Though they don’t come out and say it I get the feeling the setup for Terra Nil has something to do with the apocalypse. There are no people around and as you start things are, well, pretty dead. Like, literally dead. But it’s your job to bring a broken world back to life and you’re going to use a number of eco-friendly tools to get the job done.
Terra Nil is a city builder without the cities. You’re going to be turning barren deserts into lush grasslands, dry canals into flowing rivers, and badlands into sprawling forests. The game plays sort of like StarCraft except there aren’t aliens trying to kill you as you plop down facilities across the map.
You start off with some basic installations to get the ball rolling. Windmills provide power, toxin scrubbers restore the soil, and irrigators bring back plants. You’ll also need water pumps to get rivers flowing again and calcifiers to add more rockbed as windmills can only be placed on a stone foundation. Facilities that need power have to be close to a windmill so plotting out your approach at the beginning of a map is crucial.
The onramp is very smooth for what’s shaping up to be a bit of a tricky game. Things are simple enough until you start to approach the endgame and then things get interesting. You’ll need to remove your facilities in order to recycle the material for the final project, and even before that you’ll need to upgrade certain buildings and destroy others in order to progress. This deceptively simple game gets more complex as you play, blending a good challenge with something you could use to teach high school earth science.
I actually do feel like I learned something after playing it. There’s a fine balance to nature and without everything working in harmony there’s no way for life to thrive. Take bees, for instance. Bees pollinate the flowers so when you get to the point of the game where it’s time to start plunking down beehives it’s nice to see fields of flowers pop up as you do. Everything is connected.
It’s a genuine pleasure to see animals come back to the land. Deer will wander across the plains, bears will prowl around the woods, and flights of white birds will sail above the greening landscape. It’s all just so… peaceful. The minimalist soundtrack and sound effects also do wonders to relax you as you play.
If Doom Eternal is one end of the spectrum then Terra Nil is the other. It really does go to show that switching up your games every once in a while for something slower and deliberate makes for a good change of pace. Even if you don’t make it through a session because you’ve run out of resources it’s not like you get smacked with a YOU DIED in bright red letters across the screen. You’ll only realize it later but the thirty minutes you spent doing something besides blowing things up did you some good.
Speaking of doing good Terra Nil clearly has a message to share about the environment but it isn’t heavy handed. This isn’t some propaganda piece about why we need to ban airplanes and all eat bugs instead of Pop Tarts. The game is saying something like “hey, see this barren desert, we can use technology to do some cool stuff with it.” And it is genuinely nice to see your map go from literal dirt brown to literal forest green. Somehow the world just seems like a friendlier place.
The second phase of the game focuses on reestablishing three different biomes: wetlands, forests, and grassland. You’ll need to weave the three together to get your meters up all the way and advance. It’s neat to see how something so simple could end up being so complex. You’ll need forests for the beehives that will pollinate your grasslands. And sometimes that means burning down half of the map you just built to make it happen.
You see there’s something called swidden farming where to maintain that knowledge from high school, which means I’ve still got a few brain cells on the job. But you’re going to need all your brain cells to get past the last stage.
The final act of Terra Nil is building an airship that I presume carries you to the next map you need to restore. I say “presume” because I actually haven’t made it that far yet. You see, you’ll need to recycle all your old facilities to come up with the recycled material to build said airship. And this is trickier than it sounds.
If you run out of resources you’ll have to start over so it’s careful planning out of your facilities right from the beginning that’s going to affect the final outcome. It’s a pretty brilliant gameplay loop when you step back and look at the whole thing. I’ll be genuinely proud when I set my first airship floating towards the heavens.
Terra Nil has what feels like the right blend of relaxation and challenge for a casual game. You don’t just automatically win, you have to think, but it isn’t going to slap you in the face for losing. I’ve been replaying Halo 2 recently on legendary and every time I die and get sent back to a checkpoint over and over I get a powerful urge to make my computer desk do a barrel roll.
Think of this game like a rubix cube but without nearly as much pressure to complete the damn thing. You’ll get plenty of help along the way and you’ll have a chill time figuring it out. If you like city building, or in this case nature building, you’ll have fun engaging with the game’s systems. Even if you don’t usually play these kinds of games you’ll still get a chance to relax, which until I tried this I didn’t really know I needed.
I’ll be looking forward to seeing the final product and in the meantime I’ll look out on my lush, green backyard with just a little more appreciation.
Alexander Eriksen | Gamepressure.com