sufficiently more absorbing than its Flash cousin, the other bits of the game are a lot better than they initially appeared to be. I've barely touched the normal mode in weeks. I've been playing the Time Attack and Quest modes instead, and although neither of them is perfect either, as I've learned in the weeks after the review went up, Quest mode is significant and fairly compulsive, while Time Attack is good enough that you will come back to it obsessively. And with purpose.
And that's why we're here. I'm writing this because of an internal backlash. I'm simply not happy with my assessment in light of the way I've been playing Zoo Keeper in the past month. I want to chastise myself in public for not giving it more time and give it a bigger score in light of what I've learned since, and apologise to you and the makers of Zoo Keeper for having to do so. You could be sympathetic and say that the pressures of life and copy deadlines are the reason it happened, and given the volume of work we have to get through that that's somewhat understandable. But for me that's no excuse for basically not spending enough time with a game and I wouldn't be happy with myself if I didn't address that now it's available to buy here in Europe. I've said some controversial things about games in the past and I know it's wound a few people up, but that's just the way this reviewing lark works. The key point is that you have to believe in what you've written. If something happens to change your mind, then you should make amends and, frankly, apologise - and not just stand around defending the indefensible. I'm sure there'll be plenty of people who beat me with what I'm saying here for weeks, months, even years. Hell, maybe you'll all call for my head. But I'll be much happier for having said it.
So here we are.
Last month I said that Quest mode set you various specific tasks to complete and didn't add a huge amount of value. To elaborate on that - you are given a series of ten tasks, all but one of which involves playing regular Zoo Keeper in a particular way. Capture (the game's short-hand for "make lines of") 20 lions, make 30 chains, get 15 more pandas than giraffes, etc. Your performance in each of these tasks contributes to a points total. And in the middle there's a luck-of-the-draw bit that gives you the chance to add some points or even multiply what you have.
The game's assessment of your performance here isn't always entirely fair, and some of the tasks prove much more difficult than others, or even themselves on previous attempts. But if you top the highest score in each game mode you unlock another difficulty level - and that becomes significant, because it means you can get really, really big scores in some of the other modes. Most notably Time Attack.
Time Attack is so much better than the regular Zoo Keeping mode that it makes me weep. Playing against a six-minute countdown, the idea is to play as fast and well as you can to build up the biggest score possible. Scores are bigger the tougher the difficulty level. And because it's "just six minutes", you pick up the DS off the desk while you're waiting to download a big email full of 2MB JPEGs of concept art and corporate logos you know you won't use on your website. You grab the DS while you're waiting for someone to get their bloody shoes on and go to the pub with you for a pint. You grab it because it's the ad break. You grab it because you're waiting for the water to boil. You grab it because it's there and it's the most entertaining thing you can do with six minutes that I can write about here without Kieron popping up and going "Nyar! See! Told you we hadn't used up all the wanking reference potential!"
And it always overstays its welcome in the nicest possible way. It's just another six minutes to have another go, after all. So why not? Playing it is somehow both relaxing and feverish. It makes no sense. But it makes perfect sense. And now it's clicked with me, I want the whole world to know about it, because if the whole world did know about it the whole world would agree that it's pretty much worth buying the game for outright. The other modes add hours more fun - some more involved than others - and despite the flaws there's just something so intoxicating about it all that you stick with it. I dunno. To revisit an earlier comment (seems to be a theme today), maybe it's like the difference between sleeping and being awake. There's fundamentally a lot more to being awake than being asleep, but your bed is warm and cosy, and sleep leaves you happier and energised. Even when sleep's hard, you still want to be sleeping. And you definitely want to lie in when you wake up.
I've played Zoo Keeper more than I've played any other game this year. A lot of that came before I first put fingers to keyboard a month ago, but a lot more has come since, and it slowly changed my mind until I decided enough was enough. Zoo Keeper is deceptive. But the key point for me is that while it won't reveal all of its charms immediately, it has enough of those charms - and enough that you can't get for free - to keep you happy for a very long time. It's not perfect. There are things that could make it better. But it's good enough to warrant a better score than I gave it originally, and it's good enough to be worth buying if you're in need of a puzzle game for your new handheld.
So play the demo. For that's all it really is. And I'm glad I've been able to come out and make amends for saying otherwise. Then buy the game.
The Internet makes it all better again.
8 / 10