REVIEW: Terra Nil's environmental reclamation puzzles are as impactful as they are addictive
It's so easy to feel despair about the direction the world is headed. Watching the Doomsday Clock, seeing politicians advocate for things that destroy our planet and our humanity, seeing corporations take control of our world piece by piece.
So then you hop into your escape, video games, and you build a little town in your city builder of choice. Within seconds, you find yourself chopping down all of your land's trees, introducing power plants to the environment, working toward full automation, and ignoring the needs of your people, and—
oh no, are we the baddies?
Fret not, gamers. Free Lives is here to show you a new way to build cities: one that promotes environmentalism and a resource-recycling vision of the future that can bring any environment back from the brink. And it's genuinely just damn fun to play.
Here's Terra Nil: the game where you land in a polluted world, clean it up using natural resources, and leave it behind as if you were never there in the first place.
Just the Facts
Developer: Free Lives
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PC*, Mobile (available via Netflix Games) *platform reviewed on
Release Date: March 28, 2023
Review key provided by Tinsley PR on behalf of Devolver Digital.
Free Lives, the developer of Terra Nil, said their intention was to build "a meditative reverse city builder." A game meant to deconstruct what the genre means and give people something to think about while they play it. The indie game's environmental focus and dedication to promoting conservation is admirable. It not only manifests in genuinely clever game mechanics that turn the genre on its head, but in actual environmental change, as the team is giving a portion of the game's profits to charity, specifically the Endangered Wildlife Trust. The South Africa-based conservation organization EWT does work to monitor threatened species and protect and establish safe spaces for them to thrive in 21 different countries.
Turning your values into action in this way is pretty cool and it's nice to know your money is not only going toward a worthwhile game but toward material change in the world too.
It's quite the unexpected turn in tone and style for Free Lives, whose library includes Broforce, Genital Jousting, and Gorn, all games more about chaos in a variety of forms. Blood, guts, goofs, penises.
Terra Nil caught our eyes pretty early on, especially as big fans of the city-building genre, but if you'd told me this was the same crew who made the banned-on-Twitch game that is Genital Jousting, I don't think I would have believed you. And they get that. Their dedication to quality is on full display with Terra Nil though.
"Terra Nil is a transformative city builder, in every sense of the word. While it presents a world that is polluted and broken down in a way that painfully reflects our world, it also tells us that nature can prevail in the end and that we can help facilitate that healing."
There's no real story in Terra Nil, other than the framing of its tutorial and resource guide: The Beginner's Guide to Ecosystem Restoration. This journal is presented as a handy book, passed down from person to person in order to teach ways to help reintroduce life to a polluted and otherwise dead environment. It's a nice distillation of the game's overall message, of doing the work to fix the environment and then leaving it to thrive without us in the end. Of spreading that message as far as it can go, from generation to generation.
Terra Nil's reverse city building takes place in three phases. First, cleaning and planting; next, climate control and biome diversity; finished by reintroducing animals to the environment and leaving no trace of human interference. Starting with a desolate, polluted landscape, your initial task is to use a variety of machines — built from the recycled bits of your plane and the biomaterial you'll harvest from the land — to clean the landscape. Everything you do here sets up every phase after it, so you'll have to be efficient with your building.
It's not hard to imagine the destroyed and polluted landscapes you land in being a Gandhi-nuked map from Civilization. Or a town designed by our pals at Infinity Break, left broken and deforested after their reign (this is a goof). Or, to be frank... a depressing snapshot of where large swaths of land here on Earth are inevitably headed (not a goof).
To start, you'll place wind turbines or hydroelectric generators to power your machines and then get to work purifying the land and water, and growing natural flora again. Each of the machines you place has a particular shape to their area of effect. Toxin scrubbers are the first to be placed down, within range of your electricity, to cleanse and prepare the soil for planting in a large square. Then, irrigators plant on that cleansed land in an L shape, and immediately you see the need to prepare the land in just the right way to maximize the efficiency of each subsequent machine.
As it goes on, you'll be growing particular diverse biomes within your region, growing plant life out of the husks of what was left behind and what has been cleaned. Eventually, there is a phase that asks you to find optimal locations for reintroducing fauna to the environment, which requires very particular combinations of land for them to thrive. For example, a forest near a flowery, beehive-filled fynbos biome (a type of shrubland common in South Africa) is suitable for bears. Wide open grassland for deer. A cliffside near said deer sustains wolves.
You start small, and each new machine and new phase layers on more of that feeling of "shit, I totally should have put that machine there because now I can't create the perfect mangrove forest." Anyone who's spent time in a city builder has certainly felt that retrospective regret. The feeling that, as you learn the game's systems, you would have done everything differently from Step 1.
What Terra Nil changes, though, is that feeling that restarting is impossible.
In a normal city builder, you might feel you're too far gone when you finally realize how much you've messed up. In Terra Nil, you're operating with a smaller chunk of land, and the thought of starting over and doing it right, especially when doing something as admirable as restoring a desolate landscape into a lush thriving natural world, is much more approachable... at least, after you've spent some time with it.
Terra Nil can certainly be overwhelming in the early going. It tosses all of its ideas at you early on, walks you through a few of the basics, and then leaves you to figure the rest out on your own. It promotes experimentation, a more active role in fudging with mechanics to learn on your own, and generally steps out of the way, letting the gameplay and message speak for themselves. But for those seeking a bit more guidance, you could feel like you're left in the lurch pretty quickly.
Before and after: A look at a session of Terra Nil from first landing to when you've reclaimed the land.
Once you get the game's main ideas within grasp, Terra Nil's surprising layer reveals itself — one with a more puzzle-game sensibility.
As you learn how each machine interacts with others and find yourself dealing with new biomes, knowing that you have to think ahead, it starts to feel like each building block is placed with so much intention. Improvisation is applauded and working your way out of dangerous holes is possible, but you do have to puzzle out how best to find synergies and how to make certain machines maximize their potential.
There's no time condition and the only way you can really fail is by running out of materials needed to build tools. It's reminiscent of Dorfromantik's meditative gameplay loop. It's a similarly pleasing aesthetic while you build a beautiful little piece of the world. But where Dorfromantik has you place tiles and see where you end up, there's a bit more urgency and planning for Terra Nil.
Terra Nil also has a clear and distinct ending point, which makes it different from really any other city builder or meditative puzzler, which are often designed to play again and again endlessly.
"One of the main things that struck me pretty early on about Terra Nil was its genuine, no-frills beauty and the calmness that it weaved into every aspect of its design."
The very end of Terra Nil's loop is leaving the region as if you were never there, breaking all your machines down and recycling the parts into a ship to take you to a new area: You've helped reestablish the puzzle pieces the region's ecosystem needs to thrive without human hands.
In each of the four regions, you'll start from scratch with a few new region-specific tools. There's the tropics, where your focus is on raising the temperature and humidity to let the region-specific biomes thrive and an arctic region where you must lower the temperature after having to use lava plumes to power your machines. Your end goal is to reclaim every region, reintroduce all forms of fauna, and hit particular climate goals in each region.
There are two cycles you'll complete in the regions, with the first introducing all the mechanics and systems and the second turning all you learned on its head with harder starting points and bringing in mechanics from over the entire course of the game back into earlier areas. That difficult second half is where that puzzle aspect rears its head most, and it's deeply satisfying trying to plow through those challenges. Eventually, though, you've reclaimed the planet, and... you leave. And it's over.
Free Lives state that they "didn't want to make a game that was infinitely replayable, just as we didn't want to make a game about infinite growth." You can save parts of the world, but eventually, it's time to just move on. You can always revisit each region and play on your own time, especially since the game has some amount of randomization in how it generates each region, but the expectation is to reach an end and take the lessons learned with you in whatever you do next. As much as the developer's ethos was to create a game that is NOT unending... I almost wish there was more to do once you got through all of the game's content in just around 10 hours, simply because I loved so much of it. But I understand the appeal; it's amazing to have a clear end in sight in a world where you feel like you'll never finish any piece of media (or your favorite piece of media will simply never get the chance to end properly).
One of the main things that struck me pretty early on about Terra Nil was its genuine, no-frills beauty and the calmness that it weaved into every aspect of its design.
It has a nice, almost colored pencil portrait vibe, one that isn't obvious until you pull your zoom in to see the delicate artistry behind each asset. Each region is presented as a sort of chopped diorama of a region of land, which only adds to that handcrafted feel, almost like the school projects we all got our parents to help us with back in the day.
What really stands out, though, is just the innate beauty of nature itself. Going from the drab, destroyed, and desolate landscape to a piece of land with multiple biomes, varied vegetation, and teeming life looks good because nature itself looks good. And as life returns to each map, the orchestra of flora and fauna erupts, and soft piano music plays as life gets reintroduced... and it's all so comforting. In an interesting audio twist, your mouse cursor serves as a microphone: Whatever you hover over is emphasized in the audio mix, whether flowing rivers or the sounds of a quiet forest with birds flying by.
Terra Nil is a transformative city builder, in every sense of the word. While it presents a world that is polluted and broken down in a way that painfully reflects our world, it also tells us that nature can prevail in the end and that we can help facilitate that healing.
It shows that with a bit of ingenuity and clever puzzle-solving, we might just work our way back over time. And it does it all in a tight package with a clear end and a focus on letting the natural beauty of our world take the spotlight.
Can you believe these are the people who made the penis-fighting party game?
Video Games Are Good and Terra Nil is . . . GREAT. (9/10)
+ a clever twist on the city building genre, genuinely clever puzzly elements, meditative, calming, and beautiful because nature and environmentalism is placed at the forefront
- can be hard to grasp early, main content is done quickly, the difficulty jump from the game's first loop to the optional second can be more than expected
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