Developed by South African studio Free Lives, the minds behind such high-brow classics as Broforce and Genital Jousting, Terra Nil is a low-key city builder with a zen-like simplicity and a strong environmental preservation message at its core.
Where the aim of other city builders might be to plan and construct a bustling metropolis with multiple citizen types, landmarks, and industries, the aim of Terra Nil is to transform an inhospitable environment into a thriving natural paradise.
The main ‘campaign’ consists of four different levels or biomes, each with its own scenarios, buildings, objectives, and challenges. For each biome, a grid-based map is generated, so while the objectives in the campaign might stay the same, each time you play the map will be slightly different. The first one is the Riverlands, where you must purify the soil, create waterways, then wetlands, and so on.
The camera is isometric, and while you can zoom in, you can’t rotate the camera as the art style is made up of 2D sprites. Along the bottom of the screen is your toolkit of buildings, organised into tiers. As you gradually heal the environment, you will get access to more buildings allowing you to complete more objectives.
The puzzle-solving involved in creating the perfect environment can be quite addictive. For example, to be able to plant a forest in the Riverlands you first need piles of ashy soil. To get this soil you need to start a fire, to start a fire you need the right building and to have planted wildflowers, which require a beehive to be placed in a nearby tree. One task leads into another, and before you know it an hour has disappeared.
Once the terraforming is complete you must locate different animals that have since made their home in the environment. This is done by scanning certain sections of the grid that meet the necessary requirements. For example, to find bears your scan must include forest tiles, a beehive, and a hill.
You can also alter the climate, which allows you to fulfill optional objectives like rivers sprouting lilypads, or migratory birds returning. This is a delicate balancing act because making things too hot, cold, dry, or humid can impact what types of vegetation and in turn, animals you can cultivate.
All that is left after you’ve found all the animals and made a balanced climate is to recycle your technology and leave. You build an aircraft, use little drones that travel down rivers and later via a monorail system to collect your recycled buildings, and leave a completely pristine, untouched ecosystem behind you.
Once you’ve completed a level Terra Nil allows you to bask in the canvas you have perfected. Watching the rains fall, and birds flying over the forests, swamps, and rivers you made; it’s quite satisfying.
I managed to hit credits after completing the campaign in around four hours, however, there is more to do. Each of the four levels has a second, far more challenging, variant. These involve the same objectives but with added parameters like having to contend with lava or not having anywhere near as much room for your power-generating buildings.
I gave these a solid go but ended up working myself into a fail state after 20 minutes which essentially removed any desire for me to try again. They’re a little too opaque, and by the time I realised the mistake I’d made, it was far too late to do anything other than reset.
For the short time that it lasts, Terra Nil is a fun, addictive and relaxing city-sim. It’s a little hard to recommend at its current price of $37 AUD (on Steam) but is certainly worth checking out whenever it goes on sale. The breadth of content brings the overall experience down quite a bit, as once you’ve given the four biomes a go there isn’t a whole lot left to do. That said, if you like the sound of creating beautiful environments, without having to use your brain too much, then you’re likely to have fun with Terra Nil.
This game was reviewed on PC with a code provided by the publisher.