Terra Nil Review
A cathartic reverse city builder about natural rejuvenation
Most city builders and strategy management games are about expansion - spreading your people, your increasingly inhuman buildings, and sometimes, your weapons of war as far and wide as they can go. It can be rewarding work, seeing your fingerprints press against the whole world. But the idea of rapid expansion can be a troubling one in 2023 because, well, just look at the state of the world.
So, what about city-building players who are looking for something a little more quaint? Well, Terra Nil might be your answer. Terra Nil is a relaxing reverse city builder if you like. From a top-down perspective, you land on four diverse and barren biomes that have died (and four more in the post-game.) At first, they're all devoid of wildlife, and lacking any greenery, colour, or general signs of life. It's then your job to fix these landscapes, transforming them into lush forests, beautiful corral-filled oceans, and sandy beaches that are only missing a cocktail stand.
Once your dull, rocky dioramas have been rejuvenated, it's then time to reinvite wildlife to the area. And then it's time to recycle your tools, pack up, and leave. Rinse and repeat. It's your duty to fix the natural order of things and leave without a trace, and it's just as satisfying as building an interconnected metropolis. Even later on in the game, when you're tasked with reviving volcanic lands and other hazardous places, Terra Nil remains a relaxing experience.
Your progress is tracked by a series of percentage meters in the corner of the screen, slowly filling up based on different metrics at each phase, increasing as you paint the land green, boost biodiversity with lagoons and such, and recycle your tools. There aren't any leaderboards or scores, but you can complete side tasks - like reaching a certain temperature - for additional resources and achievements, and you can also aim to find all wildlife - usually only three are necessary.
The only 'failure state' is not having room for any more room for biodiversity and inviting wildlife back. These aren't exactly game-over screens, but you'll be unable to progress unless you restart the phase or level. The only dangers in this world come from misusing resources, indulging in the buildings, and running out. Reducing the difficulty gets rid of that barrier completely, making Terra Nil a totally zen layabout.
Of course, it would all mean nothing if the actual strategy/management elements weren't interesting and fun to use. But I'm happy to report that Terra Nil's systems are on par with its vibes. Mostly.
Terra Nil starts a little simply. At first, you place windmills to generate electricity, and then you can begin to place other tools, connecting them to the windmills' power supply. Some mechanisms make the land fertile, some blanket that land with grass and greenery, and some even cause the land to erupt, inviting lava to fill in the spaces. Restoring life to the environment fills in a meter, and when that's done, it's time for phase two of nature rejuvenation: adding biodiversity to the levels.
From then on, your job is to turn the generic grassy, snowy, or muddy patches into more interesting environments. Land next to sources of water, for instance, can transform into a swampish wetland. Or you can place and connect a series of poles on elevated land, creating a canopy that fosters a dense forest. Or you can burn down that same forest to produce fertile ash, allowing for a healthier woodland to grow. Beaches, coral reefs, and more are essential to the upkeep of a healthy, diverse ecosystem.
When that's done, it's time to invite the animals back to the party. Every level has a number of hidden species hiding about, but they'll only come back into the level if you've created the right conditions. For example, the game's menus will tell you that a bear will be attracted to forests and honey trees. Using a sonar, you can scan and discover the bear, but only if you have a forest and a honey tree in range of the sonar. Other animals have other conditions, of course, so it's possible that your ecosystem isn't built to bring all the wildlife back. You only need to discover three animals to proceed, though, so it's not a game-breaker either way.
Finally, the last phase is all about recycling; you need to strategically pack up all your fancy eco-tech, and this seemingly simple task can get quite complicated as the game moves on and the terrain gets weirder. At first, you only have one recycling building in your toolkit that automatically swallows all your previously placed eco-tech. Later on though, you'll be connecting monorails and river streams to pack those recycling buildings away, too. This means you'll need to be thinking a few steps ahead; creating new river streams in advance, so you can reach that land later. Otherwise, you'll have to restart the phase or level again, but this time wiser. That packing up process is complicated throughout by an evolving series of landscapes, like a volcanic glacier.
You're then free to observe your newly born islands, gently chirping with tiny birds and the sound of streaming water. Or you can skip that mini-meditation and fly off to the next island.
For the most part, this cycle of building, cleaning, and recycling is both cathartic and strategic. You need to think carefully about where to place each new device since they cost green points - a resource you can gain by restoring more of the environment. So, if you're mindlessly placing buildings, you'll eventually run out of resources and be stuck, forcing you to restart the phase or maybe the entire level altogether. Instead, you'll need to carefully place all your tech, making sure each placement is in range of other useful buildings, and that you're covering as much of Terra Nil's grid-based world as possible.
I enjoyed this part of Terra Nil since it encourages mindful play. Just like in the real world, constructing buildings in inefficient ways is a waste of resources, and won't better the natural environment. With this in mind, Terra Nil smartly marries its environmental message with its systems.
While Terra Nil does get progressively more complicated, I never felt that it was becoming overwhelming. All of the new eco-tech that's available to you keeps things interesting - like a monorail that moves buildings around the level like a conveyor belt - without muddying up the game's relaxing qualities. Upping the difficulty will add some complexity if you're looking for it, and there are also a few secret levels, post-game, which are much harder too.
The only place where Terra Nil falters is in its procedurally generated map designs. Procedural generation is good for this kind of game because, upon replays, who wants to clean the same exact level more than once? However, Terra Nil's random level layouts can make some levels impossible to complete, unless you press restart to get a new layout.
For example, one island needed a certain percentage of the terrain to be covered in canopies, which can only be created on elevated ground. The map I was playing on didn't have enough elevated ground to meet that requirement, forcing me to restart the level and lose close to an hour of progress. It's a frustration I ran into a few times, and it's particularly annoying since there's nothing you can do to prepare. Although, an issue like this seems fixable through a patch, and doesn't affect the core gameplay loop.
Everything else about Terra Nil is just as gentle as the rest of the game. UI is minimal, relegating itself to the corners of the screen, for the most part. The colors are vibrant and the 2D art is lovely, though it doesn't obviously scream out at you. It's subdued. A simple, ambient piano instrumental plays over your zen strategy, and the quaint sound of wildlife critters tie it all together.
Overall, having to restart some of your levels can be frustrating. But, when it's not due to the wonky procedural island generation, retrying with more experience and a better handle of the new environment is satisfying. It allows you to flex your new found knowledge. Terra Nil is a sweet, 8-ish hour micro-strategy game that's worth the trip.