It's not uncommon for small video game developers to make simulation games; they are, after all, something of a lost art in the AAA sphere. What is uncommon is for small developers to attempt a robust simulation game with realistic graphics, which is exactly what the ambitious team of 14 developers behind Prehistoric Kingdom is trying to do.
The undisputed king of early zoo management simulations was Zoo Tycoon and its successor, Zoo Tycoon 2. Now Frontier has Planet Zoo and the Jurassic World Evolution series. But there are gaps in both of these games, and Prehistoric Kingdom is trying to fill them. Prehistoric Kingdom, developed by Blue Meridian and published by Crytivo, was partly funded on Kickstarter throughout 2018. Although the most recent update states it will likely take a further 18-24 months to reach its full potential, its Early Access release was April 27, 2022, and so far the game promises a lot.
The modular building system, that is, taking small pieces and props to create guest facilities, a hatchery, an animal shelter, or really, almost anything your heart desires, is as detailed and complex as Planet Zoo's. You can rotate and recolor almost everything, and even resize pieces, a feature Planet Zoo lacks. Some of you might want to (logically) create a themed staff area or a nice arch your guests can pass under, while some might prefer an 80-foot tall purple T. rex statue looming over your park. I'm happy to report that you can do both.
For folks who aren't as creative, or who simply can't invest hours into making the perfect pavilion, Prehistoric Kingdom does include prefabricated staff buildings, guest amenities, animal shelters, and other props to easily plop into your park. Steam workshop support is also coming, estimated as early as June according to their public development Trello page, meaning soon you'll be able to share and snag the creations of other players to streamline your park building process.
The environmental tools are also impressive, allowing you to terraform, paint on ground textures, and control the depth of bodies of water. In Jurassic World Evolution, you can only use a brush to paint tropical trees on your terrain (there are placeable trees and bushes as scenery, but they don't count toward a dino's forest needs). In Planet Zoo, you must painstakingly place every tree and bush, which can be tedious, especially in the campaign and challenge modes. Prehistoric Kingdom gives you the best of both worlds, allowing you to choose one or more biomes, and then either individually place flora or paint it on with a brush tool. You can also choose which trees to include in the brush, deselecting any that you don't like for a particular habitat.
The path system needs work; at the moment you can only place the path, meaning it doesn't attach or snap to other paths you've already placed, or to buildings, making it difficult to make straight paths or appealing staff and guest areas. The paths also don't align well to the terrain and appear to clip at a distance, a problem that will definitely need to be solved to make the creative building aspect of the game truly shine.
If you're inclined toward creative architecture, your favorite part of the game will probably be the modular building system, but the developers did not cut corners where the animals are concerned. The dinosaurs in the Jurassic World Evolution series are fan service, rigged to look like the generally inaccurate portrayals from the films. But in Prehistoric Kingdom, they attempted to make them look accurate based on current scientific and archaeological data. For instance, the hands of the bipedal dinosaurs are oriented inward as opposed to downward. Not all dinosaurs are scaly and reptilian either, rather some, like the small exhibit Archaeopteryx and Microraptor, have fluff and feathers as we now know some dinosaurs did. There is no velociraptor yet, but I'm confident that, if implemented, it would be the size of a turkey like the real velociraptor was, as opposed to the much larger specimens in the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films.
The animals you can place in your park aren't limited to dinosaurs either. There are currently three mammals in the game - the wooly rhino, wooly mammoth, and saber-toothed cat, with more to come. Extinct animals are entirely absent from Planet Zoo without the help of mods, and there are no mammals in the Jurassic World Evolution series, making these animals unique to Prehistoric Kingdom.
The way you currently unlock animals is a little disappointing. You need to reach a certain star rating depending on the animal's prestige and you need enough science points to unlock it. If you meet those requirements though, you need only go to the excavation map and click on the animal or a specific skin to be able to create them in the nursery.
Despite the intricate modular building system and beautifully-rendered animals, all of the management aspects are currently absent in early access. You can't take loans, invest in marketing, or hire staff to help manage your animals. Guests walk around aimlessly - they don't stop to look at the animals or interact with any of the amenities, so you can't really provide for their enjoyment. Although there is an animal welfare system in place, in which you need to cater to animals' environmental and social needs, give them appropriate food and water, and clean the habitat, they can't become ill or pass away yet, meaning this system has no significance at present.
The variety of modes is also lacking. The only scenario you can undertake right now is the tutorial. There are no levels where you might dig an overreaching park out of debt, or improve the welfare of a park run by an unscrupulous manager who simply wanted a money-making endeavor. There is a challenge mode that limits your starting cash, science points (currency used to research more extinct animals), and initial pool of animals, but you can't change the park entry price and guests can't interact with amenities yet, so the economy is only simulated.
Both the management systems and game modes are clearly planned since they've been implemented in the UI, but if you purchase the early access expecting a full-fledged simulation game, you'll be disappointed with the current offering.
There are naturally bugs - previews of prefabricated buildings appearing as pure white icons, as well as animals getting stuck, spinning rapidly in place, or not using their behaviors correctly. I won't complain too heavily about them since this is early access. However, one thing that should be addressed as soon as possible is that the game is poorly optimized, even on solid rigs. Simply running the game made my RTX 2070 whirr loudly, and switching to low graphics settings did little to alleviate that.
While in its current early access iteration, Prehistoric Kingdom has a lot of potential, especially for such a small studio. The developers have taken on a lot - trying to iterate and improve upon Zoo Tycoon, Planet Zoo, and Jurassic World Evolution. If given the appropriate time and care it deserves, Prehistoric Kingdom could become a spectacular zoo simulation, for everyone from the simple extinct animal appreciators to the innovative architects.
TechRaptor previewed Prehistoric Kingdom in early access on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer. It is also available on PC through the Epic Games Store. There is no current release date for the full game.