Terra Nil Review – Good Green Fun


It's a simple game, but one in which all the systems work in harmony to create a chilled-out and satisfying experience. With customizable difficulty, decent variety in levels, and a soundtrack that makes you feel like you're in a fancy spa, Terra Nil offers a relaxing opportunity to turn a bleak little square of land into a verdant paradise.

Following current ecological developments can be pretty depressing. The garbage patch in the Pacific, disappearing pollinators, the huge blob of seaweed approaching the coast of Florida — it’s looking rough for the flora and fauna on planet Earth, and it’s frustrating to feel helpless about it. Fortunately, there’s a way you can both pretend to clean up the planet and also actually help endangered species, in Terra Nil.

Developed by South African developer Free Lives, their latest game is something of a departure from previous titles like Genital Jousting and Broforce, both in gameplay and in tone. Terra Nil sees you turning a wasteland into a lush, verdant paradise by plunking down devices to detoxify and irrigate the soil, carve new rivers, and otherwise restore the planet for a wide variety of plant and animal life. It’s not just in-game that you’ll be helping out cute little deer, however — Free Lives is donating 8% of the profits from Terra Nil Steam sales to another South African org, the Endangered Wildlife Trust charity.

Despite initially looking like another city builder, Terra Nil is anything but — it’s really more of a puzzle game, and the final win condition of each map is removing everything you’ve built so that only the newly restored natural ecosystem remains. It’s a clever subversion of the standard city building gameplay loop, since instead of planning for growth, you instead must plan for the eventual recycling of every structure you place.

terra nil in progress shot review
There’s something very satisfying about seeing the plants and animals return to what was a dull, dead landscape 10 minutes prior

Each new randomly generated wasteland you set out to restore starts barren and polluted, and you go through three distinct steps to “reclaim” the wasteland. When you complete a step, you unlock a new tier of building that allows you to proceed with the next tier of habitat reconstuction. The first phase of reclamation involves restoring life to the soil and/or the ocean by utilizing toxin scrubbers and irrigators, until you’ve got enough of the place back to a pleasant green and blue. The second step sees you creating a balance of different biomes: in the temperate region, you’ll need to cultivate grasslands, forests, and marshlands, while the tropical region you’ll need beaches and mangrove forests. In the final step, you scan to make sure animals have moved back in, and work on recycling all of the structures and returning it to your airship.

things start bleak terra nil review
The landscape starts out pretty darn dead

Placing structures requires some of your starting resources (there’s only one type in the game, symbolized by a green leaf), but every new patch of grass or watery bit of marshland you cultivate earns you a few more resources — as long as you’re careful about how you place structures, you’re never really in danger of running out of leaf power and getting stuck. You’re allowed to take back your previous move, but beyond that, you’ll have to restart if you put yourself in a position where you can’t build anything. This may sound harsh, but it only happened to me once on the standard difficulty, and completing a map only takes about half an hour.

Despite each phase being discrete in terms of progression, the systems overlap in a clever way: even after you’ve finished growing grass and you’ve moved onto cultivating biomes, you can still place tier 1 buildings — say, to grow more grass (which can then be turned into marshland or forest) — by placing additional buildings from the first tier. This is often not only helpful, but necessary to complete the level.

As an added wrinkle, there are optional goals related to region-specific values like humidity and temperature, which can be altered by the changes you make to the wasteland as well as by specific, climate affecting structures. It’s very satisfying to hit the requisite humidity level and see the rain start to fall, causing formerly barren tiles to sprout grass and granting you a few extra resources in the bargain. You’ll also see things like moss begin to form on rocks, butterflies return, and other nice little details that demonstrate how the landscape is returning to life.

optional goals screenshot terra nil review
While generally not required, the optional goals both grant bonus resources and make your landscape more alive

Once you reclaim a wasteland, you unlock the next region — there are four in total. It took me a little under 3 hours to complete a single level in each region and see the end credits. Doing so only net me a 56% completion rate, however; after beating the game once, you unlock alternate versions of each of the four regions. These new versions change the general layouts, and introduce elements and structures from other regions, generally making the task of restoring the wasteland somewhat more complex; while my first playthrough was fairly easy on medium difficulty, these alternate wastelands required careful planning and clever use of structures to complete.

The difficulty is also very customizable, with sliders for building cost, starting resources, and how many structures you’re allowed to recycle for free. There’s also “Zen mode”, which removes all costs and lets you reform the landscape without any restrictions. All in all, it’s a great way to make the game accessible for everyone, while also making it challenging for veteran strategy game players, and I’d love to see more games follow suit.

Of course, while you can certainly play it as a challenging puzzle game, it seems clear that the main goal was to create an approachable, relaxed experience. A great deal of attention has been paid to the game’s audio; the serene soundtrack swells and quiets smoothly and serenely, and often the only noise from the game is the gentle clicks and clunks as you place buildings, the rustle of the leaf-energy moving around the interface, and the sound of the breeze and ocean.

wasteland reclaimed terra nil review
If only it could be done in 30 minutes IRL!

Furthering immersion in the gentle sounds of the landscape, your in-game cursor acts like a microphone: hover a toxin scrubber and you’ll hear sporadic industrial clanks; mouse over greenery to hear plants rustling in the wind. Despite the game’s simple graphics, there’s a real beauty to them — it’s satisfying just to take a few moments to appreciate the scenery you’ve helped cultivate from what started as a dead square of land.

I experienced some minor annoyance with the lack of hotkeys for buildings, which is clearly a symptom of the game being developed for mobile interfaces (the game will be playable on mobile devices via Netflix). This is apparent in other design decisions, such as the large buttons on the interface and the lack of subtlety in the animations. It ultimately doesn’t do much harm, however; the game isn’t meant to be played like Starcraft II at 150 APM, and once I accepted the UI for what it was, leisurely clicking my way through the menus jived better with the overall vibe of the game anyway.

Part builder, part puzzler, and part meditater, Terra Nil isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever played before, although it draws plenty of inspiration from a wide range of titles and genres. Despite not usually being one for chill games (I’m usually not having fun unless I’m getting my butt kicked) I very much enjoyed my time restoring the planet of Terra Nil.

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Unabashed FromSoftware fanboy still learning to take his time with games (and everything else, really). The time he doesn't spend on games is spent on music, books, or occasionally going outside.

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