author: Matt Buckley
Terra Nil Review: Reclaim the Wasteland At Your Own Pace
Reclaim a barren wasteland from the grips of toxic ruin in Terra Nil. From the temperate river valley to a volcanic glacier, restoring the natural environment has never been more relaxing.
The review is based on the PC version.
From South African indie developer Free Lives, the creator of action games like Broforce and Gorn, comes a very different kind of game, Terra Nil. The game has virtually no action at all, unless you count starting controlled burns. Terra Nil focuses on relaxing, slow-paced gameplay that requires thoughtful strategy and consideration.
- Engaging and relaxing gameplay;
- Charming visuals and stellar audio;
- Encourages creative thinking.
- Hard to recapture the magic of the initial playthrough;
- Relatively short core game;
- Slow pace isn’t for everyone.
Building off of classic real time strategy games like StarCraft or Age of Empires, Terra Nil flips the concept on its head, putting the player in charge of revitalizing a wasteland rather than commanding battalions of troops in a destructive war. This might actually be the perfect game to decompress with after some more stressful games, literally undoing the damage done to the environment.
Players will need to utilize advanced technology to restore plant and animal life, and once the region is stable, recycle everything and leave without a trace left behind. From temperate forests and grasslands to a volcanic glacier, Terra Nil spans the globe.
The Four Biomes
Terra Nil has four unique biomes to restore, starting with the River Valley, and eventually unlocking more challenging biomes like the Tropical Island and the Volcanic Glacier. Restoring these biomes for the first time is full of discovery and experimentation, which, unfortunately is something that is hard to recapture in a second playthrough.
So, Terra Nil is extremely enjoyable on the initial playthrough, and it’s certainly worth returning to at any point for a calm, relaxing experience. But once the initial impact of playing through for the first time has begun to recede, it doesn’t quite pack the same punch anymore. It’s still a great game, but it would have been made even better had there been more replayability.
Terra Nil provides an excellent break from the usual fast-paced, action-heavy video games. Though short (the core game only provides less than ten hours of play-time), randomly generated maps can make this a great game to return to every once in a while to decompress. This is a game that rewards careful planning, patience, and thoughtfulness, and it’s good to see more of that not just in video games, but in the world in general.
Fortunately, after restoring the four major biomes, there is another alternate challenge within each biome to complete. These manage to push the gameplay a few extra hours, but that’s about it. What would have been really amazing to see is a mode with a significantly larger map that could even combine various biomes. Understandably, that may be a bit much to ask, but at least a few more biomes aside from the base four would have been great.
An Audio & Visual Delight
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. The soundscapes and landscapes of Terra Nil combine into a beautiful tapestry. Even basic motions in Terra Nil like placing the arboretum that grows the forest or even just purifying the soil with a detoxifier results in a satisfying gradual growth outward from the starting point. Not only does this feel right for the logic of the game, it also adds to the overall atmosphere of growth and restoration that the game cultivates.
Throughout the restoration process, various optional goals will be accomplished depending on the climate of the region. These goals will slowly introduce things such as migratory birds returning to the region, flying in a v-shape across the screen, or crabs returning to the beaches of a tropical island. A great moment in all regions, is the return of rain or snow. Patches of soil grow grass on their own, dry riverbeds fill with water, and the whole ecosystem seems to slowly patch itself together. As the game progresses, the environment feels more and more alive.
Not only this, but the audio grows and crescendos along with everything. From the quiet, desolate wasteland eventually springs a forest full of chirping birds and a crackling thunderstorm that brings a genuine sense of relief after a long restoration process. The audio also changes to focus on wherever the cursor is pointed, meaning if the player is building something on a beach they will hear crashing waves, or croaking frogs in a wetland. This small touch can be so immersive and natural that it almost goes unnoticed.
From Gardener to Ecologist to Engineer
Any player somewhat familiar with strategy games will be able to pick up Terra Nil with ease. You could practically play this game one handed with just a mouse, but the keyboard can make things a little less complicated. The challenge in Terra Nil doesn’t come from managing controls or quick reactions. But it does require resource management and the ability to plan ahead.
Terra Nil offers three levels of difficulty, Gardener, Ecologist, and Environment Engineer. The first two will have tutorials that will walk the player through the controls and basic motions of gameplay, with Gardener being the most forgiving of all. Environment Engineer on the other hand, expects some level of experience with strategy games and cranks up the difficulty while also removing any sort of tutorial. Even still, Terra Nil is a very forgiving game, featuring an undo button for the most recent action, and the ability to restart the map at any time with no consequences.
Terra Nil doesn’t want to punish the player for making mistakes, it wants them to learn from those mistakes and make better choices next time. The game rewards players who carefully plan ahead during construction, ensuring that everything built can eventually be recycled, leaving no trace behind.
Changing The Environment
In each biome, Terra Nil’s gameplay centers around three stages. First the player needs to establish a solid foundation of healthy soil and simple plants. Then the player can begin to build on top of that with more complex habitats from forests to coral reefs.
Then, finally, once the biome is stable, the third stage focuses on clearing out any remaining structures and letting the biome thrive on its own. This three stage process cannot change. A forest cannot grow without a solid foundation of healthy soil.
Taking part in this methodical process is relaxing. Not to mention the satisfaction at seeing how different the biome looks once finished. Knowing this, the game even offers players the chance to “appreciate” their work. Instead of just continuing on to the next challenge, players also have the option to watch a video of their newly restored biome. Quite literally giving the player a moment to take a breath and reflect on what they’ve accomplished.
Terra Nil is an amazing experience from beginning to end. The biggest issue with the game is that the end comes too soon. That may seem like a compliment, and it mostly is, but what would make this game perfect is if it was a little more replayable.
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Terra Nil would benefit greatly from some DLC or an expansion that adds a few new biomes. For example, a harsh and unforgiving biome like a desert would be fun to explore. Perhaps the habitats the player needs to create within the biome are dunes, scrubland, and an oasis, all while being extremely careful with a limited amount of water. Camels could eventually roam the dunes while fennec foxes hunt in the scrublands and vultures soar overhead. There is a lot of potential to build on this concept and it would be great to see what other creative biomes could come into play.
Ultimately, Terra Nil delivers on what it promises. An incredibly mellow and relaxing strategy game focused on transforming a barren wasteland into a thriving ecosystem. Being the force behind such positive change is satisfying in and of itself, but the slow pace, excellent visuals and audio really drive it all home.
Terra Nil arrives on PC via Steam and mobile via Netflix on March 28th, 2023.
Matt Buckley | Gamepressure.com