By the time you read this, Zoo Keeper will have spent around three months on the shelves at your local games emporium. Three months, and PALGN is ashamed to admit it only recently had the pleasure of experiencing Ignition's puzzler. But we've caught up at last, and if this review can convince just a handful of you to pick up what PALGN views as one of the most under-rated and downright absorbing games to grace the DS or any other console this year (and judging by the sales figures, only a handful of you did so initially anyway), then this will be worth the effort. But be warned before we start: this is a game that can wreck schoolwork deadlines, suffocate evenings and take a demolition ball to your days off.
And yet when you first pick the game up, it all looks so innocent. The animals, the stars of the show, trot happily across the top screen of your handheld, cute and blocky in all their abstract glory. A welcoming, motherly voice says 'Welcome to Zoo Keeper.' It's somehow all terribly Japanese. And even once you've made your way through the menus and are stuck into your first game, it's difficult to see how this is a game that could come close to breaking up relationships. But it's 'just-one-more-go' appeal is there, lying in wait. And within an hour of playing, the bug will have bitten.
The premise is deceptively simple. Each time a new game is started, the player is presented with a randomly-generated grid of 64 animals. In early levels, there's seven different animals - lions, monkeys, pandas, giraffes, elephants, hippos and crocodiles - before an eighth animal - rabbits - join the fray later on. Racing against the clock, it's the player's task to shepherd this higgledy-piggledy arrangement of animals into horizontal or vertical lines of three or more by simply swapping one adjacent animal for another (done by tapping one animal, then the one you wish to swap it with). Once herded into a row of three, that trio of animals disappears, and the rest of the animals above it succumb to gravity and fall into it's place. Occasionally, this movement triggers a chain reaction, with animals falling into threes or fours or fives thanks to the gaps left behind by other captured beasts, and your points multiply with each of these 'chains'.
But although it may sound simple, mastering the game takes some doing. Having said that, trying to master it is fun, largely because it's also hugely engrossing, almost to an extent whereby it becomes intoxicating. Play through a decent session before going to bed, and what happens when you close your eyes? Lions, pandas, monkeys, crocodiles, all jostling eagerly for position behind your eyelids. PALGN will shamelessly admit to daydreaming about aligning elephants and giraffes into lines of three. Not every puzzle game inspires this kind of hypnotic, dreamy reaction. Infact, very few do. But Zoo Keeper is in that minority.
The meat and drink of the game is to be found in the eponymous 'Zoo Keeper' mode. In the first round of this, you're tasked with herding three of each animal type together. In the next round, you'll need four of each animal. In the round after that, five. Then six, seven, and continue until your eyes really do hurt somewhat. But you keep going, because the game has seized your mind and made it it's own, and you've fallen into the kind of rhythm that's triggered by all great puzzlers. And that's just the start of things, for whilst 'Zoo Keeper' is one of the stronger modes in the game, the most gripping of the variations is unquestionably 'Time Attack'. The rules are simple (and all the better for it): six minutes on the clock, rack up as many points as you can. It's compulsive, frantic stuff, and because it's only six minutes, a quick go can turn into dozens of quick goes.
But whereas those two modes prove as compelling as any puzzle game released in the last five years, other variations suffer from some balance issues. 'Quest' mode is the guiltiest party here. Consisting of ten individual tests - capture 20 lions, capture only vertical lines of animals, capture 15 more giraffes than pandas and so forth - the game awards the player with points depending on how quickly or efficiently they achieve the different goals. Often however, the game's assessment of the player's performance isn't always fair here; with the layout of the animals at the beginning of each of the ten exercises seemingly random, luck plays far too big a role. 'Tokoton 100', the fourth mode available to solo players, simply asks too much of the player (collect 100 of a certain animal to level up) and games on this end up too long-winded for their own good, losing the tight, focussed gameplay of the 'Zoo Keeper' and 'Time Attack' modes.
Nevertheless, despite this brace of weak modes, there's no doubting that this is a quite beautifully designed puzzle game. The visuals are as close to perfect as possible, with non-vital information stored away from the busy eyes of the player on the top screen (the animal pictured on top is the 'lucky' animal for the round being played, and scores double points when captured). Likewise, each of the eight animals are visually distinctive enough to avoid the player ever becoming confused, whilst the plink plonk of the in-game tunes only succeeds in drawing the player in more. If there's one criticism that could be levelled at the game's power to hold the attention, it's that sometimes it can feel like you're on autopilot, as if your hands are working but your brain is lagging behind. Mostly however, the concentration required is substantial enough to keep you playing for considerable amounts of time. Just stick to 'Time Attack', if you really want to clock up the hours.
So there you go: alongside Super Mario 64 DS and Wario Ware Touched!, this is arguably (and surprisingly) one of the strongest DS releases to date. It's also yet further proof that Nintendo's new handheld is quickly becoming the most natural choice of platform for those who prefer their gaming to have a more cerebral flavour to it. With Polarium and Zoo Keeper already here, and with Q Entertainment's Meteos arriving in PAL regions shortly, there's now precious little excuse not to own Nintendo's handheld if you're into a good puzzler or two. Whether you're three months late or not.