Review – Terra Nil
We all know, and are aware, and are doing our best to help the world with more environmental-friendly practices, be it with the simpler things like not using plastic straws and shopping bags, to changing our lightbulbs to more sustainable LED ones. That being said, there are times in which this discourse feels a bit too smug for the common folk. Between more arrogant electric car owners bragging about them being so much better than you, to idiotic protesters throwing paint onto works of art to supposedly prove a point, I occasionally feel like eco-friendly discourse doesn’t always hit the target. Not to mention Lil’ Dicky’s abhorrent “Earth” music video.
Those acts might even make some people become anti-environmentalists in their own right (I legit saw a bumper sticker on a Subaru Impreza once with the message “f*** you Greta”). Let me preface, I do not agree with them. But here comes the question: how to make more people more environmentally conscious with a clear, subtle, and most importantly, accessible message? Well, what about making a video game in which the core gameplay loop is to restore polluted wastelands, turning them into lush, green fields full of rivers and forests? This is the main feature of Terra Nil, by Free Lives and Devolver Digital.
Terra Nil is a completely utopic and summarised idea for the restoration of the environment, which makes everything look easy and enjoyable. Sure, this is not how the real world works, but I appreciate the intention. Free Lives had a goal: teach people a thing or two about restoring the world, all while entertaining them. They had to come up with a way that made the act of seeing grass grow on wastelands feel rewarding, a goal to strive for. Honestly, I do think they did succeed at that.
The game looks, feels and acts like a city builder, but I’d rather consider it a mixture between a puzzler and a strategy game. The core gameplay goes as follows: you are given a crappy, desolate piece of land, where everything is dead and life is impossible to thrive on. The soil is polluted, the rivers have dried out, the animals have disappeared. With the help of some environmentally sustainable machinery, you are given the task of reviving this piece of land. You do so by following some admittedly bureaucratic steps.
First of all, you need to build a source of energy. In order to do so, you need to look for rocky terrain, and build a wind turbine there. After that, the main goal is to build some completely utopic machines that “revive” the soil with clean water and, I dunno, the power of friendship or whatever. With rivers back in action and trees growing once again, you can start thinking about creating ecosystems. Create marshlands and pollinate the land with the help of genetically enhanced bees. Create controlled wildfires to enrich the soil with nutrients, and build a few atmosphere moisturizers to bring rainfall back to the land. The combination of rainfall and rich soil will result in the creation of forests, which will allow for wildlife to thrive once again.
The puzzle aspect comes in the next step of the game. Terra Nil would have been an utterly dumb and menial ecogame if all you had to do was create a bunch of buildings to save the environment and call it a day. Nope, you actually have to think about how to DISPOSE of these same buildings after the environment is back on its feet. You will be tasked with building a rocketship of sorts, which will be powered with the recycled debris of every single building you have previously used. In order to do so, you will need to create recycling plants and boats that can collect these materials if they are near a river.
If they are not close to a river, you might have to use a machine that creates riverbeds. But those pollute the environment around it, so you might also have to redo all the aforementioned steps as well. This is the puzzle aspect of Terra Nil. You need to carefully use resources, and think on ways to get rid of all of buildings in a logistically-sound and environmentally friendly manner. Bureaucratic as hell, if I say so myself. This is a very unique gameplay loop, but it wasn’t one that made me stick in front of my computer’s screen for hours on end. I’d complete a puzzle and call it a day. The next day, another puzzle, because why not? And so on.
The catharsis comes in the shape, or better yet, the color of the revitalized areas. At first, you are given a hideous, drab, brown wasteland, one that’s intentionally harsh to look at. In contrast, fields are filled with beautiful shades of green, rivers shine with sparkling blues. You crave for these beautiful colors in order to get rid of the hideousness of pollution. It’s almost as if Terra Nil is teaching us about ecology with the simple usage of colors. If that was the intention, bravo.
There’s something cathartic about Terra Nil‘s gameplay loop. It might not be the most engaging or addictive strategy/puzzle hybrid out there, but I commend Free Lives for making the sole act of wanting to clean up a wasteland fun and engaging. It is not the most realistic eco-friendly game out there, far from it, but I think it manages to deliver its “save the world” message better than most songs, movies, Twitter posts or activists out there. The game doesn’t try to guilt you, it doesn’t try to be harsh with its message. On the contrary, it’s a fun little diversion that borderline unconsciously makes you start caring more about the environment with a simple gameplay loop and a masterful usage of color disparities.
A beautiful clash between drab browns and bright greens. The game is intentionally harsh to look at when your map is polluted, becoming very pleasing to the eyes the more you restore it.
A tad bit bureaucratic, but also quite easy to learn and master. Each map feels a bit like a puzzle that needs to be solved in a number of steps. A unique gameplay loop, though not one that will captivate everyone.
It’s mostly ambient noise. Nothing bad, nothing good either. Calm and serene, but somewhat forgettable.
Fun Factor: 7.0
The fun comes from the rewarding sensation of turning a polluted wasteland into a green field full of grass, water, and wildlife. There’s something cathartic about the gameplay loop in Terra Nil, though I can’t say I was playing it for hours on end at a time.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Terra Nil is available now on PC.
Reviewed on Intel i7-12700H, 16GB RAM, RTX 3060 6GB.
A copy of Terra Nil was provided by the publisher.