Long after the battles are over and the cities have crumbled, the land remains. Wounded and scarred, but not finished. In Terra Nil, your task is to bring it back from the brink. Fans of strategy games and city builders will immediately feel at home here, establishing power networks and plonking down buildings as they spread their reach across the level. But this is no ordinary story of expansion.
Terra Nil is the antithesis of the traditional city builder. Instead of smothering the map in sprawling skyscrapers, you’ll be revitalizing it. Reintroducing fields, forests, and eventually fauna too. This is more than just clean up; it’s correction.
Who exactly are you? Terra Nil doesn’t particularly care. A benevolent alien species bent on restoring nature, or guilt-ridden humans returning to right their wrongs? Irrelevant. What matters is that you get the job done.
In each level, that work follows the same three-phase structure:
- Scrub the earth and sea of toxins and begin reintroducing grasses.
- Boost biodiversity with the formation of forests, tundra, beachfronts, and more.
- Alter the climate to encourage the return of wildlife and complete the ecosystem.
When you finish, you’ll recycle, pack up, and leave no trace of your presence behind. Your airship may arrive to a desolate patch of rock, but by the time you leave, it’ll be thrumming with life. Terra Nil offers a journey with technological optimism at its heart.
The challenge along the way is reckoning with the landscape at hand. Your sole resource is generated by the spread of nature. But you’ll need to invest in the machinery to get you there first. There are four climates to wrestle with, each bringing its own challenges and the terraforming equipment needed to tackle them.
In the temperate zone, you can rely on wind turbines atop rocks to supply power. But in the polar caps you’ll have to unearth lava and establish geothermal plants instead. Over the five or so hours required to beat the core levels, you’ll utilize tidal power, monorails, and even controlled fires to refresh the land. Thankfully, new technology is doled out steadily, so you’re never left feeling overwhelmed or unsure of where to start.
At the base difficulty, Terra Nil isn’t a challenging game – it’s designed as a calming, meditative experience above all else – but it still tickles that optimization-hungry part of your brain. Lining up irrigators to maximize grass coverage and income is seriously satisfying, and there’s the opportunity to fine tune environments further to hit optional goals that mark the return of specific weather patterns and wildlife. And when the introduction of a salmon run is on the cards, it’s hard to say no to that extra effort.
The most gratifying moment comes as you breach the environmental threshold. Tip the scales just enough in nature’s favor and you’ll witness a cascade of life. Thunder might break out as rains unfurl across the land. The environment begins to assert itself, flipping the remaining gray and brown tiles to verdant greens. The land no longer needs your help.
In its rewilding efforts, Terra Nill inevitably stumbles over a few tangled technical roots. The range for some equipment isn’t clearly marked, and your first foray into a level won’t explain certain environmental aspects until the phase you need them. Both can lead to tricky moments of restructuring to get the results you need.
Worst of all is how easy it is to miss smaller structures like canopy net posts when recycling. Pass one over and you’re forced you to rebuild a network across the level to reach it. Were Terra Nil a meaner game, these could easily spill over into level-ruining frustrations. But as it stands, they’re minor irks in an otherwise tranquil terraforming experience. Such craft has been put into each animation and the soothing soundtrack, that it’s hard to let irks get to you for long.
Perhaps the best summation of Terra Nil comes at the end of each level. After your airship trundles off screen, you’re given the chance to simply appreciate what you’re leaving behind. A tap of a button treats you to slow pans of the creatures and environments born from the land’s convalescence. It’s a gentle moment of reflection, perfect screensaver fodder, and near guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Developer Free Lives has partnered with the Endangered Wildlife Trust to donate a portion of Terra Nil’s profits to the charity. So if you do decide to give restoring these virtual ecosystems a go, you’ll be helping to preserve real nature as well.
Terra Nil is available March 28 on PC and Netflix gaming.