Although I have dabbled in my fair share of strategy games, they are not the type of games I usually gravitate toward when given the choice. That was until I played Terra Nil, a unique environmental strategy game developed by independent studio Free Lives and published by Devolver Digital. Described as a “reverse city-builder,” Terra Nil sets itself apart from other games in its subgenre by emphasizing nature over expansion. The game’s thoughtful, eco-conscious approach made for an inviting and accessible strategy game that positively subverted my expectations.
A grassroots effort
In Terra Nil, players are tasked with rebuilding ecosystems quite literally from the ground up across four different regions, each composed of distinct biomes that require certain climate conditions to thrive. The overarching goal is to cleanse barren wastelands and polluted oceans and transform them into self-sufficient ecosystems, leaving no trace of your presence once finished.
There are three main difficulty levels to choose between: Gardener, Ecologist, and Environmental Engineer. The latter two begin with less starting resources and have higher building costs. Regardless of the preset you begin with, there is always the choice to customize your gameplay options in the settings. Players can also enable Zen mode for a more relaxing experience devoid of resource management or objectives.
Nature abhors a vacuum
The game starts you out with a temperate climate region, where you are tasked with reclaiming the landscape and restoring its native flora and fauna. To do this, you must create a power source in order to place down toxin-scrubbing machinery that cleanses the land and prepares it for re-fertilization. With the right conditions, you will eventually be able to restore regional plants and animals. With nature restored, your final task is to recycle everything you built, leaving no trace of your presence. While resource management and building construction are primary gameplay mechanics, the goal is more about kickstarting a habitat and restoring nature to a point where it can become self-sustaining.
The grid-based layout of each procedurally generated region makes for controls that are easy to pick up. Part of what makes the game so relaxing and meditative is having the ability to control how quickly or slowly you want to advance the restoration process. While most tasks must be performed in a certain order, there are no timers to follow and the player is ultimately in control of the pacing.
Establishing a balance
Each region features a set of optional objectives that require certain climate conditions to be met. You will have to experiment with the tools at hand to achieve the ideal conditions to get specific features in your landscape, as controlling the humidity, temperature, and toxicity levels are key to reestablishing regional wildlife. For example, regrowing enough forest and open tundra in your landscape can allow for the return of snowy owls and other forest-dwelling critters.
Accomplishing the optional goals can result in the restoration of various ecological features, such as thunderstorms beginning, migratory birds returning, water lilies blossoming, and crabs repopulating beaches. Additional features such as terraforming and geothermal energy are introduced in later levels, presenting new logistical challenges for players to overcome and new ways to manipulate the climate.
Seeing the forest for the trees
Cleansing the land and watching nature return is an aesthetically pleasing experience in Terra Nil. From the satisfying swoosh of the Irrigator turning brown wasteland into lush green turf, to the pleasant pop of fynbos filling in the gaps, the lovely sights and sounds of the restoration process encourage you to achieve each goal.
The gameplay in Terra Nil is complemented by the game's beautiful art direction, underlaid by a tranquil soundtrack by composer Meydän. The hand-painted environments are packed with detail, and I was pleasantly surprised at how close you can zoom in to appreciate each biome. There is even an “appreciate” button that appears after completing each region that allows you to sit and bask in the beauty of your work before leaving it behind. Not all is lost, though, as the inbuilt Screenshot Mode allows you to capture HUD-free images of your restoration efforts, along with watermarked images of the full isometric map so you can document your work.
Getting back to nature
Although the gameplay was mostly smooth sailing, I did encounter a glitch with the rock-tossing tool that caused it to not place rocks where intended. There were also times when the restoration values were inconsistently displayed when rotating the Irrigator. These were ultimately minor hiccups in a game that otherwise ran smoothly throughout, even during graphically intensive moments like thunderstorms.
While there are ways to extend your playtime in Terra Nil, I did feel the game was a bit on the short side and would have benefited from having at least one more region to explore. Luckily, the game makes up for its brevity with replayability, as alternate versions of each region become available upon completion, encouraging players to retry previous regions with different starting machinery and new challenges to overcome.
A breath of fresh air
The game is not an endless restoration effort, by design. Once you've restored and stabilized the ecosystem of a region, the only option left is to leave. The fleeting nature of your constructions give way to thriving ecosystems that will endure long after you’re gone, making your departure from each region a bit less bittersweet each time.
Terra Nil is not what you might expect from a typical strategy game. There are no opponents to face, no incessant clicking, and no steep learning curve. It is a game that takes the concepts found in many city-building games and turns them on their head, emphasizing sustainability and conservation rather than endless expansion or usurpation of resources. While the game's mechanics didn’t always work as expected, what few issues I encountered did little to take away from an otherwise enjoyable and meditative experience.
This review is based on a PC download code provided by the publisher. Terra Nil launches on PC on March 28, 2023.
- Beautiful, hand-drawn art
- Atmospheric sound effects and soothing music
- Close zoom-in allows you to see biomes in detail
- Controls are simple enough for most players to pick up
- Progress at your own pace
- Optional objectives offer new challenges
- Alternate versions of regions add to replayability
- Minor gameplay bugs caused some confusion
- On the short side, I wanted one more region to explore
Larryn Bell posted a new article, Terra Nil review: Nature appreciation
I really liked the demo, can’t wait to play the full game.