Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Terra Nil is an interesting concept, turning the city-builder on its head by asking the player to guide efforts to clean up and restore an environment after it has been exploited instead of being the one to do the exploitation. At press time, Terra Nil has released a playable demo through publisher Devolver Digital, and our impressions here come from that. That said, this is a game with a history as noteworthy as its concept, and the original prototype of the full game from before it was taken on by current developer Fee Lives is still available on itch.io on a ‘pay what you want’ basis.
Terra Nil presents the player with a blasted, dead landscape. Brown and grey tones on soil and dried-up channels reinforce a barren, poisoned feeling to the map when you first see it. Quickly walking through the placement of the first wind turbine, soil cleaning equipment and irrigation equipment, the player is rewarded with their first sight of green grass smoothly rolling into view across the small patch of cleaned land. From there, the world gets bigger, and progressively more equipment is introduced that will flood streams, carve channels, and more.
The core of Terra Nil is broken into four stages, introduced one at a time: soil cleaning, biome creation, atmosphere balancing, and recycling. Progress is limited by a few factors to challenge the player: currency (shown as a leaf), limited locations to place wind turbines (around which all other things must be placed), and the limited range of each building that the player can make. The game currency is interesting, in that it seems to represent the ecological balance – while it is spent to place buildings, it is earned through the restoration of areas by the very same buildings as they are placed. The more area restored by a single building placement, the more currency is earned. This is shown in-game by pop-up text while placing the building, showing the relative currency gain or loss due to the proposed action. This forces the player into careful placement choices, as trying to fill in small gaps between restored areas could be costly, while treating large swaths of land all at once is profitable enough to fund further operations.
Graphically, Terra Nil uses an isometric perspective view and simple but clean animated sprites. Menus are limited to a bottom-of-the-screen UI bar reminiscent of many classic RTS games, with tooltips that show requirements for placing and using particular buildings. As the player begins to repopulate biomes and meet their objectives, the fairly static imagery of grass and trees slowly begins to be supplemented by animal life that brings motion and life to otherwise static-looking areas. This is a perfect thematic move, as the reintroduction of animals really caps the feeling of bringing a dead region back to life.