With a beautiful intro scene and eight replayable levels, Terra Nil from Free Lives is a meditative and mesmerizing reverse city builder where players are tasked with taking barren wastelands and turning them into lush and thriving ecosystems. As a huge fan of the demo (and original prototypes), I was really excited to play the game after its release at the end of March and it lives up to its hype!
From Free Lives, an independent developer in Cape Town, South Africa, Terra Nil was deliberately created to have nature at the forefront so there are no characters, story, or people of any kind represented. All we know is that the four areas (and their alternate levels) have been left barren. The team is also donating a portion of profits from Steam to the Endangered Wildlife Trust creating a real world impact.
Each of the levels can be replayed numerous times but the core game is set up to take players through a river valley, desolate island, volcanic glacier, and flooded city. At the end of the flooded city, players build a robot and take seeds from all the areas. Doing so unlocks the alternate levels of an abandoned quarry, archipelago, irradiated sprawl, and polluted fjord.
Each level has three or more stages depending on the requirements of each region. First you slowly purify the soil (and water) and cultivate greenery. This requires toxin scrubbers and irrigators with later levels requiring you to dredge the ocean floor.
Once you’ve covered enough of the map with greenery and water, the next phase unlocks where you must restore biodiversity, which has specific requirements. You’ll be creating various biomes across each of the levels including but not limited to tundras, lichen, forests, beaches, mangroves, and coral reefs!
After biodiversity has reached the adequate amount, you are tasked with using sonar technology to find places where animals can be reintroduced.
Only then can you move to recycling the buildings used to rejuvenate the land, leaving behind no trace, and move onto the next level.
Terra Nil’s full version has a number of interesting additions, like optional goals that require you to adjust the humidity and temperature to certain amounts, leading to rainfall, salmon runs, or moss growth.
Its guidebook is also illustrated in detail and as you pass through the stages and levels, new pages are unlocked, giving you details about the machinery, biodiversity, and animals.
You can also play with one of three preset options: gardener, ecologist, and environmental engineer, with the engineer having the most difficult settings. Plus a zen mode option allows you to just chill out and play, which is a lot of fun for someone who played the demo a whole lot.
If you do get stuck in your first playthrough, you can restart each stage without having to start the entire process over. Plus, there’s an undo button that lets you try out different things as you progress through the game.
Unlike the demo however, you cannot chain recycling machines, forcing you to think ahead as you place monorail nodes to recycle the buildings around them.
You’re not left to figure things out by yourself though! Except for the engineering preset, hints and tips pop up throughout gameplay, and when you click on buildings or items, they tell you what is required to use them and how they work. When you mouse over areas after animals are introduced you can even hear their sounds! A lovely touch making the game even more immersive.
Once you finish a level the camera pans over the entire space showing you the fruits of your labor and you can “appreciate” each section of the map before taking a screenshot and moving onto the next area. I really enjoyed this, as I could zoom in and listen to the different animals in each area! The game is stunning, and the handpainted art really brings the game to life, a lovely change from the original pixel prototype.
If you want to challenge yourself, you can. If you want to sit back and mosey your way through a level, you can do that too. By sticking to eight levels, the game doesn’t become overwhelming but does allow for replayability as you try different presets and work to find all the animals or reach all the optional goals.
Each playthrough is different without feeling forced and I’m excited to try again as an engineer! Truly the only drawback for me is that setting up the monorail nodes to recycle is kind of time consuming in a way that detracts from the process of recycling itself. You can use monorail nodes to move all the buildings to one area first, but I haven’t tried that yet to see if it’s any faster.
Terra Nil isn’t a difficult game, but it does require strategy and thinking ahead, making it a perfect combination of (reverse) city building and procedurally generated play forcing us to remember our impact on our environments.
You can pick up Terra Nil on Steam or play on Netflix mobile!
Images and review copy courtesy of Free Lives
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