Terra Nil is one of those titles where players might not know what to expect when they first jump into it. From the trailers and screenshots, I assumed that it was a type of city-building or even a real-time strategy title. But instead, Terra Nil, which is available on Steam, is basically a puzzle game where players need to smartly invest limited resources on terraforming blighted landscapes, which earns more resources and the ability to keep playing until the level itself is self-sufficient and fully restored to health.
There is not too much of a plot in Terra Nil. For whatever reason, there is a barren planet that has been ravaged by pollution and other factors to the point where it is essentially an unusable wasteland. Players will land on this barren world in an airship, and then use advanced technologies to bring different climate zones back to life. At some point, animals are reintroduced into the environment and the climate is manipulated enough so that it becomes self-sustaining once again. At that point, it’s time to pack up all of the advanced scientific buildings that were constructed in order to wrestle life back into the land so that when your airship finally takes off again, there are no traces that you were ever there in the first place.
Why characters are doing this is not fully explained. Perhaps it’s the players’ world that they are rebuilding after years of neglect, or perhaps players are a spacefaring environmentally friendly people who go around fixing busted up planets. On some levels we do find the ruins of buildings, so people clearly lived there before at some point, but whether or not they are the players’ ancestors or whatever does not really matter. A player’s job is to fix the environment and re-introduce plants and eventually animals, and then move on.
What drew me into the title is actually the environmental theme, and that is present everywhere we turn in Terra Nil. In fact, the developer, Free Lives, is donating 8% of their profits to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African conservation and habitat preservation organization. So, if helping out the environment is important to players, they will be able to do so in the game and also in real life by buying it.
In terms of gameplay, at its heart, Terra Nil is about resource management in the context of a puzzle game. What happens is that you are given a store of green leaves, which is basically the currency of Terra Nil. You start with 1,000 and have to purchase all of the climate and environment fixing buildings from that storehouse. So, a baseline building might cost 25 leaves while a more advanced one would be priced at 50 or more. However, you can earn leaves back by creating life and clearing out polluted areas. For example, if you deploy an irrigator building on good soil, you can maybe end up with 150 points of greenery, which more than makes up for the cost of the 50 leaves that you invested, giving you a net profit of 100 leaves. However, each building can normally only work in a tight area or even in certain directions, so placement for maximum impact is a necessity.
But it’s not just about keeping your leaf storage high. The ultimate goal of each level is to restore the broken ecosystem. Depending on the zone, that might mean raising the humidity or the temperature, or creating favorable conditions so that birds once again take to the skies, crabs lumber up onto the beaches or fish begin to swim in the oceans. The only way to do that in most cases is to spend your greenery, or at least to invest it for a bigger payoff later. Often times, you will need to spend leaves on machines that won’t give you an immediate payback, but instead help to nudge you closer to your climate change goals for that area. And that is where Terra Nil can get tricky. It’s not too difficult to soft lock yourself out of being able to complete a level if you spend too much on buildings without a clear plan as to how to get both a payback for your green wallet and a way to nudge the current level back to health.
It’s even more difficult because sometimes you need to do things that seem counterintuitive to helping out the environment, but which ultimately contribute to the greater good. For example, you may have spent a lot of resources investing in getting a pristine grassland growing across one part of the map. But if you want a meadow to grow there instead with lots of little bushes and trees, you will need to burn it all to the ground, which creates an ash that helps more advanced plant-life to grow. There are also times when you need to sacrifice part of one kind of environment or habitat in order to foster the creation of another. So, you need to keep an eye on your overall climate goals and act accordingly.
The reward for building out a great ecosystem is slowly watching your creation come to life. Terra Nil looks amazing, and when you start to see rainfall, butterflies, flowers and wildlife starting to creep back into the world, it’s a great feeling. This is complimented by a really well-done soundtrack that makes gameplay more relaxing.
Your final goal once you have achieved all of your objectives is to clean up your mess. That means building elaborate transport hubs using river boats or monorails in order to reach all of your far-flung buildings to break them down for recycling. You have to be careful in this final stage too, because you also need to recycle the transportation system itself, so you need to be careful to remove buildings farthest away from your airship before you disassemble your ability to reach that area. Once you complete a level, you are given the chance to admire your creation, where you can just fly over it and see all the life you have brought to that corner of the world. Those times were some of my favorite in Terra Nil, and it’s great that a mode to admire your work was included.
The one minor flaw with Terra Nil is that there is not a lot of content. Those who are skilled with puzzle games and critical thinking can probably complete everything in four to six hours. It took me about 10, but I am not an incredibly skilled puzzle gamer most of the time. You can go back and replay the same ecosystems again later, and the title will create a new procedurally generated map, so there is some replayability there if players really enjoy what Terra Nil offers.
I had a lot of fun playing Terra Nil and found that rebuilding thriving ecosystems from desolate wastelands was surprisingly satisfying. Those looking for a unique puzzle title with a heavy environmental message should definitely give it a try. Terra Nil’s turtles, penguins, deer, bears and many other animals looking for a new home will thank you.