Terra Nil is a strategy game and at first glance you might describe it as a city builder. But it isn’t, not really. It’s more about what comes next. After the gleeful capitalistic excess, here’s what comes next: ecological disaster, a planet twisted up in knots and acres and acres of inhospitable land.
This is where you come in. Terra Nil sits somewhere between a strategy game and a puzzler, as you slowly stretch your ecological apparatus across a ruined landscape, bring flora and fauna back to the environment and then retract, recycling and dismantling everything used to save the dying world and leaving the new landscape in peace, without a trace of your presence.
This was the core loop of the game when it emerged, seemingly fully formed, onto itch.io in 2021.
With a variety of bonus conditions and a heap of delicate systems locking together, Terra Nil might seem overwhelming at first playthrough. But it’s a game that encourages pulling on threads, learning the rules of Terra Nil and starting fresh so you can try again and again to make things right. There’s no time limit and the only fail state comes from running out of the Terra Nil’s singular resource, but the challenge is still very real as you navigate through the three stages that underpin each of the game’s levels.
The first stage of each level involves looking at the destroyed landscape and the small selection of tools you’re given to start making a change. Each level has a different set of tools although they’re roughly analogous: maybe this time you’ll generate power with wind or you’ll generate thermoelectric power from a generator parked on a lava flow. Each comes with the same options, but comes with different conditions and you’ll need to learn these to master it and repair the ecological damage by turning hardened soil into greenery and purging the toxic oceans.
Next, you’ll restore ecological diversity by planting forests, tundra or even growing lichen on rocks and dropping it into the water to seed kelp. Scientifically, it may not hold up, but like all of the best puzzle games there are a series of intricate rules. Placing a beehive on a tree will pollinate nearby meadows, upgrading irrigators near the water and you’ll create wetlands. Making forests is much harder, as you’ll place a solar amplifier to burn the foliage away and then slap down an arboretum on top of the burnt ash, allowing the forest to spring up.
Once the world is green and alive, it’s time to add biodiversity. Upgrading irrigators near water creates wetlands, placing a beehive on a tree will pollinate meadows, and to seed forests you’ll need to pair a solar amplifier with a desiccator to burn down some of those meadows and create a nutritious ash heap. Pop an arboretum on top and a forest will spring up around it
Get through this and you’ll reach the final stage, which involves recycling everything you’ve placed and reintroducing wildlife to the world by marking areas that are suitable habitats. This might involve finding the right sheet of ice for a new colony of penguins or getting just the right patch of forest for a Brown Bear to call it home.
Despite all of the rules and the crunchy systems, Terra Nil actually has a similar vibe to 2021 puzzler Unpacking. Both games feel warm and comfortable, both see you juggling the technical conditions that’ll give you a win with the desire to make something aesthetically pleasing, a more challenging version of the base game that the game doesn’t nudge you towards but you’ll find yourself playing anyway.
There’s not a lot of Terra Nil. Four levels is enough to finish the story and roll credits, but although Terra Nil can be finished in just a few hours, chances are you won’t want to. You’ll find yourself going back to try and achieve some of the game’s harder ecological conditions – getting just the right humidity and temperature to see ivy growing across ruined skyscrapers, or making it cold enough that snow and ice will form.
Once you have finished, there are a few different variant levels that remix them and offer a new challenge. These come with a range of different tools and a unique enough situation that they’re actually worth playing, but I was happy to leave it after the four levels.
Played like this, Terra Nil is short, sweet and consistently imaginative. Terra Nil manages to achieve heights that few games can reach.
Terra Nil releases on March 28 for PC and Mobile. We reviewed it on PC.
A bite-sized strategy adventure, Terra Nil offers up the refreshing possibility to right past wrongs instead of exerting dominance in another way.