Terra Nil Preview – Building a Better Tomorrow

Never underestimate the power of a tweet.  Just days before E3, I saw a tweet from Devolver Digital promoting Terra Nil, a new building sim focused on the environment.  As someone who is passionate about nature and the environment, I was immediately drawn in at the idea of creating my own greenspace filled with flora and fauna.

Under development by Free Lives, Terra Nil is a reverse city builder.  Rather than taking a wide open field and creating a city or a theme park, Terra Nil focuses on creating life where there is wasteland, presumably created by industrialism. Given a randomly generated parcel of land, the objective is to turn it into a thriving ecosystem that is void of any human presence.  

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The game is divided into three phases.  The first phase is centered on turning the barren wasteland into greenspace by purifying the soil and watering it so that grass can grow.  Once a specified amount of the map is turned green, the map expands and the focus becomes the diversification of the ecosystem.  During the second phase, as the biomes are created, animals begin to populate the area and weather patterns are established.  It is rather satisfying to see and brings a level of realism to the patch of land being revitalized.  After the biomes have been created, it’s time to clean up and remove all the machines that were used to complete the previous phases. 

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The gameplay is very strategic.  The placement of machines is important to maximize the greenery while minimizing the number of machines used.  Reducing the number of machines is very important when considering the end game as every machine used to better the land must be recycled and hauled back to a ship waiting to leave the area.  The trick is that all of the recyclable material must be near a water source to be collected.  This can be a difficult process especially if dried up riverbeds are not visible in the starting plot of land.  Luckily there are ways to dig canals allowing the recycling boat to get closer to the inland machines.  

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While I enjoyed my playthrough of Terra Nil, there were moments when it became very tedious and repetitive.  Completion of the first phase didn’t take long, but once the remainder of the map was unlocked, I was forced to continue creating greenspace before I could even think about ecological diversity.  Since there were only two machines to build for that task, it became monotonous. The strategy was the same: build turbines for power, build soil purifiers and then build irrigation systems.  The strategy to build the biomes was straightforward as it relied on building new machines over the machines used in the first phase.  There was some challenge in balancing the biomes, especially when building a forest relied on burning the flower fields. This created some trouble for me since fires burn all the connected greenery at the same elevation.  I had to find ways to carefully build elevated flower beds to prevent losing too much of it to fire and still planting enough trees to meet the necessary forestation requirements.

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Terra Nil isn’t terribly forgiving either.  The most recent action can be undone but nothing more.  There were multiple times when I was forced to live with a bad decision because I wasn’t able to see the impact for a couple of turns. Some welcome features would be the ability to rewind a bit more than a single turn as well as an indicator letting players know where recyclable material is located.  For my playthrough, I could not find the last 2% I needed to clean up before leaving the area.  Maybe this was just a bug, or there was something hiding all the trees that I just couldn’t see.

The demo felt a little limited with the possible actions, but the idea is strong.  I hope in the full release there are additional objectives as well as a greater variety of machines to build.  Despite the limitations, Terra Nil feels fresh with new ideas and I’m happy to see that this dream will soon be a reality.  

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