Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Simplz: Zoo Review

Simplz: Zoo, developed by South Winds Games and published by Reflexive Entertainment.
The Good: Specific goals for match-3 games, matched items used in zoo design, helpful interface, varied puzzle layouts
The Not So Good: Repetitive with a disproportionate focus on match-3 elements, shallow zoo simulation lacks strategic planning and doesn’t impact puzzle mode, trivially easy puzzles with an optional timer for no real benefit, linear unlocks decrease campaign variety, slow campaign progress
What say you? Marginally better than a traditional match-3 game: 4/8

How do you make a match-3 game more interesting? PC’s have been inundated with enough games that it's practically its own genre. More sophisticated gamers such as you and me (but not that guy over there; he’s an idiot) require more sophistication! Enter the egregiously misspelled Simplz: Zoo, which attempts to combine classic (meaning “tired”) match-3 gameplay with running your own zoo. Giving you another goal is certainly more interesting than tediously matching jewels, right? Let’s find out!

Like most (but not all) puzzle games, Simplz: Zoo features low-resolution graphics that are best displayed in a window. How low? 800 by 600. Looking at the game full-screen at that low resolution caused my eyes to bleed. Just kidding: my face melted off, that’s all. Despite this shortcoming (the resolution, not the face thing), the game looks decent for a casual title: the visitors and animals are drawn in a cartoonish format and animated reasonably well, although your patrons appear robotic as they glide around the grounds. The game is 2-D, and while the art style and visual effects are not as distinctive as you would like, it’s functional enough. Performing far better is the interface: checks and stars are clearly displayed to indicate objects you own and can afford, and specific resource needs are shown in the bottom-right during match-3 sessions: quite helpful. Not as helpful are the cleverly hidden tiled squares that must be removed; they are occasionally highlighted, but they don’t contrast enough from an empty background. Rounding out the package is appropriate music and the occasional sound effect to accompany the on-screen action. Simplz: Zoo doesn’t provide an outstanding package of graphics or sound design, but it’s not terrible either. One could classify it as “average.”

As the title of Simplz: Zoo somewhat indicates, you are running a zoo; the resources to run said zoo are earned by playing a match-3 puzzle game. While you alternate between the zoo simulation and puzzle game during your progress through the campaign, most of your time will be spend puzzling. The campaign offers the single goal of creating the greatest zoo in the world, accomplished by purchasing more animals using the resources earned during the match-3 puzzles. Progress is very slow as you can only afford one item (at best) after each puzzle sequence. There are no mini-games independent of the main campaign, so you’ll spend all of your energy expanding your animal kingdom.

Your zoo requires several resources to remain in tip-top shape: food, personnel, money, material, and research. More animals means a higher monthly quota of resources (and thus better performance in the puzzle portion of Simplz: Zoo), and you will also have to accumulate resources to purchase new beasts in both indoor and outdoor exhibits. Additional species can be researched by making matches as well. Support structures, for monthly resource bonuses, can be built as well, in addition to beautifying your zoo with paths and foliage. Unfortunately, the zoo simulation is very basic: you can place buildings anywhere in order to gain their rating bonuses. Aesthetics sadly do not matter; people say suggestions about which objects to place, but I cannot observe any benefit in attendance or rating by doing so. Even if it does impact your attendance, the money you get from it pails in comparison to the cash earned from the match-3 portion of the game. There is no user happiness to maintain, so the zoo simulation lacks difficulty. The game also unlocks things in a very linear order due to the seemingly arbitrary resource requirements, meaning each zoo you build will have the same buildings appear in the same order. As a final insult, visitors completely ignore your paths and walk on the grass. The zoo simulation is very lightweight and needs further development to be anything of interest.

Match-3! Nothing strikes fear in the soul of the hardcore gamer like that haunting phrase. The game tries its hardest to make the puzzle elements somewhat interesting, and it succeeds to a degree. First off, there are specific goals for each match-3 game: there is a minimum amount of basic resources you need to match (derived from your zoo upkeep) and tiles what must be cleared (used for paths in your zoo). I do not understand why you need to clear so many path tiles when you don’t actually need them. The puzzles also have varied layouts and starting conditions, featuring some interesting components like locked tiles, paths that must be cleared for migrating animals, and crates that must be moved to the bottom. Matching the same resource three times in a row produces a special bonus as well. Regrettably, the match-3 game is far too easy. You can switch tiles diagonally and the game automatically highlights potential matches, making matches a trivial affair. There is a timer that can be used to impose some sort of difficult, but it is optional and there is frankly no reason to do so since the resource bonus for turning it on is so insignificant. Why handicap yourself? For three whole extra points? No thanks. It’s actually better to last longer in the match-3 game in order to accumulate more resources. It is sometimes tedious to get those last couple of tiles removed, but it's just a matter of time before you do since you can’t fail. There are too few resources to make the puzzles challenging beyond the first minute of unlocking tiles. The resources themselves are poorly balanced, with far too materials and not enough cash for the zoo management part of the game; I always have an unbalanced cache of resources, waiting several rounds of puzzle games for certain requirements to accumulate and unlock new buildings. Unless you are completely brain-dead or terrible at match-3 games, Simplz: Zoo will offer no challenge. And if you are, what are you doing playing this in the first place?!

Simplz: Zoo lacks the depth required for a notable title. While the match-3 elements are fine enough, if a bit too traditional, the zoo portion is very underdeveloped and subsequently disappointing in its lack of scope. You’ll spend almost all of your time in the match-3 part of the game, simply because there’s nothing to do with your zoo other than add a new exhibit after each puzzle round. I’m not looking for tycoon-level complexity, but there should be at least some impact on performance based on the layout you have designed. All you need is to have the buildings somewhere in order to reap their meager bonuses. While the match-3 game has a great influence on your zoo, since that’s where all of your resources and decorations are earned, the zoo does not influence the puzzles (other than minor bonuses), and that’s ultimately where the displeasure lies. The zoo is essentially a self-designed trophy case, never feeling like a simulated place, rather just somewhere to stick things you’ve unlocked. The linear campaign progresses very slowly, only allowing you to unlock one object after every puzzle round; you need to really love match-3 puzzles to get any enjoyment out of Simplz: Zoo. The puzzle portion of the game is much better developed than the zoo: there are specific goals to meet, varied layouts, and interesting situations like locked tiles or leading animals to a goal location. Even this, though, is not without problems: the game is way too easy, and enabling the optional timer doesn’t offer a significant benefit for doing so. Basically you can’t lose, and thus the game is never challenging. The promise of a puzzle-simulation combination is never fully realized. Only real fans of match-3 games will want to play Simplz: Zoo, since that’s where all of the actual gameplay is contained.