Developer Free Lives • Publisher Devolver Digital • Release March 28, 2023 • Played On PC
I launched into Terra Nil for about an hour and a half and walked away certain this is going to be many players’ absolute jam. As an ecosystem restoration/low-pressure city builder, it mostly lives up to its goal of combining serene and strategic gameplay. I’m almost angry my week is so full of GDC previews because I want to have hours just to live in this world.
The imagery is clear and gorgeous from the start. A single leaf dangles on a withered tree. Its tenuous connection proves too weak to resist a sudden breeze, and the last reminder of the landscape’s foliage tumbles away. It’s a lovely way to communicate the game’s themes and stakes without even a single line of dialogue.
Hope comes in the form of a half-buried book. It’s a beginner’s guide to restoring desiccated environments and cleverly acts as both a transition to the tutorial and an in-game instruction manual. Over the next hour or so, I learn there are three phases to bringing the land back to life.
Phase one: It’s not easy being green. At this stage, my goal is to fill a greenery meter by scrubbing the land of toxins and irrigating the cleaned soil. To do this, I need a source of energy — provided by windmills — and a steady eye on my available resources. I don’t have trouble running out of the game’s “currency” for placing tools, but including the restraint introduces an element of strategy.
But the real vehicle for strategic planning is energy distribution. Nothing works without electricity. So, I want all of my soil scrubbers and irrigators near a wind turbine. However, my objective is to cover as much of the earth in greenery as possible. The result is almost a Tetris-like puzzle as I attempt to fill in every line of the grid without using too many of my resources.
Again, the developers have done a great job balancing the game’s puzzle-solving with its tranquil vibes. Each tool manifests highlighted areas to describe its area of effect, and often a number above the machine tells me how effective different locations will be before I place something permanently.
After hitting 100% greenery, I move on to phase two. This is largely concerned with biodiversity. I need to satisfy the conditions for creating wetlands, forests, and fynbos. And each of these ecosystems now has its own meter which gets filled as I create the corresponding landscape. The tools and methods get a little more complicated here, and it makes me happy the developers have broken down this introduction into very accessible bite-size pieces.
My biggest complaint with the process comes at the end of phase three. The final task of the level asks me to leave without a trace. That means demolishing every building and recycling the parts for my spaceship. Unfortunately, getting every last building is especially tedious, as I can only reach my last tools via boat, and they are all landlocked.
To complete the mission, I had to go back and destroy some of my fantastic forests to build a river. This meant going back to phase one to put up a wind turbine to power my terraforming tools, filling up the river, and cleaning up everything needed to build again.
Armed with knowledge, I suspect this last hurdle will be easier in the future as I turn my sights toward a tropical climate on the horizon. I’m excited to explore Terra Nil‘s new wilderness and see what it looks like when it’s transformed and teeming with life.
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