City building games often follow the same visual pattern. You start in a large open area, filled with nature. Sometimes it’s a desert or a forest, or just plain stretches with some scattered trees. Whatever the case, it’s all covered in concrete, towering buildings, and stressed-out workers late in the game.
That’s what makes Terra Nil, the latest game from Broforce developer of Free Lives and Devolver Digital, stand out as such. It was touted as an upside-down city builder, something that could topple the entire genre and flip it over the top. After spending some time with the game in a hands-on preview as part of Devolver Digital’s E3 rollout, I can certainly attest to that. However, Terra Nil also takes advantage of its relaxing nature, proving to be a much more complex puzzler than it allows.
Instead of starting with a lush area full of nature and life, each map is procedurally generated in Terra Nil It is a completely wasteland. It was gray, full of dead trees, rocks, and dry river beds. Your main job is to fill this wasteland with nature and then leave without a trace, the only thing left is a verdant field of life.
To that end, each game is divided into three stages. The first is that you place buildings to detoxify the soil and water it so that the grass can grow and the trees can respawn. Additional buildings allow you to refill freshwater rivers that dry up, making it the perfect place for fish to call home. While the process is pretty straightforward and you’ll want to make the entire map green, it’s important to note that this is still a management game.
Your main resource is basically trees. You start with a certain amount and spend some to build buildings. Of course, some buildings sprout more trees, giving you more to build on. However, it’s easy to get distracted with the construction and not plan how to ultimately decipher things, something that will come into play in the game’s third phase.
The second is less about construction and more about diversification. Nature cannot be just one thing; it needs balance. With some extra buildings, players can take the land they have reclaimed and turn it into something else. Areas around rivers can become wetlands, and plains can become home to bees and beautiful wildflowers.
Terra Nil starts to look best here, and that’s due to player actions. After you diversify large areas, animals begin to appear. The game’s empty sky is filled with birds and deer that inhabit the grasslands. They also don’t appear immediately; The first time you notice animals grazing or moving around the map, you will probably be surprised. It was a pleasant surprise, like a flower blooming through cracks in concrete. The game’s animals aren’t the prettiest and they certainly don’t have the flashiest animations, but it’s still fun to watch them because you’re responsible for them being there.
There’s a bear appearing in Terra Nil which means you need to reforest, which requires you to burn some of your reclaimed land. For plants to grow, they need nutrient-rich ash, and you can only get that by setting fire to a large mob in your area.
That doesn’t mean you have to burn the entire map. The player is given many options to modify the terrain. For example, an excavator draws a long line through the earth, creating new paths for rivers to flow down. Likewise, lime kilns can be placed in rivers to spawn tall rocks, perfect for placing wind turbines to power your other buildings. But like everything else you build, eventually, those buildings have to be taken down.
Terra NilThe final stage is all about leaving nothing behind, which often has negative connotations. Here, it just means that you are taking every trace of civilization out of an area. I know that sounds bad, but in this context, it’s actually a good thing. You start by building a large airship, and then a small boat. The boat will then circumnavigate the ports you’ve set, which are filled with building materials that were first kept in the vaults.
This is when Terra NilYour simplicity will probably betray you, as I did. The first time I played the game, I wanted to cover the map with grass and different biomes, not knowing that I would end up having to pack and dismantle all my buildings. As such, I have placed a large number of them far from the water. That means there is no way for the boat to collect materials from those buildings. They got stuck there, and without all of them you can’t complete a level. I ended up having to reboot because I ran out of resources trying to demolish a few lone buildings.
While that experience was unpleasant, it taught me the mindfulness that comes with Terra Nil and how this game purposefully forces the player to balance things out. The whole map can’t be lush with greenery because you won’t be able to collect every building at the end. The roads leading to the clusters had to be made by excavators so that they could eventually be dismantled and the map left with no structure in sight.
I’m curious about what else Terra Nil available in store. After playing through its first map, I feel like I’ve pretty much experienced all it has to offer. While the game hints that there is an entire world full of wasteland to reclaim, the question of what additional challenges will apply to the player remains. After all, much of the difficulty comes from a city building game that starts with the player’s decision. Without that, the transparency levels are unknown Terra Nil will motivate players to build better, smarter nature.
Terra Nil no release date yet and will only be available on PC when it launches. If you are interested in what Terra Nil must provide, you can check game page on Steam.