Terra Nil (PC Review)

Terra Nil Review – Restore life to a barren planet in this relaxing new city builder from the developers of Broforce

By Jim Parks

As humanity continues its path to destroying the remaining wilderness left on Earth, along comes a different kind of city builder to encourage stewardship of nature rather than exploitation.

Terra Nil was developed by Free Lives, best known as the developers of Broforce, based in Cape Town, South Africa  and published by Devolver Digital. If you’re not familiar with their previous games that’s okay since this game isn’t related. In fact, even if you’re intimidated by the city-builder genre this game is still worth a look. 

I should start by saying that my knowledge of the city builder genre is limited. I’ve tried to play Sim City and City: Skylines in the past, but always get overwhelmed by the number of options and lack of clear direction. I became aware of Terra Nil during one of the Steam Next Fests last year and was intrigued by the concept of a city builder focused on reclaiming wilderness rather than exploiting it. I gave the demo a shot and after playing the first area it quickly became one of my most anticipated games of 2023.

What I appreciated was right away you were given clear goals and missions to complete. For each region there are typically three steps you need to complete. The first step is to build sources of electricity to power buildings to create habitable conditions for water and plant life to exist. The second step is to increase biodiversity by creating different biomes. The final step is identifying fauna and recycling and removing everything you’ve built from the map so that only nature remains.

This game structure makes it a more mission-based approach to city building, and the game always tells you what your next objective is. There are multiple difficulty modes and I played on the default setting where you start out with a finite amount of in-game currency and incur a cost for each building placed on the map. The cost of placing a building is dynamic, and the strategy comes in identifying the optimal placement and orientation for a building that minimizes the cost (or in the case for some buildings restoring nature maximizes the return). There is the option to play with these costs removed, but even on harder difficulty levels the game is a very slow-paced, relaxing experience. Everything is controlled with the mouse and is turned-based.  There’s even an undo button if you mess up which makes for a stress-free experience. The graphics and ambient music also work well to create a relaxing atmosphere. 

For the most part I did not find the game especially challenging on the default difficulty setting. However, once I got to the third map I did have to restart a couple of times. This was primarily because I needed to create a certain biome and the game wasn’t letting me do that and I didn’t know why. I hadn’t realized until then that certain biomes can only be created if certain humidity and temperature requirements were met and only figured it out when I finally thought to click on the building to read its description. That this was not clearly communicated by the game was a bit frustrating, so I would recommend reading the building descriptions carefully to avoid this.

My other criticism of the game, which is also a minor one, has to do with how recycling is implemented. Typically you’re required to set up a monorail to return recycled buildings to the ship for removal. This involves setting up your monorail so that recycling depots are close enough to terminals. If set up correctly then it’s clear that you will be able to return all recycled materials to the ship, but you’re required to recycle each station one-by-one and in the right order otherwise you’ll have to rebuild monorail stations just to recycle them again. It would have been nice if there was an option to automate this, but this is mostly nitpicking.

The game is on the shorter side, which I appreciated. There were four levels to complete and it took around 7 hours to do so. After the game is completed it unlocks alternate levels, although the mission goals remain the same. There are also optional climate and fauna goals that you may not have achieved on your first play through so the game does offer some replayability. The optional goals are definitely worth aiming for. They add weather effects and make the map look more dynamic. One novel feature of the game is the “Appreciate” button that appears after you’ve completed a level. I thought this added a really nice touch to the sense of accomplishment. The optional goals are definitely worth aiming for.

Minor nitpicks aside, Terra Nil is a relaxing environmental strategy game with pleasant pixel art graphics recommended for fans of games like Dorfromantik and newcomers to the strategy and city builder genres. As long as you’re not expecting a game with the strategic depth of Civilization or Cities: Skyline then you will likely have an enjoyable time. Terra Nil presents itself as an alternative to infinite growth and never-ending expansion and largely succeeds on this.


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